Liz Dunphy: Mother and Baby Homes law 'biggest betrayal' of survivors

Sealing off the records of such institutions for 30 years means 'the secrets, the lies, the silence, they’re now law', writes Liz Dunphy
Liz Dunphy: Mother and Baby Homes law 'biggest betrayal' of survivors

Laura Whalen, curator of the Bábóg Project, with some of the thousands of tiny hand-made dolls, to honour babies who died in Ireland's mother and baby homes, which she is gathering in West Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane 

“Just under Ireland's skin, in a shallow grave, is a wound so deep it runs to the core of this land.

“It is filled with red pain, suffering, shame, hate, fear. It runs throughout the whole country, silently touching every man, woman and child.” 

Laura Whalen read the opening lines to her powerful poem which details the horror of institutional abuse suffered by countless families and the deep wounds left behind long after Ireland's mother and baby homes closed, at her final Bábóg making workshop at Inch Hideaway in east Cork.

The participants, aged from their early teens to mid-60s, cried together in the bright, cleansing sunlight one Sunday afternoon before they made their dolls together.

Ms Whalen, a doll maker, started the project as a practical response to the grief she felt about Ireland’s dark past, where vulnerable women were forced into institutions to give birth before their babies were taken away. 

Or where their dead babies' tiny bodies were buried, "tiny bones stacked on tiny bones" to be forgotten in unmarked, mass graves or tossed into a septic tank in Tuam.

Her grief and outrage were shared by thousands of people all over the world, who joined her to make little dolls, one for each of the estimated 6,000 babies who died in mother and baby homes.

Making the dolls is an act of love, of remembrance and of respect. An apology for Ireland’s darkness.

The dolls will be counted from November 2, but Ms Whalen is confident that they will reach or surpass their target of 6,000 dolls.

“We’ve had an amazing response,” she said.

“I feel deeply humbled by the kindness and compassion us women have for each other.

“This was something we could do in response to the distress. It’s been a way of saying, ‘we really do care. You mattered. You were good.'" 

The project was inspired by Beth Wallace, a psychologist and psychotherapist who was born in a mother and baby home and whose brother Stephen died in one of these institutions at just five weeks old. 

Some of the thousands of tiny hand-made dolls to honour babies who died in Ireland's mother and baby homes which Laura Whalen, curator of the Bábóg Project, is gathering in West Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane 
Some of the thousands of tiny hand-made dolls to honour babies who died in Ireland's mother and baby homes which Laura Whalen, curator of the Bábóg Project, is gathering in West Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane 

Ms Wallace ordered a doll for Stephen and Laura found the process so deeply moving that she decided to make one for every child who died at these institutions, "who may never have been hugged, never sang a lullaby, never told 'I love you.'"

“As Irish people, we do not talk about it enough," Ms Wallace said. "There is outrage when someone hears about all these babies who died but no one really acknowledges the deep grief and sorrow.

I haven’t used the term ‘mother and baby home’ for years. The word ‘home’ conjures up images of soft carpets, eating breakfast together. But my mother was made kneel on a cold floor every night, even when heavily pregnant, to pray for forgiveness for her ‘sins’. 

"That doesn’t happen in a home, that happens in an institution."

Ms Wallace was born in a mother and baby 'home' and then moved to an orphanage in Dún Laoghaire. She was adopted aged two. She said that she suffered sexual abuse as a child and now cannot extrapolate what trauma had what effect on her life.

But the cumulative impact of “trauma after trauma” left her with no self-esteem, addiction issues, led to risky sex at an early age and unhealthy relationships throughout her early adult life.

“This thread of shame ran through my whole life, all my experiences in life were connected to that one thread," she said.

“But getting out of Ireland in my 20s to Canada really helped me, it showed me that other countries see sex and sexuality differently and there is not that same shame attached to it. That allowed me to see Ireland through a different cultural lens.” 

She enrolled in university for the first time in her 30s and went on an "internal journey" which has completely transformed her life. 

She is now a respected psychologist and psychotherapist who specialises in helping people form and maintain healthy intimate relationships. 

She said that the Government’s new bill, passed on Thursday night by 11 votes, is “the biggest betrayal” visited on survivors. 

She said that views and wishes of survivors were not considered by those pushing through the bill which will allow a database of 60,000 records created by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes to be transferred to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

Other documents used by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes will be controversially sealed away for 30 years under a 2004 law under which the Commission operated. 

Laura Whalen, a doll maker, started the Bábóg project as a practical response to the grief she felt about Ireland’s dark past, where vulnerable women were forced into institutions to give birth before their babies were taken away. 
Laura Whalen, a doll maker, started the Bábóg project as a practical response to the grief she felt about Ireland’s dark past, where vulnerable women were forced into institutions to give birth before their babies were taken away. 

She has had to push for access to her own information since she was 14 and anything that makes that process even more difficult is completely unacceptable, she said. 

The information she eventually did receive from a private orphanage or State actors was often inaccurate or contradictory, she said. 

The story of her life depended on which social worker she happened to meet on the day. She only found out that she had a brother and sister who were born at other mother and baby institutions by accident "when a social worker let it slip."

“We’ve all faced so many lies and so much obfuscation for so many years and we’re sick of it," she said.

“The whole system is set up to protect everyone other than the babies. We have the least access out of everyone to the information directly relating to our lives.

For me, the sealing off of documents feels like a complete betrayal, bigger than the betrayals that went before because this was intentional and deliberate.

“People know how hurtful this is yet they’ve pushed this through. So the secrets, the lies, the silence, they’re now law.

“I feel angry. I would chain myself to the railings outside the Dáil if I thought it would make a difference."

Ms Wallace contributed to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which is due to release its report on October 30.

While her dealings with the legal firm working on the inquiry were very positive, she found the meetings with survivors “gruelling.” 

“Some had never really spoken about what happened to them before. One man in his 70s had only ever told his wife about being adopted by a family who used him as a farmhand. He suffered starvation, physical and sexual abuse, he kept breaking down and the whole room was in tears.

“What was the point in reliving that pain? There possibly was none. I think that there will be a lot of anger amongst survivors if their records are now sealed away. They trusted the State, told their stories, relived that trauma, and were betrayed."

The Bábóg project was inspired by Beth Wallace, a psychologist and psychotherapist who was born in a mother and baby home and whose brother Stephen died in one of these institutions at just five weeks old. Picture: Denis Minihane 
The Bábóg project was inspired by Beth Wallace, a psychologist and psychotherapist who was born in a mother and baby home and whose brother Stephen died in one of these institutions at just five weeks old. Picture: Denis Minihane 

She said that one of the most touching things about the Bábóg project was Laura Whalen and others standing up to take on their fight and pain for them.

“Laura said that the fight should not be led by survivors. If I could send a message to the people of Ireland I would ask them to stand up for their fellow citizens. We're already tired of living with the consequences of what happened to us.

"This trauma has affected every parish in Ireland and we're not just relics from the past. We're still living with it today. 

“In Ireland we’re good at looking at single issues, but we need to zoom out and up and look at what the real issues are.

“And what’s the common denominator here with all these contentious issues the State has faced recently - abortion, Cervical Check, Mother and Baby institutions? They’re all about female bodies, sexuality and reproductive rights, and how they are expressed, suppressed and controlled - not just by the State but by society."

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