The grandmother I never knew and the vote

The grandmother I never knew was born in 1916. For most people, when 1916 is mentioned, images of men shelling bullets in to the walls of the GPO, and indeed, at each other, lurch in to mind. For me, the year reminds me that my grandmother was born without the right to vote.

While recently Ireland and the UK celebrated the centenary of suffrage- giving the vote to women over the age of 30 and men over the age of 21- it wasn’t until 1928 that women received the same rights as men to have the right to ink the ballot paper at 21 years of age.

Until the age of 12 my grandmother grew up in society that wouldn’t allow her to fully take part in that society or permit her to give her opinion.

They quietened her. They kept her down.

I often wonder what message this would have sent my grandmother, Mary. She was only 12 when the law was changed. Maybe she wasn’t aware of the law at all or perhaps she didn’t care. She wasn’t going to get a push notification on her phone from Sky News of: “Women get the vote” on her smartphone. There weren’t any televisions. They would’ve been lucky to own a radio.

My grandmother died in 1987. She wasn’t alive to witness her fellow Mary, Mary Robinson “rock the cradle” in 1990 when she stood in the centre of  a sea of men dressed in black, clad in a purple suit to receive her seal of office for the Irish presidency.

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She similarly didn’t see her other namesake, Mary McAleese from north Belfast take up reign in the Aras in 1997.

From the snippets I know of Mary Fox. I know that she was part of an Irish Countrywomen’s Association team in north Cork that won a debating final. I know that she did the crossword in the Irish Examiner every week.

She even got married in a double wedding ceremony in 1944 with her sister- if that’s not ahead of it’s time, I don’t know what is! She was 28 too. Unlike her friends and neighbours, she didn’t rise to pressure and marry in her late teens. She lived her life.

Last week I listened to a podcast which featured Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington, the grand-daughter of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Ireland’s leading suffragette of the 1900s.

Micheline said on the show that she wondered whether her grandmother would be disappointed that we still have haven’t had a female Taoiseach.

I too wonder would my grandmother feel the same. She was forward thinking after all and may have been disappointed that we haven’t moved faster, when the likes of the UK, Germany, New Zealand and Northern Ireland all have female leaders.

Then again, she was of a gritty generation who didn’t sweat the small stuff and who were doing their best just to survive day-to-day, milking five or six cows and tending to some hens and pigs.

For Micheline and I these thoughts will only ever be wonderings on the wall of imagination. We can only keep fighting the good fight.

It is frustrating that we haven’t moved faster and that we haven’t had a female Taoiseach. I can only hope that in 100 years time, that an ancestor of mine won’t be wondering or musing like myself, that she’ll be saying we had not just one female Taoiseach, but numerous successful women leaders who held out a hand and let down the ladder for others women to follow in their path, that’s the only way things will change.

Mother and Baby Home: A Survivor’s Story

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“She was brought in 4 weeks before I was born and I was taken straight away. The women were given no painkillers and were not allowed to scream, they had to give birth in silence. There was a room with a mattress, they’d throw that at you if you screamed, it was called the screaming room”

Paul Redmond was born in Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home in 1964 and is recalling the struggles of women who spent time there to give birth to their babies. Although he only spent the first two weeks of his life at the home, the experience of him being separated from his mother in such a harrowing environment affected him for the rest of his life.

“You’re always conscious of it and you don’t quite understand it, but you’re aware that it’s something slightly shameful and it leads to emotional symptoms”, explains Paul who was transferred to St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on 21 December 1964 and adopted to new parents. At a mere two weeks old, this was the last time he saw his natural mother.

“I was brought to St Patrick’s on the Navan Road and my mother was made to wait outside on a wall where her father collected her” says Paul whose mother’s parents had paid £100 pounds which is now the equivalent of “8 or 9 grand” for her to give birth to her son in Castlepollard.

Searching for his natural mother

Paul was always aware that he was adopted as a baby and in fact believes that if you remember when you out found that you were adopted that you found out too late. At the age of 15 he decided to go looking for his natural mother, a search that would last for over 30 years.

“When I was 15 I went actively looking for her. I knocked on the door of the Adoption Board in 1979. I was treated badly, they were ignorant and disproved of natural mothers being reunited with their children”

This was the first of countless times Paul was turned away and ignored by the state who would “do anything to shut him up”. Paul’s experience with state social workers was complex and frustrating, with one case leading to his solicitor getting involved. For Paul the many social workers that he dealt with were against natural mothers and their children being reunited.

