Journalists and commentators get accused of imposing the morality and ethics of 21st century Ireland on an Ireland which bears no comparison.
As a result, we hear that the religious orders and nuns who ran these homes and institutions “did their best” operating within a very different set of moral boundaries. In short, people thought differently and the treatment of unmarried mothers and their children was an acceptable, if unfortunate, aspect of that society
However, a recent discovery made by the grandson of Dr Halliday Sutherland paints a picture of an Irish clergy deeply suspicious of anyone asking questions of how Magdalene Laundries and mother-and-baby homes operated.
The British physician and author’s book Irish Journey recounts a visit made by Dr Sutherland to the Magdalene Laundry in Galway and the Tuam mother-and-baby home 1955.
Dr Sutherland’s grandson Mark Sutherland wrote a blog post “The Suitcase in the Cellar” on hallidaysutherland.com where he recounted finding an unedited transcript of Irish Journey. What he found shows a clergy fully aware of how it’s treatment of women in its care may be viewed as unsatisfactory — even in 1955.
In order to visit the Magdalene Laundry at Galway, Sutherland needed the permission of the Bishop of Galway, Dr Michael John Browne.
It is clear that there was something to hide at the laundry as the author is only granted permission to visit the laundry on the proviso that everything he writes is submitted “for approval by the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Mercy”. As a result, the account of his visit to the laundry in Irish Journey was censored.
What his grandson discovered last year in a suitcase were those sections which were removed. They paint an interesting picture to say the least.
Included in the correspondence in the suitcase is a letter from the mother superior of the laundry, Sr Fidelma, asking in no uncertain terms that specific sections of Dr Sutherland witnessed at the institution be removed from his manuscript before publication.
“If it makes no difference to you we would much prefer that you did not include this article for your book at all. Should it not be possible for you to comply with our wishes in this matter would you kindly exclude the paragraph marked on page 122, and that marked at the end of page 123. I do not remember hearing anyone say that a girl ever ‘howled’ to be readmitted. They do come along and ask sometimes. Would you also kindly omit the piece marked on page 124,” she wrote.
The sections removed were as follows:
Following a question from Dr Sutherland asking if some of the women resident in the Laundry were “backward” — the following reply was requested to be removed.
“Yes, some of them cannot read or write. A few are sent by Probation Officers into whose care the girl was placed by the Justice before she was charged with some criminal offence.”
The fact that a direct link between the State and the Magdalene Laundries was requested to be removed is instructive, particularly as countless governments stuck by the line that Magdalene Laundries were autonomous institutions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Another section which was requested to be excised concerned an escape attempt by one of the inmates of the laundry:
Dr Sutherland: “Do they try to escape?”
Mother superior: “Last year a girl climbed a twenty foot drain pipe. At the top she lost her nerve and fell. She was fortunate. She only broke her pelvis. She won’t try it again.”
The mother superior also requested that a section concerning the physical abuse of women also be excluded from the final piece:
“For that kind of thing the girl gets six strokes of the cane, three on each hand.
A nun: “Sometimes on the legs.”
Dr Sutherland: “I suppose only the sister-in-charge may inflict corporal punishment.”
Nun: “Yes, and the only time I gave it I felt positively ill.”
This clearly points to physical abuse in the laundry as routine and as something that the order did not want being made public.
Well over half a century later, the McAleese Report was of the view Martin McAleese’s report found that “the ill treatment, physical punishment, and abuse that was prevalent in the industrial school system was not something they experienced in the Magdalene Laundries”.
Clearly this was not the view of the nuns running the Galway Magdalene Laundry.
Remarkably one entry that was allowed to remain tin the chapter by the order was a reference to food being removed from inmates if they misbehaved:
Dr Sutherland: “What about discipline?”
Mother superior: We give them a good scolding when they need it.”
Dr Sutherland: “And more serious offences?”
Mother superior: We stop their food”.
Dr Sutherland: “For how long?”
Mother superior: Only one meal and we know that the other girls feed them.”
Again, here is a nun acknowledging in the mid-1950s that women were starved if they did not toe the line. Such shocking treatment jars uncomfortably with the findings of the McAleese Report.
Another nun spoke of length of stay acknowledging that some women stayed “for life” and confirming that the women were not buried on the same ground as nuns but rather in “common burial ground”.
Dr Sutherland also recounted the conversation he had with Bishop of Galway Dr Michael John Browne when seeking permission to visit the laundry.
The bishop clearly took exception to the request and issued a veiled threat concerning anything negative he might write.
“Well, if you write anything wrong it will come back on you. Remember that.”
Following an extremely tetchy conversation, Bishop Browne denied there was anything to “hide” in the laundry but stressed it was his “duty to defend these nuns. I have done so in the past and shall do again.”
Before visiting the Galway Magdalene Laundry, Dr Sutherland visited the Tuam baby home — which in the past few weeks has made international headlines.
From the chapter, it is clear that the State was paying to keep women and children in the home.
“The nuns keep the child until the age of seven, when it is sent to an Industrial School. There were 51 confinements in 1954 and the nuns had now 120 children. For each child or Mother in the Home the County Council pays £1 per week. That is a pittance... In the garden at the back of the Home children were singing. I walked along the path and was mobbed by over a score of the younger children. They said nothing, but each struggled to shake my hand. Their hands were clean and cool,” Dr Sutherland wrote.
“Then I realised that to these children I was a potential adopter who might take some boy or girl away to a real home. It was pathetic. Finally I said — ‘Children, I’m not holding a reception’. They stopped struggling and looked at me.
“Then a nun told them to stand on the lawn and sing me a song in Irish. This they did very sweetly. At the Dog’s Home, Battersea, every dog barks at the visitor in the hope that they will be taken away.”
