'People are finally waking up': Noelle Brown on the Abbey Theatre's mother and baby homes project

Noelle Brown was born in Bessborough, and jumped at the chance to give fellow survivors a voice via the national theatre's special livestream on St Patrick's Day 
'People are finally waking up': Noelle Brown on the Abbey Theatre's mother and baby homes project

Cork actor and theatre director Noelle Brown. Picture: Ste Murray

St Patrick’s Day is a time when Irish people at home and abroad loudly and proudly celebrate their identity. This year, while the streets and pubs of our towns and cities are quiet, our national theatre will be alive with the voices of women who were once silenced, for whom Ireland was not a place of comfort, safety or celebration. Home: Part One is the Abbey Theatre’s response to the report on the inquiry into the Mother and Baby institutions, a free streamed event in which a company of 46 women will voice the direct testimonies of survivors. 

According to Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, co-directors of the Abbey: “It is their time to speak and our time to listen.” One of those voices will be that of actor and writer Noelle Brown, who was born in the Cork mother and baby home of Bessborough. She is also curator and lead artist on the project. In 2017, her play Postscript, based on her own experience of finding her birth mother, was performed at the Abbey’s Peacock theatre. 

She says the recently published report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, whose findings were roundly rejected by survivors, was just the latest episode in what has been a long and exhausting quest for recognition and acknowledgment.

“We have known about this for a very long time. It is not stuff we didn’t know, and that is the awful thing, that it was just ignored and suppressed. But people are finally waking up and it is so good to have the public behind us. This pain can’t be removed, it is not a wound that can be completely lanced but there are steps that can be taken, particularly around the report. It is not fit for purpose.” 

Soon after the report was published, Brown was approached by McLaren about doing something to amplify the voices of the survivors.

“Ever since Postscript was staged at the Abbey, Graham and Neil have always checked in with me to see if there is anything they can do to help. Two days after the report was published, when everybody was reeling from the repercussions, Graham just rang me and asked me, ‘how can we help, what can we do, we have an idea for something, will you come on board?’. I was so heartened by it. He wanted to make the survivors’ voices central, which is something the report didn’t do.” 

An editorial panel was established to help gather the testimonies of survivors, the members of which include archivist Catriona Crowe, Michèle Forbes, who co-wrote Postscript with Brown, and Conall Ó Fátharta, a former journalist with the Irish Examiner, whose investigative work on the issue of illegal adoptions long before it became a national issue has been recognised by survivors and adoptees.

Mary Coughlan is one of the participants in the Abbey Theatre's Home project. Picture: Mark Stedman
Mary Coughlan is one of the participants in the Abbey Theatre's Home project. Picture: Mark Stedman

“It was a huge undertaking and it had to happen quite fast but there has been such goodwill, particularly from the survivors who have been so hurt by their testimonies being reshaped, misquoted, and taken out of context in the report,” says Brown. “This was something that could be done to change that. The sensitivity and thought around it was extraordinary. Everybody worked so hard to make this happen, and in very difficult circumstances, obviously with Covid and everything else. In about eight days, we gathered as much information as we could, looking at the report itself, the Clann Project witness statements, archival documents, testimonies form media interviews and talks. I also engaged with 12 survivors I knew, including the lovely Philomena Lee, to write 350 words, and I would guide them around it, that could be read on the night.” 

While it is understandable that working on such a project would take an emotional toll on those involved, it has also been an empowering experience, says Brown.

“It was very emotional and upsetting a lot of the time because you are being bombarded by the press as well — every day there is some fresh awful revelation. But the survivors that I spoke to and that are involved on the night are happy that this is happening. There is real hurt about the report, the survivors put their trust in a commission that treated them appallingly. I did it find it very hard. Talking to survivors, gathering the testimonies and everything else, you think you have heard it all, then you hear a story that is beyond horrific. I was very tired by the end of it but I was very well supported along the way. There wasn’t any sense of ‘oh, let’s make a piece of art’. It wasn’t reactive, it was well thought out and sensitively done.” 

Brown says the timing of the event is also symbolic in terms of acknowledging the historic injustice that has never been addressed, as well as maintaining pressure to investigate further.

“To have it on Patrick’s Day is very significant — when we are all dyeing our hair green and going ‘yay, we’re great’. This is a point in our history and a legacy that really has to be dealt with before we can move on.

We have repealed the eighth, we have marriage equality but we haven’t dealt with this. And it’s the tip of the iceberg. The report covers 14 homes and four county homes. There were many more homes in Ireland, we haven’t captured the scale of the horror really yet.” She also highlights the importance of the event being streamed and accessible to an international audience.

“There were 2,000 babies sold to America, some of their testimonies will be in there as well. There will be huge interest there. It is a time for Ireland to reflect and the Government, the State and the Church to really think about what happens now.”

 The project has also highlighted how the trauma of the mother and baby homes and the illegal adoptions that took place reverberates down the generations. Brown says the activism of younger people on the issue is a huge source of hope.

“When I was working on Postscript, I was interested in looking at what kind of people were in the audience. There were so many young people there, in their 20s and 30s. I spoke to a few of them afterwards and they were very emotional. They were the children of people who were born in Mother and Baby Homes, a whole other generation that were so angry and upset on behalf of their mothers and fathers. It was a real wake-up call, I thought, 'wow, this doesn’t die with us'. 

"And it is time-sensitive for a lot of survivors, which is very cruel. There is a lovely letter form Laura Murphy, the young woman whose mother was in a Mother and Baby Home, who wrote to the Taoiseach taking him to task about his apology. Her extraordinary letter forms a part of the night as well. It was great to hear those clear, vibrant young voices coming up behind us, it’s fantastic. I love that that is happening because when you look at Repeal and marriage equality, young people were vital to those campaigns. There is a change on the issue, which is amazing and heartening.” 

  • Home: Part One will be streamed at 7pm on St Patrick’s Day on the Abbey Theatre’s YouTube channel. It's free to watch, but any donations received during the performance will go to Barnardos Post-Adoption Service.

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