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.
Paedophile sentenced to a further 17 months in prison
A convicted paedophile, described by a Garda as ‘a prolific child abuser’, has had a 17-month prison sentence added to a 13-year sentence he is already serving for the rape and sexual abuse of children.
Disgraced primary school teacher and summer school bus driver, 69-year-old Seosamh Ó Ceallaigh, a native of Tuirín, Béal a’ Daingin, Conamara, had at all times denied two charges of indecently assaulting a ten-year-old boy at a Gaeltacht summer school in Béal a’ Daingin in 1979.
The offence carries a maximum two-year sentence.
A jury found him guilty by majority verdict following a four-day trial at Galway Circuit Criminal Court last month.
At his sentence hearing last week, Detective Paul Duffy described Ó Ceallaigh as a prolific child abuser who had amassed 125 child abuse convictions, committed while he was a primary school teacher in Dublin and while he operated an Irish language summer school in Beal a’ Daingin.
They included convictions for rape and sexual assault for which he is currently serving sentences totalling 13 years.
Those sentences were due to expire in August 2024, but last week, Judge Rory McCabe imposed two, concurrent 17-month sentences on Ó Ceallaigh, before directing the sentences begin at the termination of the sentences he is currently serving.
The judge noted Ó Ceallaigh’s denial and lack of remorse and the lifelong detrimental effect the abuse had on the victim as aggravating factors.
Dismay as marine park proposal rejected by planners
A lifeline project, with the potential to create around 200 long-term jobs in an area of South Connemara ravaged by unemployment and emigration, has been rejected by planners – primarily environmental grounds.
The proposed marine park or Páirc na Mara, east of Cill Chiaráin village, was viewed by many as a real chance to turn the tide for this unemployment blackspot.
Locals – and the vast majority of Galway West politicians – were supportive of the project which was viewed as one that would revitalise the area.
That said, Galway County Council’s decision to refuse permission for the marine park was welcomed by Galway Bay Against Salmon Cages which had expressed fears that the marine farm would extract huge amounts of fresh water to breed more than 1.5 million salmon smolts.
They said that millions of litres of fresh water would have been extracted on a regular basis by the salmon farm company operating the smolt rearing units – from the same lakes as the Carna and Cill Chiaráin water supply system.
“Local residents can now rest assured that their domestic water supply won’t be hijacked to line the pockets of people who have no regard for the local environment or residents,” said Billy Smyth, Chairman of Galway Bay Against Salmon Cages.
It was proposed to provide a marine innovation park Pairc na Mara on a 60-acre brownfield site at Cill Chiarain.
The development involves the provision of a number of marine-based facilities as well as education and research facilities in the townlands of Cill Chiarain, Ardmore and Calvary.
It involves the abstraction of water from Lough Scannan, its transfer to and temporary storage in Iron Lake along with impoundment and pumping to the Marine Park site with a rising main.
According to the application, Galway County Council has previously granted planning permission for aquaculture-based activities on the site of the proposed marine park back in 2002 while the first phase of the innovation park was built in 2005.
There were a considerable number of submissions supporting the application with many saying that this part of Connemara would benefit greatly from such a development.
But there were others who expressed concern over the potential impact it would have on the environment, and it would be located in a highly sensitive area.
Cllr Gerry King said that it was a valuable opportunity lost to the area given the amount of unemployment that exists. He added that there was local outrage at the decision.
The Fianna Fail councillor met with those behind the project and residents in support of the project. He said that they all agreed that this decision should be appealed to the higher planning authority.
It was refused on the basis that it would adversely affect the integrity and conservation objectives of the European sides in the vicinity of environmental value.
Planners stated that they could not be certain that the project would not adversely affect the integrity of Cill Ciaran Bay, the islands and Connemara bog complex
They also said that the Environmental Impact Assessment Report did not present a sufficient level of information on the impact it would have on human health, biodiversity, land, soil, water along with cultural heritage and the landscape.
Council rules that honey business is in Special Area of Conservation
A North Connemara beekeeper has expressed his dismay at the County Council’s refusal to issue an exemption to allow him proceed with an apiary on farmlands at Rossadillisk.
Tom Termini, who has lived in the area for the past 25 years, purchased the lands just off the coastline with the intention of beekeeping there, but plans to expand have come to a halt after an enforcement order was issued by the Council last Summer.
Mr Termini said he had been of the understanding that the 20msq agricultural storage building which was portable in nature would not require planning permission because of its agricultural purpose and its location on appropriately zoned lands.
However, after receiving a letter from the Council, he engaged the services of an engineer who recommended seeking a Declaration of Exemption from planning.
“The area is located in a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) so we engaged the services of another engineer who carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment and it was found it would have no impact,” said Mr Termini.
The report, compiled by Delichon Ecology, states that there are 17 sites protected by European SAC status within 15km of the proposed development, but concludes that ‘the completed groundworks and proposed agricultural building, either individually or in combination with other projects and plans, is not likely to have a significant impact on any European site’.
Mr Termini said no explanation as to why his application was refused was forthcoming, but that he had since applied for retention on the partially completed structure.
“After I invested in the property, I started down the route of setting up the apiary because I had one when I was in the States, and I’m a member of the local association. I decided to build a bigger shed so we could expand beyond being a service to have a product offering,” said Mr Termini who owns and operates Bluedog Honey.
He said the company would bring economic benefits to what was a small, rural area and the lands he owned were 90% bog, unsuited to many other forms of agriculture.
“We’d hoped to have it up and running by February 2020, but the pandemic set that back and then we got the letter from the Council as works were progressing towards opening this February.
“This facility would not impact on the area – other than using water to wash natural matter, there is no discharge – I’m perplexed by it all really,” said Mr Termini.
An application for retention of the structure was sent to Galway County Council this month, with a decision due by August 15.
Mr Termini said he would be forced to appeal to An Bord Pleanála if this application was turned down, but said he was being assisted by local Councillor Eileen Mannion, whom he said supported enterprise in the area.
“This has been going on for 18 months and really, what I want to do is get to the next stage where we can grow the business and deal with the stresses that come with that – not this,” said Mr Termini.