*Lauretta Callaghan O’Dea. Photograph: Natasha Barton

A Kilrush woman who spent over three months living in a Mother and Baby Home has spoken publicly for the first time on her experience.

Lauretta Callaghan O’Dea was twenty years old and six months pregnant in 1987 when she entered the doors of the mother and baby home at Dunboyne in Co Meath. She stayed there for longer over three months and won the fight in holding onto her baby son.

Dunboyne was the mother-and-baby home with the highest proportion of women under 18, with minors making up 23.4% of admissions. Over one in ten admissions to Dunboyne were aged between 12 and 16, under legal age of consent. It opened in 1955 and closed in 1991.

According to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, the conditions were noted as very good. Day to day running of the Home was the responsibility of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Over the period of 1955-1991, there were 3,156 mothers and 1,148 children resident in Dunboyne. It was initially designed for women on second or subsequent pregnancies, but the vast majority were first-time mothers.

Lauretta Callaghan O’Dea. Photograph: Natasha Barton

Like other institutions, the length of stay varied over time. In the 1950s women spent 383 days on average. Women in the 1970s were there for 85 days on average. In later years most women did not return to Dunboyne after giving birth. At the time, children were generally placed with adoption societies or foster parents directly from the hospital and spent no time in Dunboyne.The children were almost all born in Holles Street.

As a first-time mother, Lauretta recalled that she had “nowhere to go” when she arrived there and admitted that she was unaware it was a Mother and Baby Home back then. “At twenty years of age, you feel lost and alone, you don’t know what to expect once you step inside the door of the convent”. During her time there, the youngest woman was fifteen and the eldest aged thirty nine. They all had to be in bed by 10pm on weekdays and 11pm on weekends with a list of chores to be completed daily.

Not long after her arrival, Lauretta said she was told by a tall nun that she would need to give her baby up for adoption. She did not suffer any physical abuse there but was mentally abused. Confession had to be completed regularly and one instance still shocks her to this day. “I can’t even picture his face because when I walked into the room I had my head down, he questioned me and asked what I had to offer the child, I said ‘love’ and he said ‘you don’t know the meaning of the word love’, he said to give the baby up for adoption because I would be ruining my life. Of course, you know me, I wouldn’t say boo to a goose, I didn’t know what to say and then he asked ‘how many times a week do you have sexual intercourse’, I said to myself he didn’t ask me that did he and then he said ‘you can answer me can’t you’, I was mortified, I felt ashamed at that given time, I was afraid to answer him and I think I said two or three times. He said ‘love won’t feed a child, you’ve no money, what do you know, you give that baby up’ and I said I didn’t want to”.

Lauretta Callaghan O’Dea. Photograph: Natasha Barton

When it came close to giving birth, an inspection by one nun also shocked the Kilrush woman. “Sr Anna who I was told was a midwife brought me in and said we needed to know what was happening, she brought me into a room and asked me to open my legs, there was another nun with her and said ‘oh come on, it’s not going to hurt, it didn’t hurt going in so it won’t hurt coming out’, what can you say to that, we were told we had sinned. The nuns called the convent Ard Mhuire which means high lady, who were the high ladies there because they weren’t very high, they hid an awful lot”.

She can remember going into labour on a Sunday night and travelling by taxi to Holles St Hospital. Women from the Dunboyne Mother and Baby Home were “just left there”. “I was in labour from the Sunday night until the following Friday morning and I was only 3cm dilated. The Friday evening, I was climbing the walls because I was in so much pain, at about 6pm I remember a doctor coming down, ‘is she still here,’ she referred to me as and then sent me up for an emergency c-section, ‘there is a fifty fifty chance that she or the baby will survive’, all I wanted to do was sleep, I was left too long in labour, they didn’t give a damn. At about 2am I woke up, half dazed, looked around and no baby, they told me I had a boy and I blanked out again. The following morning, a social worker and nuns came in and demanded for me to give my baby, that’s why I say the Holles St was in cahoots with Dunboyne, the hospital must have notified the convent or the convent rang the hospital to see what was going on”.

This foetal distress caused her son to end up with epilepsy for twelve years, Lauretta maintained. “I was lucky I didn’t lose him. I knew I had a fight on my hands with the social worker and the nuns, I told them he was mine and I didn’t want to give him up”. For a period of three months, she placed her son in foster care as she had “no place to go”.

Since the final report from the Commission of Investigation was published, Lauretta has been inspired to write poetry. “It made me angry when some people didn’t get what was being said, these women deserved better and they classed us as fallen women which we weren’t”. She added, “You feel it in your heart the love for a child, you carry it so strong, that is why I wrote it. The mothers had their baby but they couldn’t take away the mother, we still became mothers and they couldn’t take it away, they wanted to strip that away and leave you with nothing, all those women deserve to be saluted, they are the real survivors not the likes of me who passed through the homes quietly but not so quietly, it was the poor women that were sent to wash-houses and their babies thrown into septic tanks, they are not survivors, they are heroes”.

Lauretta Callaghan O’Dea. Photograph: Natasha Barton

Hypocrisy was voiced by members of the clergy in how they preached, she felt while also raising the question as to the whereabouts of the fathers of the children.

She returned to Kilrush in 1994 and admitted that she there was a stigma attached to her, one that exists for a certain few today.

Now, a mother of three, Lauretta is glad she stuck to her guns. “I raised him on my own by being there no matter what. The lines of communication between children and their parents have to be kept open, always believe in your kid. You don’t know what they will achieve or what their potential is, they can achieve anything. Love is the tie that binds, nobody will sever the link between me and my kids because I love them unconditionally, I would lie down and die for them”.

Clare’s Mother and Baby Home was located in her native Kilrush, its existence was something she was not aware of at the time. Actions, apologies and memorials for the women and children have not been satisfactory in her view.

“The State has been lagging behind in all that because they want to hide the truth, they don’t want the truth to come out but there’s people who know the truth and they are the real survivors not the residents. I asked why everything was kept hush hush about the monument in Kilrush, letters were sent out to higher up people not to people who experienced it, why didn’t every resident get a letter, if there is nothing to be hidden reveal all. The monument that has been built is right beside the church, it should be up on the Cooraclare Rd and not there, I visited the one on the Cooraclare Rd and laid a bouquet of flowers there. I will never know what they went through but I can sympathise wholeheartedly”.

*********************

A Mother’s Heartache

By Lauretta Callaghan O’Dea

Baby weeps, weeps no more,
Innocent child you didn’t get to know,
Snatched from arms that only wanted to give Love,
A mother’s guilt trodden in the snow.

Made to feel ashamed that what you did was so wrong,
The love for a child you carried so strong,
You’re told to give it up or you will ruin your life.
What did the priests and nuns know!
They were full of trouble and their own strife.

Mothers, hear now, you are not to blame!
The system that failed you should hang it’s head in shame.
I stand by you all for the pain you’ve come through,
My heart aches for each and every one of you.

I held on to mine, what a bundle of joy!
No one was taking him, such a beautiful boy!
Oh they tried and tried and tried some more,
I wasn’t relenting, so they walked out the door.

All those Mother and Baby homes, where those lives were lost,
How much do you put on a life and at what cost?
I salute each woman who came to be in those places,
Names were changed but not our faces.

We all get dealt a hand, some worse than others,
But remember one thing, we all became Mothers.
For those who are grieving for what they have lost right now,
The truth will come out one day somehow.

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Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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