“I had 9 social workers but three main ones. The third one was so ignorant. She took action on my case without even meeting or talking to me and made a complete arse of it. I ended up getting my solicitor involved and got a letter of apology with the word “apologies” used three times but to say at the end of the letter that she’s still there working as a social worker. It couldn’t go to court despite all the lies.These were state social workers and a lot of them had their own ideologies and rejected natural mothers and their children being reunited”

The dawn of the internet, social media and in particular Facebook was “the best thing that happened to the adoption community” says to Paul who took advantage of this huge data bank to escalate his search. After years of making slight progress with social workers and even hiring a private investigator Paul was able to make connections to his natural mother on Facebook, who had tried her best not be found.

“The internet helped make huge advances. A lot of the time the mums don’t want to be found. My mother had a different surname and changed the spelling of her first name which made things difficult. I started to trace other members of the family and to look at it from there”

After coming across uncles, Paul eventually found his mother but she wanted no contact with him. She finally agreed to a forty minute phone call with him where he discovered that she had totally blocked out the six weeks she spent in Castlepollard from her memory, a trend which is common amongst survivors of Mother and Baby homes and women who were forced to give up their children.

“The vast majority of them block it out. They never truly get over it. They’re not allowed grieve but yet their baby isn’t dead and they can’t get closure. They’ve nightmares and fears of bonding with future children. They have to say they had two kids even though they know in their hearts they have three.It bites into people and they carry their secret. Many nuns told them that if they looked for their children that it was a mortal sin and that they would burn in hell for all eternity or that it was a criminal offence” explains Paul whose mother had two children and a husband after Paul.

While Paul’s mother’s decision to not have contact with him is painful, he admits that he is one of the lucky ones in that at least he got to talk to his mother, unlike so many of his counterparts.

“You’ve to stay positive, I was lucky that I had a conversation with her. Some people never even get a name. Their mothers are just these faceless entities that haunt them for the rest of their lives”

While speaking with his natural mother on the telephone, she was adamant that she did not know who his father was, an explanation which Paul knows to be untrue but believes he has little chance of ever finding out who his natural father is.

“My mother claims to not know who he is even though I know through my research that a Dominican nun told him to stay away from my mother. You can do DNA tests and hope you’d bump into him or a brother or a cousin but the hit rate is very low and there’s a lot of loose ends. It’s not like a film where everything is tied up in an hour. We live in grey areas”

Reaction to Tuam Findings

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The Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors which Paul is Chair of weren’t shocked when the findings of 796 bodies at the site of Tuam Mother and Baby home were made public two weeks ago, they were angry. They also believe it is not a situation in isolation.

“We weren’t shocked, we always knew they were there. We’d known for years; we were angry. I knew Catherine Corless for years and I never doubted her.We’re angry at the deniers who said it never happened and who are still saying it. They make me sick and they still can’t face up to it. Shifting the blame onto society is wrong. People were forced into these homes”, says Paul

Paul blames the nuns for forcing women to work as unpaid slaves and “dress their babies up as part of punishment and see them being adopted to new families”, yet he believes that no criminal investigation will ever take place.

“The vast majority of nuns are all dead and the surviving ones will have the best solicitors to defend them or play the old and senile card the way the priests did a few years ago when the abuse reports came out. Gardaí told me years ago that they can’t prove it unless I have an eye witness account of a specific nun killing a baby”, explains Paul.

With little hope of a criminal investigation coming to being, Paul and the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors are campaigning for the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill to be passed which will allow those who were adopted to seek information that was previously unavailable to them. Paul wants “full inclusion” of children taken from private homes and illegal adoptions as well as those born in Mother and Baby homes.

“100,000 women lost children in Ireland who were adopted or hired out or illegally adopted. This was the official policy of the state who considered single women to be unfit mothers”

Paul’s experience with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone has been less than satisfactory, with Paul remarking that she had “zero interest” in their cause during their last meeting.

“We mentioned in the agenda that we wanted to ask where were the memorials that we were promised would be built, to which she replied “What memorials?” Her people asked could we prove that memorials were promised. They basically ignored and insulted us” says Paul who has yet again been met with another obstacle by the state.

With the former nuns who ran the Mother and Baby Homes being worth according to Paul 2.3 euro million each he believes that “money is their god” and recalls stories of women who stayed in the Mother and Baby homes until they died working as unpaid slaves.

“I blame the nuns they were largely autonomous and milked the mothers as slave labours. Castlepollard never employed a doctor or nurse. They employed a midwife to work the night shift and day shift later on but a lot of the time they were hard faced fucking bitches. The delivery rooms were literally just beds. Some women never left and stayed there for years and were institutionalised and unpaid slaves”