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.

Direct Provision is no place for these families

“I do not tell him about Santa,” Cindy (not her real name) says, lowering her voice so her three-and-a-half year old son doesn’t hear.

“He hears about Santa from other children but I have to keep his expectations low. The presents he will get will come from charity.

“We are very grateful for the kindness but he cannot get his hopes up. I do not want to break his heart.”

It’s just before Christmas. Cindy and her son have met me for a chat in a hotel lobby in a Munster town. Over the fireplace, Christmas lights wink on and off. Cindy’s son, Aaron, shouts “Broken! Fix!”

Cindy stops him from going at the lights and tells me that she, her husband and Aaron have lived for the past two years in a Direct Provision centre outside of the town. Most locals are barely aware of the centre.

“Christmas Day is the same day as every day,” says Cindy. “The staff will not be there, so we have cold food they leave for us and the day is very long.”

Cindy is South African. Her husband, Joshua, is Nigerian. She was a supervisor in a marketing company in Johannesburg and her husband was a businessman. She says they came to Ireland because they faced persecution as Joshua was a non-national. She says they were attacked and threatened with murder.

Cindy and Joshua chose to come to Ireland because they didn’t need a visa and came here because they are Catholic and liked Ireland. On arrival, they applied for asylum. Their application was rejected because South Africa is not recognised as a conflict zone. They appealed the decision and their appeal was rejected. They have appealed again.

The cycle of rejection and appeal is a common story, although it is unusual for asylum-seekers to actually pick their destination as Cindy and her husband did. Most asylum-seekers are smuggled here and have no idea where they even are when they arrive in Ireland.

Cindy says that she is shocked at the levels of violence in the Direct Provision centre.

“There are a lot of fights. Gardaí call all the time. It is always women. These are desperate women suffering from boredom and depression. ‘Are you looking at my husband?’ Stupid stuff. ‘What are you looking at?’ Sometimes we fight over food. Like animals.”

As we chat, Cindy’s son shouts and runs around, ignoring Cindy as she tries to calm him. She is mortified by his acting out but then she tells me she is worried about his behaviour.

“He goes crazy here because he usually has no space. Because he spends all his time with us. One small room. This cannot be healthy.”

In another Direct Provision centre in the south, later the same day, I speak with a number of women who tell me that Christmas Day will be for them and their children “A nothing day. Less than a nothing day”.

Like Cindy, “Katherine” too is from South Africa. Similarly, she says her husband being a non-national led to their having to flee to escape persecution. She has two small children, a boy of four and a one-year-old girl. She alleges that the food in her Direct Provision centre is very poor.

“If we have chicken today, we have the same chicken tomorrow and the next day the same chicken in Uncle Ben’s sweet’n’sour sauce. Or if it’s beef on Monday, the same beef on Tuesday and beef stew with the same beef on Wednesday.

“Are we animals? Are we dogs that you feed scraps?”

She says she has not made a formal complaint for fear of being moved to another centre. Bad as she says things are, she fears her family being uprooted again. She claims that when the Reception and Integration Agency – the State body which oversees privately-run Direct Provision centres – inspects the facility, food quality improves dramatically.

I asked the Department of Justice – which is ultimately responsible for RIA – for a comment. I was told:

“RIA has a complaints procedure.. which resolves to deal with problems quickly and efficiently.

“RIA oversees a comprehensive and detailed inspections system of asylum seeker accommodation. Inspections are carried out by an in-house inspectorate within RIA and also by an independent company with expertise in fire and food safety.”

The problem is that people in Direct Provision have deportation orders hanging over their heads and most are terrified to complain.

Katherine’s friend “Jennifer” tells me to call her that, “like Jennifer Aniston”. She’s a young Muslim woman from Pakistan who fled her home because she married outside of her caste.

She and her husband fled under threat of a so-called “honour killing”. Jennifer has two boys. A three-year-old and a newborn.

Jennifer and Katherine are both Muslim and say that Islam doesn’t celebrate Christmas. However, they say they live in a country that has Christmas and they’d like their kids to enjoy that. “We want to belong in Ireland,” says Katherine.

“I have to ask,” I say, “because if I don’t, someone else will say I should have, but how did you both end up on an island that’s the last stop before America?”

