The Northern Ireland Executive in Stormont has ordered an independent investigation into Northern Ireland’s mother and baby homes, after the publication of a report today.
The report into Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland, found that between 1922 and 1990, Mother and Baby homes admitted 10,500 women and Magdalene Laundries a further 3,000.
The women admitted to homes and laundries, as old as 44 and as young as 12, were victims of rape, teenage incest, violent husbands, or were on the run from sectarian violence or to escape the heavy stigma of their families.
“By the onset of the Troubles,” the report reads, “there were a number of cases in Belfast, Derry and Newry of teenage girls and women being sheltered from forms of community rough justice by the Good Shepherd Sisters.
One social worker explained the severity of the stigma facing unmarried mothers up until the 70s.
‘This generation has forgotten about the stigma of it, which was enormous. And… there were no facilities for them… if their parents didn’t support them, and allow them home… where were they going to live? And how, I mean, what were they going to do?’ She recalled a lot of unmarried mothers from rural areas who relocated to one of the Belfast mother and baby homes to ‘hide’ because ‘ostensibly, you could be working or something.’
Due to a scarcity of records kept in the homes and laundries, particularly state inspection records, the study was based on personal testimony. 60 individuals were interviewed, mostly birth mothers or their relatives, and a few social workers.
But the oral testimony has notable gaps.
“Two interviewees did not sign and submit teh necessary consent forms to enable us to include them in the analysis,” it said.
In a further example, the report cites the withdrawal of testimony from a retired officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
“The withdrawal of this interviewee was a blow and reduced the ability to probe the relationship between the police criminal justice system and these institutions.”
However, one mother, speaking to the BBC, spoke out about her experience, of the “frightening” journey to the Marianvale mother and baby home in Newry, County Down.
Given no wage, she worked in the kitchen and scrubbing floors, in a “very austere, very regimented” environment.
Verbally abused by the nuns, she recounts how they “repeatedly called us fallen women, bad women – told us we had to pay for our sins”.
“On one occasion, we had to put on a show for them,” she said. “I can’t remember whether it was St Patrick’s Day or Easter. “We had to dance like monkeys for their entertainment. It was horrendous, and it will stick in my head until the day I die.”
Of the estimated 10,000 children born into the homes over the period studied, approximately 4% were stillborn or died shortly after birth, the report said.
Approximately 26% of children returned home with their mothers, while 32% were put into institutional care, and 38% were put up for adoption or into foster care.
“Numerous testimonies recounted experiences that involved cleaning, polishing floors and domestic laundering,” it reads, “with no concession for women who were often in their final trimester of pregnancy.”
Over the 89-year period, about a quarter of all pregnant, unmarried mothers ended up in the homes and laundries.
Institutions studied included 4 Magdalene Laundries (3 Catholic, 1 Protestant), 7 Mother and Baby homes (3 Catholic, 4 Protestant) and 3 health and 3 homes run by social services or charities.
“The accounts of cold and uncaring treatment are truly harrowing,” said Northern Ireland First Minister, Arlene Foster, “and the separation of mothers from their children a terrible legacy.”
“Many unanswered questions remain and we want to work with victims and survivors to ensure they are supported in the right way, she continued”
“In moving forward, we must recognise the sensitivity of these issues and respect the rights and wishes of each individual. But today we give a commitment to survivors, that you will be silenced no more.”