Cork premier: Giving women a platform to share stories of Mother and Baby homes

A commemorative dedication to women affected by the mother and baby homes in Ireland, called ‘A Mother’s Voice’, takes place this Friday at the Triskel, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork premier: Giving women a platform to share stories of Mother and Baby homes

Beth McNinch, founder and artistic director of Musici Ireland and Sheila O'Byrne, one of the women who share their story in A Mother's Voice.

AN insight into the experiences of three women who spent time in mother-and-baby homes has been made into a musical event, with the recorded spoken voices of the women included as well as an exhibit and animation.

A Mother’s Voice, which takes place at Triskel on January 27, at 8pm, is the brainchild of Beth McNinch. She is the founder, artistic director and principal violist of Musici Ireland, a multi-instrumental ensemble. Sibling composers, Linda and Irene Buckley, from Cork, whom Beth calls ‘a dream team’, have composed the music for this project which will be performed by the ensemble.

Beth, originally from the UK, has been based in Wexford for 15 years. Her mother was adopted as an ‘illegitimate’ child. Looking back on her own childhood, Beth now recognises the stigma her mother lived with along with having a feeling of not knowing where she came from.

Composers Irene and Linda Buckley from Cork.
Composers Irene and Linda Buckley from Cork.

Reading a lot of material around mother-and-baby homes in this country, Beth says the stories resonated with her.

“My mother started opening up in phone conversations about things that we hadn’t really talked about before. As an artist, I felt the need to do something.

“The stories also haunted me as although I have two boys myself, I have had multiple miscarriages, so I have some experience of infant loss.”

Stressing that she is not an expert on mother-and-baby homes, Beth’s project is an artistic response to the grim times that single pregnant women lived through, not all that long ago.

“The women’s voices were muted. I thought it important to give women a voice and a platform. 

"Hopefully, the performance will travel around the world to help these stories stay alive. 

"I found three wonderful women who were kind enough to share their stories. The project has developed into something quite magical. I really wanted to work with the recorded voices of the women and the emotion in their voices, telling a story that is really powerful.”

Dubliner Sheila O’Byrne, who lived in Cork for 24 years, working in catering at the then Cork Institute of Technology, was 18 when she became pregnant in the 1970s.

“My parents weren’t too happy. Back then, it was original sin. You brought shame on your family and your parish. I felt terrible even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

The set design as part of A Mother's Voice
The set design as part of A Mother's Voice

Sheila was sent to St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on the Navan Road in Dublin which was run by the Daughters of Charity.

“I was told I was damaged goods. They worked you to the bone. I had to look after the sick and dying babies there.

“The nuns didn’t like me because I was able to stand up for myself. I had to scrub the floors on my hands and knees as well and wash the habits of the nuns and polish their shoes.

“There was a craft room where I used to make rosary beads.

“The nuns begrudged me washing my own clothes. My daddy used to come up every week with a change of clothes for me.”

While in labour, Sheila claims she was kept outdoors for hours. She had a breech birth but wasn’t given any painkillers. She gave birth to a mixed race baby boy. The infant was adopted at three months. Before he went away with his adoptive parents, Sheila was allowed to see her son but wasn’t permitted to hold him.

An animation, as part of A Mother's Voice.
An animation, as part of A Mother's Voice.

“She subsequently spent years and years trying to find him. Eventually, politician Billy Kelleher helped her, allocating a social worker to the case.

“When I found my son, he was 40. I meet him now on and off. He is very successful and private. I am grateful to the couple that adopted my son. They gave him a home and a good life and an education.”

Sheila didn’t have any more children.

“Not after what I went through,” she says.

Deirdre Wadding was 18 when she became pregnant in 1980. The Wexford-born woman was studying to be a primary school teacher in Dublin at the time.

“Back then, it was the norm to be sent away to the likes of Bessborough in Cork where I went,“ she said.

Performers from Musici Ireland.
Performers from Musici Ireland.

Deirdre’s parents were devastated.

“My mother had a fairly sheltered upbringing. Both of my parents would have been very devout Catholics... 

"From the kind of brainwashing my mother would have grown up with, she thought my life would be over if I kept my child.”

While she wasn’t treated badly at Bessborough, Deirdre says she knows others there were abused.

“We had nuns in our family. I feel there was probably a class system at Bessborough.”

When her son was born, Deirdre wanted to keep him “like any mother would. When I put that forward, guilt and shame was loaded on me. My mother said: ‘where would you live?’ During my time in college, there was the Eileen Flynn case in Wexford.” (Eileen was a school teacher who was dismissed from her job in 1982 for cohabiting with a married man).

The late father of Deirdre’s son was instrumental in finding the young man. Deirdre has a good relationship with her son who was adopted by a couple in Cork.

“I actually had a second child who was adopted. I was so broken after my first child being adopted that I had this obsession to have another baby who would make everything all right. But when I got pregnant, reality came crashing down. My father had a heart condition and my mother had been unwell. I just thought I couldn’t do it to them.

“I went to the Good Shepherds in Dunboyne and gave up my second child. 

"My mother found out along the way and said I surely couldn’t keep the second child because how would the first child feel at being adopted if he found out.”

Deirdre has contact with her second child but says it is “different, much more boundaried. He moved to Australia when he was six with his family.”

In 1993, Deirdre had the first child she was able to keep, followed by two more children.

Cait (not her real name) was 22 when she became pregnant in the early 80s which, she says, would have been “a big shame” in the farming community she lived in. Cait was an only child whose father had died when she was very young.

“There was just me and my mother. It was a horrific shock for her. I made my own enquiries getting in touch with a Catholic agency.”

Cait spent six months in the Good Shepherd Mother and Baby home in Dunboyne. She found the experience very lonely.

Initially, her duties included washing stairs. “Then I was promoted to do the church duties in a little chapel attached to the home.”

Cait would lay out the vestments for the priests and counted the communion hosts. She found the nuns to be nice. It was a lay person in authority that later treated her badly.

“I had a baby girl. I was over the moon. It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. I was determined to keep her.”

But a social worker tried to persuade Cait not to keep her daughter. Cait, who suffered “a slight nervous breakdown a few weeks after my daughter was born”, was put under the care of a consultant in a psychiatric unit until the adoption papers were signed. She was put on a drug, a long-acting injectable that has since been taken off the market. The consultant tried to portray Cait as a schizophrenic, asking her if she was hearing voices.

“He kept telling me to have my baby adopted, saying I would not be a fit mother.”

Cait’s care was transferred to her GP.

“I had no psychological issues since.”

A Mother’s Voice is Supported by the Arts Council and Triskel Art Centre’s WRITE RECORD PERFORM residency and The Kingsley Hotel. Tickets are €10, proceeds will go to OSS. 

See https://triskelartscentre.ie/events/a-mothers-voice-with-musici-ireland

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