Ireland’s first self-help organisation for single mothers, One Family provides support, counselling, education and preparation for employment.
“Families are becoming more diverse and going through more transitions. We work with all types and all members of one-parent families, respecting the realities of family life to effect positive change and achieve equality and social inclusion for all one-parent families in Ireland,” says One Family’s director, Karen Kiernan.
In the first quarter of 2012, 36% of births in Ireland were outside marriage, and one in four families with children is one-parent. “The stigma [about single parenthood] still exists, but it’s coming from a different place now. Before, it was about morals and sexual behaviour. Now, it’s about money. There’s a stereotype that single parents cost the State money,” says Kiernan.
In 1972, unmarried mothers gathered in a house in Dublin to set up a support group. Ireland was changing. Nell McCafferty and the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement had taken the ‘condom train’ to Belfast, then brought contraceptives and lubricant back to Dublin. Senator Mary Robinson had tried, and failed, to amend the laws banning the import and sale of contraceptives.
Unmarried mothers were giving birth in secret and having their babies adopted; 2,000 Irish women were travelling to England each year for abortions. An American priest had recently toured schools here, displaying a jar of foetuses and warning teenagers about the immorality of abortion.
“It was all so crazy then, even I don’t believe it now,” says founder of Cherish, Maura O’Dea Richards, 73. “Cherish came into existence just when the old order was beginning to give way, when women’s voices were being heard again. The tight-woven fabric of de Valera’s Ireland, which had given draconian power to the Catholic Church, was finally loosening, though not yet ready to unravel,” says O’Dea Richards in her book Single Issue, which is being re-issued as an e-book by Poolbeg this week.
In 1970, O’Dea Richards, an unmarried 30-year-old, gave birth to a baby girl, Carol. She never considered adoption, even though it was the standard option for unmarried mothers, who were considered ‘inadequate’ to care for their children.
“I genuinely believed that [my child] was better off with me than with anyone else. I was absolutely terrified. It was ridiculous what I thought was going to happen to me,” says O’Dea Richards, who moved out of her rented Ballsbridge flat for the sake of respectability and bought a mobile home on an unserviced caravan site in Tallaght.
“The main problem was we [single mothers] weren’t supposed to exist. A pregnant woman without a husband wasn’t supposed to exist. The only mothers who were supposed to exist without a husband were widows, because they had a husband at one time,” says O’Dea Richards.
Working as a financial controller for a Dublin company, O’Dea Richards hid her pregnancy. “I told no-one at work and wore big cardigans and jumpers and flowy things and stuffed my bras to maintain the illusion that my breasts were larger than my belly. And I always carried a big basket in front of me,” she says.
She contracted shingles and left work six weeks before giving birth, in a private nursing home as arranged by a family doctor. Returning to work nine days later, she told only her closest friends.
“It was such a secret, that when I did start telling people they didn’t believe me. But nature takes over, and, after a few months, you want to tell people you’ve had a baby,” says O’Dea Richards, who experienced largely positive reactions.
“I did tell a family friend and she asked me what I was going to do with my baby. She couldn’t believe that I was thinking of keeping her.
“Because only inadequate women thought about keeping their baby. I was incredibly lucky, though, because I was independent,” says O’Dea Richards, who later bought a house in Kimmage, Dublin.
She sought other unmarried mothers for support. “I couldn’t find another woman who was keeping her child. Eventually, I did meet a woman with a child and a group of us met in my house to talk and give each other comfort, to exchange stories in a world where there was no support,” she says.
The women formed a self-help group, sharing stories and helping each other with accommodation, babysitters and clothes. They publicised the group and sent a letter to newspaper editors calling for unmarried mothers to contact them. O’Dea Richards published her address and telephone number, because, unlike many of the other women, her parents were dead and she had a secure job. “I don’t know what we could’ve done to cause more of a stir,” she says.
The media swarmed to the house in Kimmage, and more unmarried mothers began to attend the fortnightly meetings. Letters of support arrived containing cash donations; others had obscene messages, for example signed ‘From a Catholic Father of Six.’ Many men wrote expressing their admiration and even offering to marry the women.
The group organised flag days, collecting money on the streets and in pubs. “A lot of people were sympathetic. But you’d hear awful stuff from some of the men, like ‘she’s obviously a loose woman’,” says O’Dea Richards.
The women also lobbied government officials. Within a year of its establishment, Cherish celebrated the introduction of the unmarried mother’s allowance. At £8.15 per week, this was the first social welfare payment acknowledging unmarried mothers.
By 1977, the founders of Cherish had secured a Dublin headquarters, enlisted Mary Robinson as their president, and Eamon Casey as a sponsor, among others. O’Dea Richards appeared on the Late Late Show, and won an Irish Times Person of the Year Award in 1975. In 1987, after many years of campaigning, Cherish celebrated the Status Of Children Act, which abolished illegitimacy.
“We were one of the first self-help groups. I try and keep up, and involved, in the organisation, now, and I think they’re fantastic,” says Richards, who married in 1977 and moved to England.
“The great thing about Cherish was that you could speak to someone who knew what you were going through. There was empathy there,” says Mary Kerrigan.
Kerrigan was 31, unmarried and working in Shannon Airport when she gave birth to her son, Brian, in 1972.
“It was pretty awful at the time, especially down the country, and I didn’t know anyone else who was pregnant and unmarried. I was lucky that I had a job and that the people I worked with were forward-thinking,” says Kerrigan, who was offered six-months leave on a reduced salary after telling her manager that she was pregnant.
She credits her colleagues for their positive support after her son was born.
“It was an amazing experience. Everyone else had a husband coming in, but, still, I was invaded with visitors. All the people from work who I thought didn’t know came in with flowers and gifts. I still feel moved thinking about their kindness,” she says. However, Kerrigan soon felt alienated.
“I felt I didn’t belong to my single friends or to my married friends. So I started to look around to find a group,” she says.
Kerrigan contacted Cherish, and established a Clare/Limerick branch, which she directed for 15 years.
“I enjoyed it and laws have changed because of our pressure. It was fantastic,” says Kerrigan.
“It’s really important to look back and to reflect on what’s been achieved by One Family, and on the changes that we have seen. This will help us with what’s going to happen next,” says Kiernan.
* One Family celebrates its 40th anniversary on Thursday, Oct 18 in The Pillar Room, Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. Contact: 01-6629212 or firstname.lastname@example.orgHelpline: 1890 662212 email@example.com