The brutal treatment Tralee woman Catherine Coffey O’Brien suffered in institutions will live with her forever. She is one of more than 56,000 women who were incarcerated in Mother and Baby homes across the country.
hough she may be considered one of the lucky ones as she escaped while pregnant and ultimately kept her beloved son, now 31, others did not get this opportunity. Instead, they were forced to give their babies up for adoption and many died.
The shocking report by the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes published yesterday shows that 56,000 women were sent to institutions from 1922 to 1998 and more than 57,000 babies were born in these very same institutions with one in seven dying, a mortality rate much higher than the infant mortality rate of that time.
The Commission was unable to establish how many children died in many of the homes and was also unable to discover where many of these children are buried.
This is the situation in Sacred Heart Convent Bessborough or Bessborough (Bessboro) House. Catherine and her fellow survivors, those who are still alive today, have said the publication is welcome. The report sets out in harrowing and upsetting detail the treatment of women in 18 institutions around the country, just a sample of the institutions in the country. 14 Mother and Baby Homes were included and just four County homes. There are no Kerry institutions included but Bessborough House, where pregnant and unmarried women from Kerry were sent, is included. Almost 10,000 women were sent to Bessborough – 10 per cent of which came from Kerry. Catherine, who gave evidence to the Commission, was sent to Bessborough after she became pregnant.
“I was tricked into it. I was told I was going to independent living but when I saw a Nun waiting for me, I knew.”
Ultimately though, after suffering mistreatment at Bessborough, Catherine and a fellow detainee escaped and returned to Kerry, but she has never forgotten the treatment she suffered there and in other institutions. She has welcomed yesterday’s commission report, which is five years in the making, and which came about after the discovery of 800 babies in a septic tank mass grave in Tuam.
“I am concerned about the narrative of the report and the balance of it. Will it have considered all aspects?,” she asked.
“This is our history and our past and that of our children and grandchildren.” She also acknowledges the apology Taoiseach Michéal Martin is due to give in the Dáil but she is calling for the graves of all babies to be marked and respected, particularly the graves at Bessborough House. Though the exact locations of the graves at Bessborough remain unknown according to the Commission, Catherine, says there is enough evidence to show there are graves at the site.
“We want the graves to be marked and respected. We have a duty to them, they didn’t make it out the gates… I want to move on but I can’t move on until the graves are marked.”
A former resident of St Joseph’s Industrial School, Owen Felix O’Neill, who was born in St Patrick’s on the Navan road, and which is included in the Commission report, said the report is ‘heart-breaking’.
“It is heart-breaking, not just for me but for the whole country. It is painful for me to have to relive it.”
Felix, who was born Patrick McCarthy, spent the first four years of his life in St Patrick’s before being shunted between other institutions and ultimately ended up in Tralee at the age of nine, where he was repeatedly raped and seriously mistreated, starved, beaten and worked to the bone at St Joseph’s. He has never been able to get information on his mother or his brothers and sisters. He has no idea what institutions they may have lived or died in.
“My mother was in these homes .. She did not commit a crime but spent her life paying for her ‘original’ sin.” He has yet to read the entire report but said that the deaths of the thousands of children is ‘horrendous’.
‘Why not include us?
The shocking Commission Report into Mother and Baby Homes across the country has laid bare some of the horrific conditions at these homes.
However, the report does not cover all of the institutions and the lack of investigation into County homes has angered survivors. Elizabeth Coppin was born in the County Home in Killarney where her mother was interned and she is angry that she and her mother are ‘a related matter’ in the report. Four county homes are included as a sample in the Commission Report.
“Pregnant women were also in county homes to wash the infirm.. They are a related matter in the Commission.
“It’s the principle, it’s not me, it is about equality. They would have addressed county homes if they had cared. I am fuming – they are hiding the truth.
County homes were state institutions not run by Catholic bodies, which Elizabeth claims is the reason they are not included in the report.
“How can I as a survivor of institutional abuse, who fled Ireland but remain an Irish Citizen be treated like this,” she said.