“America?” says Katherine, misunderstanding my point. “We would not go to America!”

“Oh no,” says Jennifer, eyes wide with horror. “Not with what is happening there now!”

As they realise their misunderstanding, the three of us crack up laughing. It’s a rare moment of levity in grim surroundings. (Jennifer says she and her husband were smuggled here. Katherine and her husband came here from South Africa.)

“At the end of November there were 1,098 children in Direct Provision. The average length of stay in Direct Provision is around 2 years 9 months,” says Nick Henderson of the Irish Refugee Council.

“The Irish Refugee Council, along with various different organisations and individuals including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Special Rapporteur for Children, Geoffrey Shannon, and most recently Minister Katherine Zappone have called for an end to Direct Provision. In the interim, living conditions should be improved.

“We need a system that embodies the best interests of the child, allows for self-determination and privacy, is based on care and not profit, identifies and supports individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities, allows for independent complaints mechanisms and provides for the right to work.

“Saturday 10th of December, International Human Rights Day, was the anniversary of the direct provision allowance being introduced in 1999,” notes Henderson. “That allowance, €19.10, hasn’t changed since, despite inflation and the considerable increase in living costs. The Christmas bonus for people in Direct Provision was just €16.23 for adults and €13.26 for their children. Christmas can expose existing poverty in our society, not least for people living in Direct Provision.”

‘Temporary shelter’ is damaging people

Direct Provision was originally planned as a temporary solution to provide shelter for asylum-seekers for approximately six months but many people spend years in conditions which have been condemned by the United Nations and international human rights groups.

Direct Provision gives asylum-seekers their bed and board and it prohibits them from working. Asylum-seekers get €19.10 a week. Children get €15.50. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for free third-level education.

Currently we have 4,300 people in 34 Direct Provision centres across the State. A third of them are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.

Direct Provision centres, which include former hotels, hostels and a mobile home park, are run by private contractors who receive about €50 million per year in State funding.

Until now, parents have not been allowed to cook for their children and many say they have lost their sense of independence. Sue Conlon, formerly of the Irish Refugee Council, notes that some children in Direct Provision – crammed into close proximity with adults (and not just their parents) – are seeing things they should not see and are replicating behaviour they should not understand.

“We have created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children,” she says. “This is a recipe for horrors.”

Ireland has warehoused asylum-seekers in Direct Provision centres since 1999. Direct Provision was introduced as a temporary, six-month, solution at a time when annual asylum applications were 10,938. Applications peaked in 2002 at 11,600.

Last year we had 1,448 asylum applications.

In EU terms, Ireland has a lower than average number of asylum applications per head of capita. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ireland received 1.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 population between 2010 and 2014. The EU average is 3.5 per 1,000 and, over the same period, Sweden received 24 applications per 1,000 population.

Ireland only accepts approximately 5% to 6% of asylum applicants upon first application. The European average is somewhere between 26% and 28%.

Ireland remains the only country in the EU, other than Lithuania, that does not allow asylum applicants access to the labour market at any stage during the asylum process.

A number of prominent figures, including the former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, have predicted that a future Taoiseach will end up standing in the Dáil and publicly apologising for damage done by the Direct Provision system.

We should demand dignity, kindness and respect for all

In August of this year, an asylum-seeker from Korea, a woman in her thirties, took her own life in the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, which houses 200 or so people. She was the mother of a six-year-old boy.

“She lived in the same block as me,” one woman, a fellow asylum-seeker, told RTÉ’s Brian O’Connell in the wake of the tragedy. “Lovely lady, very private, and didn’t choose to mingle with people. It was obvious that she had issues, but she chose to remain private about them.

“Lively. A real live wire,” she says of her late neighbour’s son. “He interacted very, very well with other children. Very sweet and loved his mum dearly. And she loved him as well. You could see. When it came to her son, you could see how much she loved him.”

That little boy is now an orphan and in the care of Túsla.

“Depression, sometimes, is within and you carry it wherever you go. Certainly your circumstances can and might exacerbate a situation you already have,” the dead woman’s neighbour told Brian O’Connell.

Brian O’Connell points out that 90% of asylum-seekers will have suffered from some form of depression. O’Connell notes that sixty-one asylum seekers, including sixteen children under the age of 6, have died in Direct Provision centres between 2002 and 2014. That is, he says, out of an asylum-seeker population during those years of just over 50,000.

