Evening Echo News Feature: An interview with Sheila O’Byrne, Mother and Baby Home Survivor

Sheila O'Byrne“I think it’s disgusting,” says Mother and Baby Home survivor Sheila O’Byrne of plans to build an apartment block on the site of the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Cork’s Sunday’s Well. “When a dog dies, it’s treated better and it’s buried better.” By Donal  O’Keeffe.

Sheila O’Byrne lives in a lovely house off Blarney Street. A Dubliner who has made Cork her home for 30 years, Sheila’s walls are covered in photos of family and friends, certificates and documentation of her considerable achievements, and samples of her poetry.

Sheila was 19 when she was sent to St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on Dublin’s Navan Road in 1976 for the crime of being pregnant. She hasn’t seen her son since he was a little baby, taken from her arms and sold by the nuns. He’d be 41 now, wherever he is. Sheila never married, never had any other kids. “Not after what was done to me,” she says.

“I was at a dance and went back with friends of ours, back to their place. It just happened. Nobody told us about the birds and the bees! When I found out, I was in shock. My Da idolized the ground I walked on, but he went mad.”

Sheila was sent to live with a family in Greystones, but she wasn’t happy there.

“You had these private couples who would take pregnant women in, and they were paid by the State. The mother of the wife was a midwife, and the plan was she would take my baby.

“This was arranged by the Monsignor in Sandymount. The medical, the religious, the State, all in it together, like one big co-op.”

Sheila sneaked out and cashed in mineral bottles for the price of her bus-fare. Then she discovered the buses weren’t running, due to a bad storm, and she had to walk the 20 miles from Greystones to a friend’s house in Clondalkin.

“I walked through fields and fields till I got there. When my friend opened the door, I collapsed in her arms with the exhaustion.”

From there, Sheila was sent to St Patrick’s on the Navan Road.

“Where else had I to go? I couldn’t go back home. There were no choices! Your family wouldn’t take you back. You were like a leper. A landlord wouldn’t take you in.

“You weren’t told that you had a right to keep your baby. They never told you. Just sign here.”

In St Patrick’s, Sheila had a little friend called Joyce, maybe 15 months old.

“I can still see her little polka-dot white and navy dress. The nurse came in to take her away, and Joyce was screaming my name. And I watched Joyce go, and I was telling her ‘It’ll be alright, Joyce.’

“And the nurse said ‘This’ll get you ready, Sheila, for when it’s your turn. Off you pop now, back to your work.’”

Sheila says she stood up for others, and got a few scars for it.

She recalls a young woman who came in, covered with lice. Sheila went looking for the woman who worked as an overseer in St Patrick’s, but couldn’t find her. So Sheila went into the kitchen and got a matchbox. Into it, she put two lice from the young woman’s head.

“Up I went to Sister ‘Rosaleen’ with the lice in the box, and do you know what she said to me? ‘They should be glad that we took them in.’ She never mentioned they were subsidised by the State, or they wouldn’t have taken us in at all.

“‘Go back to your work,’ says she, ‘I’ll see to this.’

“So the next day, I came down from the nursery. I used to get the food, because I’d look after the babies. I’d go into the kitchen and the only thing I was allowed say was ‘I’m here for the food’. Nothing else.

“And she comes down, (the overseer) and she says ‘Who went above my authority?’ She went into the kitchen and she grabbed the slops bin and the rubbish bin and she mixed them together and threw it on the floor. She started slapping me around, and smacked my head off the wall. Kept smacking the side of my head off the wall.

“I was pumping, my nose was pumping.

“She kept punching me. She said ‘You’ll pick that up off the floor’. I said ‘I won’t’. She said [of the blows] ‘You’re making me hurt myself.’

Eventually, two other women picked the rubbish up.

“We worked from dawn till dusk, from seven in the morning straight through. The only time we got a break was for Mass on Sunday morning.”

Looking at photographs of St Patrick’s, Sheila points to the chapel, the residential section – “Look at the bars on the windows” – and “the reject ward” where disabled children were kept. “Bring that to the reject ward.”

When Sheila went into labour, she was to “walk around the grounds. I was lucky the sun was in my favour and it wasn’t raining. I was left on my own. I could have died.

