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Tuam Children’s Home – emotional minefield of rights

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Tuam Babies

This article was written by the late Connacht Tribune Group Editor, John Cunningham, and first published in the newspaper on April 24, 1998.

“What were the young women to do? Many weren’t wanted at home, they were ostracised by society … in those days a young woman could not become pregnant and stay at home. It was as simple as that. I saw the devastation when they were parted from their children … they nursed the child and looked after it for a year and then they went one way and the child stayed to be adopted, or to be boarded-out a few years later. I don’t know if many of them ever recovered from the heart-breaking parting.” John Cunningham writes on undoing the heartbreak of forty years ago.

The Chairperson of the Irish Birth Mothers’ Association, Mary Scully, has been quoted in the past week on the issue of trying to legislate for the potentially conflicting rights of adopted people in their search for their ‘birth mother’ and the right to privacy of the birth mother. She is quoted as saying “if I was a politician I would run a mile from it”.

Much of the discussion to date has tended to concentrate on the rights of the adopted people to gain access to the records, and potentially, to their birth mother. It is intended to clear up a difficult situation which has arisen through the increasing demand for adoptees to trace their true mothers.

For instance, the attempts to trace mothers have led to adoptees asking for access to Birth Certificates (to which they are entitled). Any person can look at the records for any day – the problem for adoptees is that they are not entitled to be told which are their particular records out of all those registered for the date of their birth.

So, people who were placed for adoption have been known to trawl through the details of births on the date of their birth, and begin trying to find out by process of elimination which was their birth mother.

It is into the middle of this controversy that Junior Minister Frank Fahey, TD, has been projected in trying to frame legislation and a system of coping with the potential minefield of emotional issues between the rights of mothers who gave up their children for adoption maybe forty years or more ago, and children place for adoption then who want their questions answered now.

To date, much of the publicity has surrounded the issue of children finding their mothers. The need for such an identity, for explanations, to find if mothers are still alive, the need to know why, has become an undeniable demand from children of this country who need to flesh out their identity. Above all, they are seeking explanations for what happened forty or fifty years ago.

But what of the mothers? For instance, they may have just such emotional need for the child placed for adoption so many years ago, but what of the impact of a son or daughter of decades previously walking into a life that has been built since – maybe a life with a husband and family who know nothing of what happened all those years ago.

It was one of the difficulties into which I ran personally some years ago when I began to research the Children’s Home in Tuam. My links to it were unusual. I spent the first seven years of life there and felt somewhat better qualified than most to, possibly, look at life there in the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties when Ireland was a very much different place.

My mother died shortly after I was born and because of the close proximity of The Children’s Home to my family home, and because rearing a sickly infant would be well nigh impossible for a widower who already had four young children, I was reared at The Home, though regularly spending some time at home as well. Perhaps the best explanation may be that I found a ‘mother’ there in The Home and ended up with two homes – my natural one where my family lived and my father worked, my mother figure lives, and I had dozens of sisters and brothers, the other children who were in The Home at the time.

It is important to understand the ‘culture’ of the time. The children there were in most cases orphans to all intents and purposes – perhaps the family had been struck by tragedy, but in the vast majority of cases they were the children of unmarried mothers who had become pregnant and had come into The Home for about a year.

At the end of that year, the mother usually left and the child was either put up for adoption or possibly for ‘boarding out’ a few years later to families who acted as guardians. Children could be lucky in either – but many of them would say today that they had to be extraordinarily lucky in boarding out not to become, essentially, unpaid slaves to families.

One has to be careful of any impressions gained in childhood, though memories of The Children’s Home can be extraordinarily vivid – long passageways dominated by the smell and shine of ‘Cardinal’ red polish on the floors, long lines of potties, of the inexplicably large numbers of young women, and of the mysterious business of the arrival and departure of the same young women, and apparently endless numbers of babies and toddlers.

Some of the women, like my surrogate mother (Mary) stayed on for life – possibly because they were brilliant nurses for newborn babies that were in lines in cots. They had to be brilliant nurses, for the infants were then potential victims for diseases which we now regard as just a nuisance, likes measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, the mumps. Today, that wonderful woman would probably be described as ‘institutionalised’. Probably she was.