If, like many of us, you don’t know the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, it is – as you drive out to Cork Airport – on the left-hand corner immediately before, and beside, the Bull McCabe’s Bar. If – as an Irish citizen – you are interested in meeting our guests, the men, women and children living in Direct Provision, the residents on Kinsale Road are always delighted to get visitors.

All you need to do is call to the gate and talk to the security guards. Tell them that you’d like to meet some of the people who are living in our country as our guests. If they turn you down – and they almost certainly will turn you down – then ask to make an appointment.

(The usual excuse is “privacy concerns”, which is an interesting line of argument when some asylum-seekers are forced to share bedrooms with total strangers.)

Please think about bringing gifts of toys or books when you call. Santa will always do his best for the kids in there, but Santa never turned down a kindness either.

As Irish citizens, as tax-payers, we all pay for the Direct Provision system and – as we are responsible for it – we surely have a duty to make sure that our guests are treated with dignity, kindness and respect.

Originally published in the Evening Echo 28th December 2016

Evening Echo Opinion: Frozen out of the housing market – so fix it

Conventional political wisdom says there are no votes in fixing homelessness. Maybe that explains our spiralling housing crisis.

homelessIn 2011, 34 people slept rough for one night or more in Cork City. Last year, that figure was 284. As of the end of October this year, there are 311 people sleeping rough on the streets of Ireland’s second city.

By any measure, that’s a damning indictment of the Government which came to power in 2011. That said, horrible as it is, people sleeping rough is only the tip of a far greater problem.

Last week I visited the Cork Simon Community soup kitchen for a chat with the staff and to see first-hand the services they provide. A hot meal is given to anyone who needs it, in a warm, secure environment and most evenings up to fifty people call in. Almost half of them are in private rented accommodation. It’s no exaggeration to say that people who cannot afford to feed themselves are potentially only one rent payment away from homelessness.

The weeks around the recent Budget saw a lengthy stand-off between the Departments of Finance and Environment on the twin issues of rent certainty and rent allowance. The conflict centred on the seemingly unstoppable force of Labour’s Environment Minister Alan Kelly meeting the apparently immovable object of Fine Gael’s Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

Kelly was pushing for rent certainty and an increase in rent allowance. Noonan was reportedly having none of it, saying that rent certainty would interfere with the market and that landlords would just up rents to swallow up any increase in rent allowance.

The front line of homelessness

Now, if you wanted to find out about any issue, you’d talk to the experts, wouldn’t you? If you wanted to find out about – say – homelessness, you’d go to the people on the front line of helping the homeless on a daily, nightly, hourly basis.

People like Sister Stan of Focus Ireland, Brother Kevin of the Capuchin Day Centre and Father Peter McVerry. People like the Simon Community.

The people who know most about homelessness all speak with one voice on an immediate way to help prevent more yet people falling between the cracks: increase rent allowance and guarantee rent certainty. Rent allowance hasn’t increased in two-and-a-half years and in that time rents are up by up to 30%. Landlords would be prevented from increasing rents to absorb any rent allowance increase if tenants had rent certainty.

The Kelly/Noonan stand-off eventually resolved itself in the decision that rent supplement would not be increased but rents would be frozen for two years.

Speaking personally as someone living in private rented accommodation, the news of an impending rent freeze resulted in my getting a panicky call from my landlord suggesting that I might like to have a chat – as a matter of some urgency – about a 20% rent increase. Anecdotal evidence on Twitter suggests I’m far from alone.

The rent freeze was signed into law by President Higgins on the 4th of December. It certainly grants breathing room to those currently in private rented accommodation but without an increase in rent allowance it does nothing to help those currently stuck in emergency accommodation and those frozen out of a skyrocketing rental market.

As of September, there are 200 people in emergency accommodation in Cork. Those are the people who have fallen between the cracks, out of private rented accommodation but – to be simplistic – who are not yet sleeping on the streets.

Homelessness is a huge problem, one with myriad causes and one which – for Government – has no immediately obvious easy solution. We had a “Super-Junior” minister (Jan O’Sullivan) with responsibility for connecting the different departments involved in tackling homelessness – for instance, Social Protection, Environment and Health – but that position was reshuffled out of existence last year.

