SOMETIMES Maura O’Dea Richards can’t quite believe things were so dire 40 years ago for pregnant unmarried women. Yet this was her story. In 1970, she was 30, a financial controller working in Dublin, expecting a baby and not married. It was a time when unmarried mothers were encouraged to give up their ‘illegitimate’ babies for adoption, mend their ways, and look for a good man to make them respectable.
When Maura discovered she was pregnant, she felt it was the end of the world. “It was kind of ‘this can’t be’, it was the cardinal sin. This wasn’t done — end of story. It’s so ridiculous, so nonsensical in terms of today’s acceptance. I can’t believe things were as bad as they were.”
But they were, and three years later, with her daughter Carol a toddler, Maura, along with Margaret Murphy, Evelyn Forde, and Annette Hunter Evans, founded Cherish, Ireland’s first ‘self-help’ group, set up by single parents for single parents.
Now the story of the remarkable women who set it up has been captured in a radio documentary marking the 40th anniversary of the organisation, ‘Cherish All The Children’.
Today, Maura O’Dea Richards is a counsellor living in Tunbridge Wells, England. She recalls the “free-floating fear” she felt when she realised she was pregnant.
“I remember Margaret Murphy saying we could be drunken drivers and kill as many people as we liked and that’d be OK, whereas anything to do with sex was just not on. It was grim and made grimmer by my own inability to say ‘fuck the lot of them — I don’t care’.”
Maura decided “pretty quickly” that she’d keep her child. “I felt adoption wasn’t necessarily an answer. There was a nun we called the fairy godmother. She’d take babies away from unmarried mothers in maternity hospitals and they wouldn’t be seen again.”
She knew from reading newspaper articles about ‘illegitimate’ births that she wasn’t the only unmarried mother. “I was puzzled; there were all these births and no mothers around. They were invisible.”
That was until she placed a tiny ad in a newspaper inviting any unmarried mothers to her home in Kimmage and all these women turned up. “It was just amazing. Women in their 40s and 50s came, who had held onto their children in the most horrific circumstances. In a lot of cases, children were being reared by grandparents so they became siblings of the mother.”
The group, says Maura, was “one that went in where angels feared to tread”. They began helping women keep their babies. “It was pretty grim. I remember one woman deciding to give up her baby. The fairy godmother took the baby away. We were allowed go to the baptism. The young woman had decided on a name but it wasn’t allowed — they changed it because it wasn’t a saint’s name. These people had all the power. We were helpless.”
Soon, they decided they wanted to be a group that would orchestrate change, rather than “hiding out in Kimmage”. Maura recalls going to a meeting of Women’s Lib in Dalkey. “The conversation was about the category of unmarried mother they could support. You couldn’t support any old one who was maybe doing one night stands! The unmarried mother would have to have been in a relationship for two years. For me, it was like a red rag to a bull. These were good people trying to do right by somebody but it wasn’t the right ‘right’ as far as I was concerned.
“They were not narrow-minded women, just people of their time. It’s hard for any of us to be outside our time and see that something different needs to happen. For us in Cherish, it was about necessity, and necessity does drive change.”
In the run-up to the 1973 general election, Maura saw their opportunity. “It was a pivotal time for women in Ireland. We felt now is the time. We tormented every minister there was. We bombarded them. We targeted Garret FitzGerald and he’d say, ‘Maura, would you wait ’til I’m elected and I’ll see what I can do’.”
That year, Cherish was the driving force behind getting an unmarried mother’s allowance of £8.50 a week introduced in the budget. In 1987, the Status of Children Act was passed, abolishing the concept of illegitimacy. “‘Illegitimate’ was a word used officially. It was so patently appalling. It really did have to change,” says Maura.
Hilary Fennell, who produced ‘Cherish All The Children’, says the story of Cherish and the women who set it up is an important part of the story of modern Irish society. “They had an incredible effect on how our society developed. It would be a terrible shame not to mark and celebrate that. When I tell people in their teens and 20s about Cherish, they find it hard to believe such things could have happened, that such stigma could have existed towards single mothers, only 40 years ago.”
* ‘Cherish All The Children’ airs at 9am on Sunday, Dec 29, on Today FM.