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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Mother-and-baby homes: ‘Secrets have been shattered’


Were it not for the bravery of survivors, what happened in mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene Laundries would have largely remained hidden in history.

But the testimonies of people who have suffered trauma to this day have shattered secrets and broken the power of shame.

Northern Ireland’s last institution closed in 1990.

From 1922 to that point, at least 10,500 women spent time in a mother-and-baby home.

Fionnuala Boyle, from Galbally in County Tyrone, was born to one of them.

When Fionnuala Boyle turned 18, she began to search for more information on her birth family

Fionnuala described her adoptive parents as having given her a “charmed childhood.”

But this has fueled her determination to “get justice” for her brother, Paul, who died when he was a baby.

“I believe he didn’t get the same opportunity as I did because someone somewhere thought he wasn’t deserving,” she explained.

‘Crushed me’

Fionnuala began her search for her birth family when she was 18 years old.

She had always known she had a brother, but she was devastated to learn that his life had been cut short.

“I got Paul’s death certificate the same day I got his birth certificate,” she explained.

“That just broke my heart.

“When you are an only child, your siblings become very important to you.

“The idea that someone else was out there was always a big dream, if you will.”

Fionnuala learned Paul was buried at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast after a few years.

The process of gathering information was “far from easy,” but she eventually received “more intensive assistance” and found her brother’s final resting place.

She, on the other hand, “wouldn’t call it a grave.”

“It was more of a pit – because there were over 30 babies in the spot where he was buried,” she explained.

“That they were all thrown in together, in unconsecrated ground, in a bog, at the bottom of a cemetery – as if they didn’t matter – was the most traumatic and sickening thing for me.

“I just think it’s completely wrong.”

In August, Paul would have turned 50 years old.

Fionnuala had a headstone erected for him over the summer.

“I was overjoyed that he had finally had his name engraved in marble.

“That’s what he should’ve had all along.”

Fionnuala’s children now pay visits to the grave and “call him uncle Paul.”

“That’s wonderful for me, but it’s also heartbreaking because that’s the part that most people don’t see.

“That’s why we’re all pleading for acknowledgement that these things have occurred.

“There’s this misconception that because these things happened years ago, the modern generation isn’t affected by them – which isn’t true.”

‘Like a prison’

According to academic research published in January, the youngest girl admitted to a mother-and-baby home was 12 years old.

I spoke with a woman who was also sent to the Marianville home in Belfast when she became pregnant at the age of 16 in the early 1970s.

She described it as “like a prison,” with a “regimented routine” that began with Mass at six o’clock in the morning.

The Marianvale home in Newry was one of those examined in the Stormont-commissioned research

When the survivor returned to her family, she said her baby was “never mentioned.”

She was raped soon after and became pregnant again.

Marianvale, a mother-and-baby home in Newry, County Down, was assigned to her.

The woman told me she had “lived with shame her entire life,” and as a result, she had suffered from mental and physical health issues.

Magdalene Laundries – workhouses where women were sent for a variety of reasons, including having a child outside of marriage – were also located in Marianville and Marianvale.

Both institutions were run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, a nuns’ order.

Another location owned by the order, St Mary’s in Londonderry’s Waterside area, also had a laundry, as did the Thorndale complex in north Belfast, which was run by the Salvation Army.

Families, welfare authorities, courts, police, clergymen, and church organisations all sent women and girls to laundries.

That was established by the researchers who compiled the report which was released earlier this year– and has led to the devolved government’s decision that an independent investigation will be held.


In the 1990s, the harrowing secrets of Magdalene Laundries in the Republic of Ireland began to emerge.

However, little is known about Northern Ireland’s institutions.

Caroline Magee, then in her early teens, was sent to the St Mary’s laundry in Derry in 1975.

It was “very frightening, very steamy, very warm,” she said.

Caroline Magee, who was sent to a laundry in her early teens, said the institutions took away women’s identities

“There was always noise – the machines were always running,” she explained.

Caroline recalled learning how to use a presser the size of a kitchen table.

She emphasised that the labour would have been even more difficult for women who had worked there previously because “there were no machines – it would all have been hand work.”

“Some of those women came to St Mary’s as young girls, stayed for many years, and died there.

“I know a few of them who tried to leave, but couldn’t because they had been institutionalised for so long. As a result, they had to go back in.”

The researchers discovered that women in the Good Shepherd Laundries worked for free for a full week until the 1970s, when they received “modest amounts” of “pocket money.”

Caroline suggested that one thing that needed to be looked into was the scope of the laundry’s commercial work.

“The Catholic Church had this city wrapped up,” she said.

“Businessmen knew what was going on inside, but it was all kept under wraps.”

However, she stated that the main issues were adoption, with many women alleging that they were forced to give up their babies, and the practise of giving women new names when they entered laundries.

“Women’s identities were robbed.

“Women were embarrassed, and they shouldn’t have been.”

The researchers discovered a number of other issues that they felt needed to be looked into further.

These included women’s and children’s burial records, as well as high infant mortality rates, particularly from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Archbishop Eamon Martin apologised to survivors and said the Catholic Church would fully support an inquiry

There are also questions about the role of state agencies as well as religious organisations.

In January, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, apologised to survivors and said the church would fully support an inquiry.

He also said victims should be entitled to compensation payments.

The Good Shepherd Sisters stated that they would provide “full cooperation” to the investigation and expressed regret that they “could not and did not always meet the multifaceted needs of these women.”

According to Fionnuala Boyle, the inquiry should expose the system’s hypocrisy, right wrongs, and correct history.

“You had people with religious sensibilities who demanded that everyone follow a strict moral code.

“Their morality was failing miserably, but they were oblivious to it.

“This is their chance to ask for forgiveness and tell people, ‘We believe you.'”

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