Talking with Simon staff as people eat their dinners in an environment of dignity and respect, I’m left with the impression that Jan O’Sullivan’s old position needs to be reinstated as a matter of urgency. I’m offered several suggestions as to how we might begin to get to work at fixing homelessness but they all seem to depend on political goodwill.

For instance, as of September, there are 424 social houses currently boarded up in Cork City and 268 more in the county.

Supply is an obvious problem in our housing crisis and it seems obvious that we need to look at new builds in social housing and – perhaps – incentivising landlords to rent to people living currently in homelessness. We also need to look at the type of accommodation on offer. Most of the accommodation currently available in Cork is two and three bedroom, but the majority of homeless people are single.

As in all politics, joined-up thinking is vital. As is goodwill. Again, it seems a “Minister for Homelessness” would be a godsend for some of the most vulnerable people in our Republic.

Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan’s “war of words”

Speaking of politics, surely given their bitter fight over the issue of rent and the fact that the day-to-day lives of real and very desperate people depended upon their decisions, tensions must still run high between Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan?

Miriam O’Callaghan certainly seemed to think so, on RTÉ’s Prime Time as the alleged hostilities raged.

“What will happen next in the war of words between the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly?” she asked. According to the Irish TimesMiriam Lord, Noonan and Kelly were actually having a pint together in the Dáil members’ bar and watching the telly as O’Callaghan spoke.

It was Noonan’s round.

“Give us two more pints there, Peadar,” the Finance Minister allegedly said, “and turn off that auld shite while you’re at it.”

Conventional political wisdom says there are no votes in fixing homelessness. Maybe conventional political wisdom is right, but you’ll have a lot of people looking for your vote in the New Year.

If you want to fix homelessness, tell them your vote depends on it.

♦ Cork Simon can be contacted on corksimon.ie or 021 4278728

(Published in the Evening Echo, 17th December 2015)

Donal O’Keeffe

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


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



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


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



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

Cork Evening Echo Opinion Column: My experience of canvassing for marriage equality

My feet were sore and my back was at me.

It was two days to the Marriage Equality referendum and I’d taken some time off work to help with Yes Equality Cork. I had never canvassed for anything in my life and my experience of going door-to-door in rural towns and villages had been almost universally positive. I was finding standing on the street in Cork a lot more daunting.


Outside the city library at lunchtime, I decided a friendly, indirect approach was best.  Holding my Yes Equality leaflets in my hand, I greeted people “Hello! Are you voting on Friday?” The most common answer I got was along the lines of “I am voting. And I’m voting Yes.” Some people said they hadn’t made their minds up yet. I asked if they had any worries or doubts and almost all said they didn’t, which led me to suspect they were either No voters or else they genuinely didn’t care.

As a rule, I tried to avoid confrontation. Getting into a public slanging match would be hugely counter-productive, I felt, especially as I was representing a cause I believed to be so very important. Anyway, the entire purpose of the campaign was to be gently persuasive and it would have been a waste of time and energy to argue for long with confirmed No voters.

A tweedy gentleman, coming across from the Grand Parade fountain, quoted Leviticus at me. I gave him the President Bartlet reply, pointing out that while Leviticus does indeed say homosexuality is an abomination, it says the same thing about wearing cloth of two different threads or touching the flesh of a dead pig. He was having none of it. I also told him that, for Christians, the New Testament supplants the Old, and of the 41,071 words attributed to Jesus, nary a one did he utter on the subject of homosexuality. Unimpressed, he bade me a good day but I suspected he didn’t mean it. He had precisely seven white hairs on his nose.

By Bishop Lucey Park, a woman not much older than me told me angrily “Your kind have this country ruined”. As a middle-aged, heterosexual man, I had to reluctantly agree with her.

Of course I met a hundred times more people who were lovely – Yes and No voters – but it’s human nature to be rattled by extreme reactions.

In the afternoon sunshine outside the Crawford Gallery, a young busker with an electric guitar was banging out some impressive Rory Gallagher licks. I was enjoying the tunes and the chats with friendly people who smiled at me and who said of course they were voting Yes. Then a man with distracted eyes got in my face and roared “SAINT PAUL SAID NEITHER AN EFFEMINATE MAN NOR A MASCULINE WOMAN MAY ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN!” I told him he could have the Kingdom of Heaven, that all we want is equality in the Republic of Ireland. He then repeated his Pauline bellow and, being a Christian, he also told me to do something anatomically unfeasible to myself.

