“I cried and cried as I sewed...” Cork mum's 6,000 dolls to mark baby deaths

People from all over the world are helping a West Cork based woman to create 6,000 dolls in memory of the babies who died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes, writes CHRIS DUNNE
“I cried and cried as I sewed...” Cork mum's 6,000 dolls to mark baby deaths
Laura Whalen's daughter Ena kissing a bábóg doll.

THE Bábog Project, spearheaded by Laura Whalen, who has been living for 16 years in Courtmacsharry, aims to make a doll to remember each of the 6,000 babies that died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes.

The homes were church-run institutions where unmarried women were sent to deliver their children under a veil of secrecy and silence.

“Hundreds of people from all over the world have come on board,” says Laura, a mother of five, who began making dolls as a hobby 10 years ago.

“I made dolls for my own kids and I fell in love with the process,” adds Laura.

She lives with her partner Garry and her children, Rebe, Benny, Joa, Ena and Brock.

The dolls that Laura creates are unique.

“Because every child looks different and because every child is unique, all the dolls are varied and they all look different,” she said.

Laura can create a custom-made doll for everyone.

 Laura Whalen is hoping, with the help of others, to create 6,000 dolls in memory of babies who died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes.
Laura Whalen is hoping, with the help of others, to create 6,000 dolls in memory of babies who died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes.

“I make them for boys! I make dolls of different skin colour and with different conditions like alopecia, for instance. I am passionate about it. My work allows me to make dolls for children who otherwise might not be able to find a doll who looks like them.”

Growing up, I remember most dolls were in the toy shop or from Santa were pink-skinned, blue eyed blondes.

“Absolutely!” says Laura, who with her crafty hands can make dolls who really look like that special person that they are for.

“I make dolls with amputation, dolls with scars on their bodies, bald dolls, different skin tone coloured dolls.”

The dolls bring a special message to their owners.

“They say; look how special you are! Look how unique you are! Here is a beautiful doll that looks just like you!”

Laura makes dolls for healing purposes too.

“The dolls can signify a person’s inner child,” she says.

They can help people with complex trauma histories.

“A friend of mine from Clonakilty was born in a mother and baby home,” says Laura.

“It was a traumatic time for her until the age of two when she was adopted. I offered to make a doll for her which she found very useful therapy-wise. Two of her siblings who died were buried in unmarked graves. My friend asked me to make dolls for them too. Her brother died in the mother and baby home when he was five weeks old. The dolls represented for her the babies that nobody ever held.”

Making dolls to bring solace to people can be an emotional experience.

“I made those dolls for my friend and as I sewed I cried and cried,” says Laura.

“I thought of those babies that were never held by anybody. I had to make something with love, not anger.”

Making something with love helps a personal narrative of loss, childhood, and a human condition.

“Other women started asking me to make them dolls for themselves,” says Laura.

“These are healing dolls in a sense,” says Laura.

“They are used by women to help them heal an emotional wound that they carry.”

The dolls can satisfy a gentle bit of wish fulfilment and understanding.

Laura thought long and hard about her friend’s childhood experience and wanted to comfort her inner child.

“I thought that every baby who died, in the way my friend’s siblings died, should have someone spend time thinking about them and spend time to make something in their memory.”

Laura made up her mind.

“I resolved to do just that,” she says

“And I decided to make a doll for every baby that died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes.”

Laura did her homework.

“I did some research and realised that the estimated number of babies that died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes was in the region of 6,000 babies.”

Laura is a craft-maker and she is a doer.

“I’m handy with a needle, but here was no way I could make 6,000 dolls all by myself!”

And so The Bábóg Project was born.

“People from all over the world were drawn to it,” says Laura.

“The project became a real connection that promotes so much love.”

“We’ve had hand-made dolls arrive from every county in Ireland. And from the UK, Germany, France, and even as far away and Alaska!”

People who identify with the labour of love are contributing to the Bábog Project in other ways too.

“People are offering what skills they have like graphic design, film- making, social media, web design, even just cutting out lengths of material for workshops.”

Laura has faith in the goodness of human nature.

“We have received everything we need without any funding,” says Laura.

“It is very humbling. And it is a wonderful touching experience.”

Where does Laura store her treasure trove of tiny dolls that mean so much to people re-connecting links to maternal care?

“The dolls fit in the palm of your hand. They are tiny,” says Laura.

“I keep all the dolls here at home after collecting them from the community shop in Clonakilty. My kids are fascinated! They really understand the reverence and the relevance of this lovely way to show love. The girls often love to hold the dolls and kiss them.

“Hosting exhibitions of the dolls from all over the world around the country is on the cards as soon as it’s feasible. We’re more than halfway there regarding the number of dolls we’ve made and have received from people. We got at least a thousand dolls during lockdown!

“Some of the dolls are really unique with fabulous workmanship gone into making them.

“Free patterns were available on our Facebook page. Everybody had a free reign to put their own stamp on making their own doll. It didn’t matter what they looked like. They were knitted, sculpted, knotted, crocheted, colourful,” says Laura.

“The Bábóg project was made very accessible to everyone everywhere with no other agenda only to mark the lives of 6,000 babies who didn’t survive. There was no politics involved. It proved a very therapeutic project all round.”

The project created interest among young and old.

“Lockdown was actually great for the project because people used it as a time to get creative and get knitting and sewing to make dolls. Two ladies in their 70s and 80s have knitted more than 800 dolls between them since March!”

The Bábóg Project will be completed on November 1 — All Souls Day. It seems an apt day to mark 6,000 souls.

“Yes, there is important significance attached to that date,” says Laura.

The dolls weave together a common bond of love and remembrance.

Laura’s spirit of generosity is a wonderful gift.

“I believe if you have something to give people, then you should,” says Laura.

“The time it takes for someone to sit down to make a doll with tender loving care is a wonderful process,” adds Laura.

“The time spent remembering a baby that may never have felt or known that kind of love during it’s short life, is what’s important for me. It is the most important part of the project. You don’t have to be a great craftsperson to make a get involved in the project. You just have to have a kind heart.”

Laura’s crafty genes were a gift from her mother, Moira.

“My mother was very creative,” says Laura. “She had a great pair of hands and she made all our own clothes. She was gifted.”

Moira has another gift. She has a wonderful daughter who spreads love and comfort, smoothing the edges of a baby’s absence.

For more about the project see www.thebabogproject.com

Dolls can be sent to The Bábóg Project, c/o Courtmacsharry Community Shop.

Laura will be running 10 free doll-making workshops around Cork over September and October supported by Cork County Council and Clonakilty Community Arts Centre. See website for details.

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