There were searing and emotional partings. One of the people to whom I spoke is now a woman in her sixties and who was somewhat older than many of the youngsters in The home at the time.

She was better equipped to judge the devastation of parting a mother and child. I was a spoiled brat with a family down the road and an adoring ‘mother’ in The Home.

She put it this way: “What were the young women to do? Many weren’t wanted at home, they were ostracised by society … in those days a young woman could not become pregnant and stay at home. It was as simple as that. I saw the devastation when they were parted from their children … they nursed the child and looked after it for a year and then they went one way and the child stayed to be adopted, or to be boarded-out a few years later. I don’t know if many of them ever recovered from the heart-breaking parting. For instance, I was boarded-out myself. That was the way Ireland was at the time … but I will never forget the parting of some of the mothers and their children. It was heart-rending.”

From these remarks it is possible to gauge just some of the potential emotion which could be released forty or fifty years later for mother and child once involved in such a parting.

To understand the decision of the mother and the time, it is necessary to remember the particular conditions of the time – the mother was often a mere child herself of seventeen or eighteen; given the social conditions and the sexual taboos of the time, many of them would not even have understood the concept of pregnancy, not to mind motherhood. Such a pregnancy in the ‘thirties, ‘forties and ‘fifties involved a perceived shame for a family who very often wanted to hide away the ‘fallen daughter’; unmarried mothers were ostracised from a society which was Jansenistic in its approach to sexuality and ‘sins of the flesh’ were tailed against by the church. (Interestingly, those who paid for the ‘sins’ were the women).

This was the atmosphere against which the teenage mothers made their decision to ‘give up’ their babies – though some of those I have spoken to in research work in the past few years have, happily, been reunited with their birth mothers and mothers have found their children.

What may be forgotten is that at least some of these girls of the forties and fifties may have since built up a life for themselves where their families may know little or nothing of the history from that time.

The women involved can never forget – but time may at least have dulled the pain of the parking. In my research work – and remember some of the children of the era were mu ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’ from that unusual setting in The Home – it is quite clear that there is at least concern on the part of some on the opening up of old memories.

Concern now in drafting legislation and methods of children making contact with birth mothers and vice versa, has to be for the two distinct groupings.

A birth mother from the era might just dread the knock on the door and opening it to be greeted by “hello … I think you may be my mother”. In some cases, children also will not want a whole era reopened. Equally, it has to be said that parties on both sides may dearly wish to contact the other.

I felt it was important to write this piece so that the plight of the birth mothers might be taken note of. They too have undergone pain – the pain of parting from a child because they were unmarried mothers in an era when society saw them as sinners, and outcasts. It was a society that preferred to have them and their children inside the walls of institutions like The Children’s Home … fallen women and ‘Home Babies’.

Today, they are determined to have the rights once denied to them.

CITY TRIBUNE

Galway City Council Chief asked to intervene after Kirwan junction ‘near misses’

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From the Galway City Tribune – Chief Executive of Galway City Council, Brendan McGrath, has been urged to intervene and instigate a review of the controversial changeover of Kirwan roundabout to a traffic light junction.

A relative of the Collins’ family, who operate a B&B on Headford Road, has pleaded with Mr McGrath to act to make it safe to enter and exit this house.

Joseph Murphy, from County Galway but living in England, a relative of the owners of the B&B located on the N84 side of the Headford Road, has warned of the potential for a serious collision at that junction.  He wrote to Mr McGrath, and copied all city councillors including Mayor of Galway, Clodagh Higgins (FG), seeking a review of the junction and in particular access to the B&B. Mr Murphy said he has been driving for forty years but this junction was “one of the most difficult and complicated traffic light junctions I have ever experienced”.


The CCTV shows a van stopping in the junction to give way to pedestrians before entering the B&B.

He said he wrote the letter because he nearly had a serious accident, due to no fault of his, when leaving the residence.

An amber traffic lights system is in place at the house, since the junction changeover last year, which is supposed to help motorists exit onto the Headford Road from the B&B.