“One nurse, a real villain, she said to me, ‘You’ll pay for your sins now’.

“The doctor had to be called, I was having difficulty. Forceps. I was lucky I didn’t die. There was no anaesthetic, no ante-natal care, nothing.”

Sheila’s baby was born, and she wasn’t allowed to touch him.

“The only time I was allowed touch him, the nurse brought him up into the chapel for his christening. Just to hold him in your arms once, and then he was taken.

“My Daddy gave me the money to pay for the christening. And then do you know what Mr Priest says?

“He said to me, ‘Well, Sheila, if you haven’t got the money, there’s other ways we can sort this out’. And he reached over and he touched my left breast.

“I said ‘You’re alright, Father, I have my money. I’m paying in full.’

“And the nurse came straight in and took my baby off me. ‘Back to your work.’”

Sheila’s father signed her out, after a complete year. “Only for my Daddy, I’d never have got out.”

The last time Sheila saw her son, he was three months old. After she came home, she went to visit him in Sion Hill, in Blackrock. She wasn’t allowed to touch him.

“I said ‘I just came to say goodbye to you, and I hope everything will be alright. I can’t do anything.’ I was in bits.

“When I came home, it was back to normal. Nothing was mentioned.”

30 years ago, Sheila moved to Cork. For a time, she struggled with homelessness, working six days a week in CIT yet sleeping in parked buses.

Sheila has a replica of her old uniform, a white apron over a brown smock dress. She wore it at a demonstration in Tuam. Sheila has made it her life’s work to be a support to her fellow survivors. She says she’s outside Leinster House every Friday for the Tuam Babies, and the Magdalene Laundry and Mother and Baby Home survivors.

Sheila lives near the former Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Sunday’s Well, and feels the women in the mass grave there should be exhumed, identified by DNA, and given a proper burial. She says she is sickened that a place of such horror might be concreted over and have an apartment block built on it. She thinks it should be put to better use.

“I’d like to see flats for our Magdalene survivors, so they’re not living in squalor, or homeless. I’d also like to see a centre there, a training facility, and a museum of the experience of Magdalene survivors. And flats for the elderly and the homeless.”

Originally published in the Evening Echo on Thursday 18 January 2018.

The Cult of Little Nellie of Holy God, and the Magdalenes who lie unmourned beside her

Little NellieLetter to the Editor, The Irish Examiner, Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dear Sir,

The Bishop of Cork and Ross, John Buckley, wants the body of “Little Nellie” to be exhumed from its grave at the now-derelict Good Shepherd Convent site in Sunday Well (Irish Examiner, 18 August).

Ellen Organ was a five year old girl who died in 1908. Her short life was marked by ill health and extreme religious devotion. After her death, she attained a certain celebrity as the “unofficial patron saint of Cork” and her grave became, for a time, a site of pilgrimage.

The Bishop told RTÉ News that he favours exhuming her remains and moving them to “a more public place”. It may have slipped the Bishop’s notice – and that of the locals – but Little Nellie is not alone in the Good Shepherd grounds. There are also two mass graves on the site, pits containing the bodies of unknown numbers of women who lived anonymous lives of suffering and shame, and who died in the service of the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry.

By all means, exhume Little Nellie. Exhume all of the bodies. That site should be declared a crime scene and the Catholic institutions responsible for those deaths should be held to account.

In the meantime, by all means, say a prayer for Little Nellie but don’t forget all of the women who died unloved and unmourned in the “care” of the Good Shepherd Convent.

Donal O’Keeffe

Fermoy

Co Cork

Letter to the Editor, The Irish Examiner, Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dear Sir,

I refer to the letter by Donal O’Keeffe (‘Families sent their daughters to laundries’ – The Irish Examiner, August 24).

I expect him to answer a few questions with honesty and common sense. What exactly does he mean by saying that the nuns were responsible for their – the Magdalene girls’ – deaths?

Why didn’t the families claim their daughters’ remains?

Last but not least – no cliches, Donal – why did they let their daughters go there in the first place?

