Their children were sometimes sold into adoption, or died in questionable circumstances such as in the care of Bon Secours nuns who ran the Tuam mother and baby home.
The mothers buried their shame and tried to put their past behind them.
But how could they? They had given birth, a momentous event in any woman’s life, but their babies were snatched away from them or, in some cases, had to be given up after the mothers breast-fed them for a while.
We now know about the hurt these mothers suffered. We understand their anger
But where are the fathers (the ‘fallen men’?) of what were then their illegitimate children?
Why haven’t we heard from them?
Did they try to see their babies? Did they suffer when their offspring were spirited out of the country, doomed to a life of ignorance about their biological parents?
Fathers’ rights don’t seem to extend to the fathers of unfortunate children whose only sin was to be the product of two people not tied together in matrimony.
Do these men even care? When do you ever hear of a ‘fallen man?’
The recently deceased Bishop Eamon Casey was our token ‘fallen man’ who behaved like so many self-serving males who want all the pleasure of sex but none of the responsibility.
He lived a life in denial that he was a father — until the ‘scarlet woman’, the mother of his child, Annie Murphy, decided to go to the Irish Times with her sensational story.
Who can forget Gay Byrne’s treatment of this woman? He more or less branded her as a temptress, using the word ‘coquettish’ in his interview with her. Because, of course, women, from as far back as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are to blame when it comes to the great ‘sin’ of sex.
Sunday newspaper columnist, Justine McCarthy, recently wrote a moving piece about her “big sister” Berenice, whom she idolised, describing her as “wild, beautiful and wilful”.
But back when the journalist was a young girl in Bandon, she “felt an unnameable dread when I noticed her sticking-out tummy”.
One night, Justine overheard a row in the family kitchen, “followed by the slam of the front door, and silence. Somehow, we knew we should not ask”.
Justine’s mother, a widow, bringing up four girls, “knew the shame awaiting us once tongues started wagging”.
“So she chose the second option on a particularly Irish menu,” wrote Justine, “either send Berenice to a mother and baby home or to England, so that she could come home a virgin once again. Except she didn’t come home and our family was splintered forever.”
It’s a tragic story that encapsulates everything about valleys of squinting windows, Catholic shame, and the requirement to banish the ‘wayward’ daughter.
England has always been a byword for exporting problematic reproductive issues such as abortion and unmarried mothers.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the legal concept of illegitimacy was abolished in Ireland. And what misery so-called illegitimacy caused so many young women and their mortified families.
Justine was contacted by Berenice’s son, Duncan McCarthy Carr, six years ago. Unfortunately, Duncan, who said he’d had a good life so far, was met with the sad news that his biological mother had died at the age of fifty-one.
Another tragedy for this family. Duncan’s late grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease by the time he got in touch with Justine, used to carry a photograph of her firstborn grandchild, pining for him.
There is no mention in Justine’s column of the biological father of Duncan. As in so many family stories of this nature, he is airbrushed out of the narrative.
Was he a loving boyfriend of Berenice? Or an unsuitable fly-by-night type? Whatever the nature of the relationship, it takes two to tango.
Men seem to have gotten off the hook in these situations. Some used to be referred to, despairingly, as “sowing their wild oats” which conjures up hapless chaps doing what spirited young fellows are pretty much entitled to. A young woman in such a scenario is written off as a slut — and that still happens today.
We still live in a deeply misogynistic society. Women, who inconveniently become mothers, always carry the can.
The most some single mothers can hope for is financial support from the father. But there are men casually walking around who contribute nothing to their children’s welfare.
The stigma of illegitimacy is gone but it’s time negligent fathers were called out.
And that should include naming them. It’s only fair play.