This article first appeared in the print edition of the Galway City Tribune. You can support our journalism by subscribing to the Galway City Tribune HERE. A one-year digital subscription costs just €89.00. The print edition is in shops every Friday.


He said the lights are complicated and it was unreasonable and unfair on his family and any guests staying at their B&B who may be endangered trying to enter or exit the driveway.

Videos of ‘near misses’ recorded on CCTV footage, and supplied to Councillor Mike Crowe (FF), have been seen by the Galway City Tribune.

They give a flavour of how dangerous it is to exit the residence on an amber light; and indicate an apparent lack of understanding of the system on the part of other motorists.

Cllr Crowe and other elected members raised this safety issue at a Council meeting last week during a discussion on the City Development Plan. It was decided to rezone some land adjacent to Sandyvale Lawn, which would allow for a new entrance to the house to be constructed, although there is no timeframe.

Mr Murphy, in his email to officials and councillors said it was an “extremely busy junction”.

“I do not believe that enough planning or consideration was taken when the traffic lights were installed, especially those that were installed directly in front of my sister’s house.

“My relatives in Galway should not have to worry every time they leave their house nor should anyone coming from the Menlo direction have to worry about getting blocked in by other vehicles when entering my sister’s house,” he said.

Mr Murphy added: “I would urge the Galway City Council to carry out an immediate review to make this busy junction safe before somebody gets hurt in a serious accident.”

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CITY TRIBUNE

Plan for former pub in Galway to house Ukrainian refugees

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From the Galway City Tribune – The former Lantern Bar in Ballybane has been proposed to accommodate Ukrainians seeking refuge in Galway.

The Galway City Tribune has learned that works are underway on the building to advance the plans.

The Council confirmed that they had been briefed on the proposal but refused to be drawn on the details.

“Galway City Council is aware of a proposal to use the Lantern Bar at Ballybane Shopping Centre for refugees,” said a spokesperson.

“The coordination of the development of accommodation facilities such as this is the responsibility of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.”


This article first appeared in the print edition of the Galway City Tribune. You can support our journalism by subscribing to the Galway City Tribune HERE. A one-year digital subscription costs just €89.00. The print edition is in shops every Friday.


The local authority spokesperson said they did not have information on the number of people who would be accommodated, nor did they know when the facility might be open.

The Lantern Bar has not operated as a pub for some time, although its licence was renewed on appeal at Galway Circuit Court in February 2020 when the court was told that it was intended to sell the premises.

The bar, which had been the location of a series of public order incidents in 2019, had previously had its licence revoked following several objections from residents.

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CITY TRIBUNE

City centre residents’ fears over new late-night opening hours

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From the Galway City Tribune – Residents in one of the city centre’s oldest residential areas fear their lives will be turned upside-down by proposed later opening hours for pubs and nightclubs.

Chairperson of the Bowling Green Residents’ Association, Jackie Uí Chionna, told a public meeting of the City’s Joint Policing Committee (JPC) that as city centre residents, anti-social behaviour was part of their daily lives.

However, they expected the situation to worsen if Government proceeded with proposals to extend nightclub opening hours to 6.30am.

“Our concern at our recent AGM was the longer pub opening hours – it will result in an increase in [anti-social behaviour],” said Ms Uí Chionna.

She said it was their belief that this policy went against the right of city centre residents to “exist and live as a community” in the middle of town.

“We oppose increasing opening hours. We won’t have any sleep – we have minimal as it is. And we won’t feel safe to walk on the streets.

“It is regrettable that there has been so little consultation with gardaí and residents,” said Ms Uí Chionna.

Chief Superintendent Gerard Roche said Gardaí were waiting to see what happened with the legislation for later opening hours.

“On one hand, not having 5,000 or 10,000 people coming out at the one time will be a benefit but the question is if they won’t [come out at one time]. And will businesses buy into it?” questioned the Chief Supt.

Meanwhile, another Bowling Green resident and former city councillor, Nuala Nolan, raised concerns about the new model of policing and said rostering, which had gardaí working three days on and four days off was making it difficult to follow up on matters with community gardaí.

“You can’t get that person when they’re off for another four days – the continuity is gone,” said Ms Nolan.

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