Sheila Griffin

Blennerville

Tralee

Co Kerry

Letter to the Editor, The Irish Examiner, Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dear Sir,

Sheila Griffin asks what I meant when I said (Letters, August 24) that Catholic institutions were responsible for the deaths of girls and women who died whilst incarcerated in Magdalene laundries.

Given that these girls and women lived lives (in some cases, whole lives) of brutality, drudgery, and shame, stripped of all basic human rights — even their names — while working for free for the financial benefit of those Catholic institutions, I think my meaning could hardly be clearer.

Ms Griffin asks why families sent their daughters to Magdalene laundries and why, at the end of their wasted lives, those families did not claim their bodies. Ms Griffin urges that I answer her with “honesty and common sense” and without resorting to clichés. I’ll do my best with the first two, but the last may present me with a difficulty.

Is it a cliché to say that girls and women were sent to the laundries for the sin of having had unsanctioned (and not always consensual) sex?

Is it a cliché to say that families behaved as they did because of the curtain-twitching Ireland in which they lived?

Is it a cliché to say that Ireland was corrupted from top to bottom by a sex-obsessed version of Catholicism which resulted in an Ireland where family bonds took second place to “respectability”, where girls and women identified only by their initials slaved their lives away and where 796 dead children lie unidentified in a mass grave in Tuam?

Donal O’Keeffe

Fermoy

Co Cork

Letter to the Editor, The Irish Examiner, Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dear Sir,

My computer – ancient like myself – broke down, and I was unable to reply to Donal O’Keeffe’s letter in response to my letter of August 24.

I owe Donal an apology for goading him to rant and rave. I hold no brief for the Magdalene homes, but we mustn’t judge the past with bags over our heads.

And good heavens, how good we are at that!

He didn’ t answer my questions . He didn’t explain how the nuns were” criminally responsible” for the girls’ deaths, and he certainly glossed over the part played by the girls’ families.

I haven’t read the McAleese report but has anyone ever passed judgement on the behaviour of the families ?

It was the families who, after all, “gave” the girls to the nuns. Did these families ever visit them?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how unmarried mothers were treated, in bygone days, in other jurisdictions where the Catholic Church had no influence.

Were they “sequestered from the world in a rural farmhouse” as Lydia Bennett might have been, if Mr Darcy hadn’t bribed Mr Wickham to marry her? (Pride and Prejudice)

Yes Donal, the Magdalene homes weren’t happy places, to put it mildly, but the reasons for that were complex indeed, so please take the proverbial bag off your head and stop judging the past by the present.

Sheila Griffin

Blennerville

Tralee

Letter to the Editor, The Irish Examiner, Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dear Sir,

With regard to the Magdalene Laundries, (1st September,) I am urged by Ms Sheila Griffin to not judge the past by the standards of the present and, rather than question the Catholic institutions that owned the laundries and benefited financially from slave labour, I should look instead at the families of the girls and women incarcerated in the alleged care of the Church.

Ms Griffin claims she holds no brief to defend the Magdalene Laundries and then departs on such a lengthy flight of whataboutery that she wouldn’t look out of place on the Northern Executive.

Whataboutery is a common practice of those who wish to distract from the misdeeds of those they defend. Typically, this is done by whatabouting the crimes of others. Whatabout the families, asks Ms Griffin. Whatabout non-Catholic countries. Whatabout something about Pride and Prejudice (I confess I tuned out slightly once she started on the Jane Austin).

Invoking the behaviour of families who sent girls to the laundries can never excuse the inhumanity of the nuns who ran those institutions but this is a standard tactic of whataboutery.

Another great trick is to say “It was all a long time ago. Ireland was very different then. We are all responsible. Therefore, ultimately, no-one is responsible.”

I believe the nuns – and their orders – should be held criminally responsible for the deaths of those in their care, but Ms Griffin says we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. Fair enough.

Could we instead, perhaps, measure the purveyors of Christianity by the standards of Christ?

Remember, Jesus advocated that those who would harm children should have a millstone tied to their necks and that they be flung into the deepest depths of the ocean.

Perhaps a criminal prosecution isn’t good enough after all.

Yours sincerely,

Donal O’Keeffe

Related: Please read my column in TheJournal.ie

The story of the Cork 4-year-old who is the reason First Communion age is now 7