Labour TD Anne Ferris, who is herself adopted and also lost a daughter to adoption, first wrote about Dr Sutherland’s account last July but acknowledges that the recently discovered uncensored version is of huge significance.
“The standard refrain from the Church bodies in recent years has been that where abuses occurred they happened within autonomous institutions and so were isolated incidents outside the knowledge of senior members of religious orders or the Church hierarchy.”
“Dr Sutherland’s story shows that, not only was the Catholic Church hierarchy and the senior members of the religious orders aware of the abuse, but that even then the religious people in control sought to hide the extent of what was happening. This is not a case of a different code of practice for different times. In deleting passages from Dr Sutherland’s work, it seems quite clear that Sr Fidelma considered those particular abuses to warrant a level of secrecy,” she said.
Dr Sutherland’s preface to Irish Journey from 1958 contains an accusation about money that could be thrown at the Church in 2014.
“...all the critics have ignored my main criticism, which concerns the Irish secular clergy. In my opinion they have too much political power. They hold themselves aloof from their people, and are too fond of money.”
Some might say little has changed.
I KNOW it must have been difficult for you to have to hand over your baby, but what choices did you have in the 1950s — none.
It must have been heartbreaking for you. I know, as I have two children of my own, grown up now, and two beautiful little granddaughters.
I can’t imagine the pain you may have felt to hand over your baby. I have been searching for you now for 12 years since I discovered I was adopted.
I just want to know what happened to you and that you went on to have a happy life.
I hope from the bottom of my heart that you did. I discovered 12 years ago that I was illegally adopted. “Illegally” meaning I was registered as the child of James and Kathleen Hiney and grew up thinking I was Theresa Hiney. The truth came out in May 2002 when my uncle revealed to me that they were not my parents.
My response was “well my birth certificate says I am”. He wasn’t able to tell me how it was done, only that he came back to Ireland from England on holiday one year, and I was an infant. My adoptive parents told him they had adopted me but not in the legal way. I was struck dumb when I heard, and thought it couldn’t be true and if it was, I must be the only one. However, that myth was soon shattered when I started searching and was astonished to discover that there are many, many more like myself, living in limbo without and identity.
This is my story: I was born on 9 June 1954. At two days old, I was handed over to my adoptive mother and taken to be baptised, accompanied by Nurse Doody. I was baptised as Theresa Hiney and six weeks later, again formally registered as Theresa Hiney, like I was their natural child.
What happened to my birth mother, I wonder? Separated from her baby and expected to carry on as though nothing happened. My heart still feels for her and all of the mothers in her situation. I grew up not knowing, but feeling very different from everyone in the family so in some respects I wasn’t surprised.
My search began in zest and I spent a lot of time going back and forth to Dublin looking through archives and searching for information. I was more than surprised when a file turned up from the HSE detailing my childhood from the age of two to 16 years old.
The health board had accidentally discovered about the illegal adoption and through a duty of care called to check on me on a monthly basis. Within the file detailing all those visits is the name and address of Nurse Doody, where I was handed over, and also the name of the social worker involved.
From that information, my birth mother could have been tracked down, but it was totally ignored. I was also given an index card with the name of foster child Margaret O’Grady and foster mother Kathleen Hiney. Is this my real or made-up name? The HSE can’t clarify whether it is or not due to the fact that people gave false names in the 50s.
In 2009, I set up a website for illegal adoptees www.adoptedillegally-ireland.com and requested meetings with Frances Fitzgerald, then the children’s minister, which were always declined.
In 2012, Adopted Illegally Ireland held a protest in Dame St and also submitted a petition to Ms Fitzgerald’s office of 1,600 (including paper-based) signatures calling for access to records. The response was a polite thank you letter and the issue was never addressed.
Last October, I finally met with Ms Fitzgerald with Paul Redmond (Adoption Rights Now) and Susan Lohan (Adoption Rights Alliance). She instantly promised she would have her department attempt to gather all records, including Church-held files, and this would go to the heads of bill, which she also said would happen in 2011. The issue of an investigation was not mentioned and we ran out of time. She was meant to arrange another meeting which has never happened. I believe this serious issue should have received more consideration.
I don’t think it can be avoided any longer in view of the Tuam babies scandal. What has been discovered, although gruesome, has been seen as a breakthrough for those of us who have lobbied tirelessly over the years, but our requests have been ignored.
Appointments to the Commission of Investigation dealing with mother- and-baby homes will be made this summer with work due to start at the earliest opportunity.
Charlie Flanagan, the minister for children and youth affairs, expects to report to the Government on the terms of reference for the inquiry in the next week.
“I’m anxious if possible to achieve an agreed terms of reference by the Dáil in accordance with the act before the summer recess, which is before July 20,” Mr Flanagan said on Friday last.
Over the past two weeks he has been engaged in consultation with church leaders, advocacy groups and opposition leaders in the Dáil.
Mr Flanagan is also monitoring the work of an interdepartmental group involving eight departments and the National Archives.
“The process is well underway, that when my consultation period ends next week I expect to be reporting to Government. Ultimately the Government will agree the terms of reference,” he said.
“I am anxious that the inquiry would investigate the circumstances of burial grounds, the state of burial grounds, the obvious high mortality in terms of the statistics relating to babies surrounding these homes.”
He was also eager that the scope of the inquiry would cover “the vexed issue of clinical trials and allegations or reports that have been made of irregular, if not illegal, adoptions both within this jurisdiction and without”.
“I am anxious that the commission of investigation will have sufficient powers to allow it satisfactorily deal with this matter in a way that successive governments have neglected to engage over a long number of years.
“My aim is that the commission will be appointed during the summer; will commence work at the earliest opportunity thereafter and we’ll have a clearly defined timeframe.”