6,000 dolls in memory of lost young souls

CHRIS DUNNE talks to a Cork-based woman driving a doll making project, to mark the babies lost in Ireland’s mother and baby homes
6,000 dolls in memory of lost young souls

Laura Whalen, curator of the Bábóg Project, with some of the thousands of tiny hand-made dolls, to honour babies who died in Ireland's mother and baby homes, which she is gathering in West Cork.

IT is a fitting tribute that a project to remember the 6,000 babies who died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes concludes on All Souls Day, Monday, November 2.

“All Souls Day, remembering lost souls, seems the right date for the last day for contributing the tiny hand-made dolls,” says West Cork woman Laura Whalen, who spearheaded the beautiful project, called Babóg.

“There is important significance attached to that date.”

Laura, originally from Scotland, says the response to the doll-making project she began in 2018 has been phenomenal.

“The huge response from around the country and abroad has been incredible,” says Laura, who lives in Courtmacsherry with her partner Garry and her five children, Rebe, Benny, Joa, Ena and Brock.

The community-crafting drive to make commemorative dolls for all the babies whose deaths were recorded in Irish mother and baby homes was a labour of love, weaving its way across the globe.

“Hundreds of people from as far away as the UK, the USA, Canada, Germany, and Spain came on board,” says Laura, who began making dolls as a hobby for her own children 10 years ago.

“We had contributions arriving here from as far afield as Alaska!”

Laura spread the love.

Some of the dolls as part of the project
Some of the dolls as part of the project

“The wonderful work turned into a labour of love. I am still getting between seven and 10 parcels every day containing one doll, 20 dolls and even 50 dolls! It is just amazing,” says Laura.

The sound of knitting needles and crochet needles lovingly creating tiny dolls clicked across the nations.

“Two ladies in particular, in their 70s and 80s, have knitted more than 800 dolls between them since March!”

Having curated the wonderful work creating the healing dolls, Laura continues to feel the outpouring of love.

“The kindness, the compassion and the care that went into the Babóg project was truly awesome,” says Laura.

“I feel humbled by it. These dolls are in a sense healing dolls, used by the women to help them heal an emotional wound that they carry.”

Laura has helped heal many wounds caused by loss.

“I have made dolls for women who lost babies, or who couldn’t have babies,” says Laura.

She made a doll for a friend.

“Back in 2018, a friend of mine from Clonakilty told me that she had been born in a mother and baby home in Dublin,” says Laura.

“I was so touched by her story I offered to make her a tiny doll of herself as a little girl around the age that she had been adopted.

“My friend loved this little doll and she found it really helpful and she asked me if I would make dolls for two of her siblings who were also born in mother and baby homes. Her little brother died there when he was five weeks old and he is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.”

Laura cried for the lost souls.

“I made those two dolls for her and as I sewed I cried and cried,” she says.

“As I sewed his doll, I cried and thought that every baby who died in this way should have someone spend this time thinking of them and making something in their memory.

“Other women started asking me to make dolls for themselves. The women are soothed by having a doll made for just them. It is a source of solace.”

Laura knew that the babies deserved acknowledgment.

“Acknowledging that these babies existed is very important,” says Laura.

“They are worthy of our time and attention. Making the doll for each child is like sitting with them for those two or three hours it takes to make the doll.

“The time it takes for someone to sit down and make a doll is time spent loving and remembering a baby that may never have felt that kind of love during its short life. That, for me, was the most important part of the project.”

Laura created a story for the babies and for their mums and dads. “Making the dolls, we acknowledge their story without ever knowing it,” she says.

“And we acknowledge the stories of their mums and dads.” Owning something tangible helps people to grieve for loss.

“I resolved to make a doll for every baby that died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes,” says Laura.

Taking on the project, she did her homework.

One of the beautiful contributions to the Babog project. Dolls were knitted, carved, and sewed.
One of the beautiful contributions to the Babog project. Dolls were knitted, carved, and sewed.

“It was at this point that I did a little research and I realised that the estimated number of babies that died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes is 6,000.”

Even though Laura is handy with a needle, having inherited her crafty hands from her mother, Moira, she couldn’t take on the project alone.

“I’m handy with a needle, but there was no way I could make 6,000 dolls by myself! People from all over the world were drawn to it,” says Laura.

“The Babóg project became a real connection, promoting so much love.”

Laura has faith in the goodness of human nature.

“People offered what skills they had, like graphic design, film-making, social media, web design, even just cutting out a length of material for workshops when we could hold them.”

Laura welcomed all the generous contributions and was blown away by the positive enthusiastic response from near and far. The dolls, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, are made in every way, knitted, knotted, sewn, carved, crocheted, etc.

“Because every child looks different and every child is unique; all the dolls are varied and they all look different.”

There is a doll for everyone.

“I make dolls for boys!” says Laura.

“I make dolls with different skin colour and with different conditions like alopecia, for example.”

The thousands of dolls arriving at Courtmacherry all had their own stamp, bringing a special message to their owners.

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

The dolls help the healing process. Making something with love helps a personal narrative of loss, childhood and a human condition.

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

“A doll can help people cope with complex trauma histories.”

Where are all the dolls from all over the world being housed?

“I keep all the dolls here at home after collecting them from the community shop in Clonakilty,” says Laura.

“My kids are fascinated! They really understand the reverence and the relevance of this lovely way to show love. The girls often hold and kiss the hand-made dolls.”

The labour of love is far from over.

“The plan was to host exhibitions of all the dolls from all over the world around the country, concentrating on the towns where the mother and baby homes were located. I thought that would be really powerful.”

Laura hopes that after Covid-19 is conquered, a human connection can be made.

“I think the need to meet and to hug each other is important,” she says.

A virtual exhibition of all the dolls is on the cards. “I’m making a short film of the dolls all together,” says Laura.

She must feel a huge sense of achievement as her nugget of an idea, the Babog project, reaches a powerful conclusion on November 2?

“Using the power of creativity to express yourself is really powerful,” says Laura.

“Putting your heart into something; you can really understand how that can connect people.

“It all just happened and the dolls arrived. Now there is a common thread running between all of us.”

For more see: www.thebabogproject.com

The kindness, the compassion and the care that went into the Babog project was truly awesome. I feel humbled by it.

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