I left him to his ranting and headed to Paul Street. I stood at the end of French Church Street, saying “Well, you’re very welcome to Ireland anyway” to the seemingly hundreds of Canadian tourists apologising that they couldn’t vote.

Then two young men, walking close together, came toward me from Rory Gallagher Plaza. “Hello,” I said. “Are you voting on Friday?” They gave me the most beautiful smiles and held up their joined hands.

I thought that was a really mean thing to do, to make a grown man cry in public like that.

I got involved with Yes Equality about a month before the referendum. Prior to that, I had written a few newspaper articles on the subject and had been something of a keyboard warrior. I just felt it was time to put my money where my mouth was. Also, I have gay friends and I felt I couldn’t look them in the eye if I didn’t speak up when Ireland was being asked whether we considered their love to be equal.

I did what I could, which really wasn’t that much – in truth, I felt ashamed at how seldom I was able to join the canvass, when some people turned out every single night.

Still, it was my honour to be involved in the Yes Equality campaign. I am ridiculously proud to have been a tiny part of a national movement which resulted in Ireland becoming the very first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote. I met so many extraordinary people. I met people canvassing for their friends, for their children, for their families, for their love. I made new friends, LGBT and straight, from every walk of life.

I met so many decent, kind and generous people on the doorsteps too. Young parents who were delighted to see us. At his Mam’s request, I gave my second-last Yes Equality Cork badge to a small boy in Shanballymore.

There was an elderly lady on a walking frame in Conna, who said she believed in “live and let live” and had gay friends herself.

There was a big gruff man who told me I was wasting my breath, as he was a member of the Defence Forces and had already voted. And then he gave a slow smile and said “And I voted Yes.”

Finally, there was a man in his eighties, standing in his doorway in Castletownroche, the evening before the vote, his eyes brimming with tears. He told us his wife would probably be too ill to vote but that we were assured at least of his Yes. He said he had never in his life missed a vote and this would “probably” be his last. He said he wanted it to count.

“I have to look after those coming along behind me. I want to leave Ireland better than I found it.”

Donal O’Keeffe

Originally published as an op-ed in The Cork Evening Echo on 28/5/2015

Evening Echo Op Ed: It’s not about YES or NO, it’s all about LOVE #MarRef

On May 22nd we will be asked to extend to gay couples the same Constitutional rights and guarantees enjoyed by heterosexual couples. That’s all. Regardless of the No campaign’s hysteria, this isn’t about fear. It’s about love.

I had a pint last week with an old classmate of mine, a man with whom I’d never really got along. Had we grown up in America, where he’s lived now for nearly thirty years, he would have been a Biff Tannen type jock.

Someone in our company, a retired teacher with conservative opinions, said to me “I see you were in the wars!” (A woman with extremist Catholic views had written a letter to a local paper, denouncing LGBT people as “sodomites”. I and others had replied strongly to her homophobic ranting.) Our conversation then naturally turned to the Marriage Equality Referendum.

“Look,” I said, expecting an argument, “everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And their religion. But no-one is entitled to demean anyone for being exactly as God or nature made them. That’s why I wrote that letter. That’s why I’m voting Yes. I don’t want to see gay kids – and that’s about 10% of Ireland’s population – growing up in a country that doesn’t respect them as equals.”

“So,” drawled my now-Irish-American buddy, after a long swig from his Guinness, “What are we talking here? This vote? Is this about gays getting to sanctify their love in civil law? Is this about you guys saying okay, look, gays are the same as any other citizen?

“‘Cause I gotta tell you, I’m all on board with that. I mean, love is pretty cool, right? Why deny anyone the right to love?”

The retired teacher took a sup of his pint and confided “The way I look at it, it’s not going to change my marriage one iota. If two adults are in love and want to get married, who am I to judge them?”

To be honest, I was pretty surprised and heartened by this conversation. Despite the Yes campaign’s seemingly-overwhelming lead in the polls, I worry that this lead is very soft indeed.

I agree with some on the No side that many politicians are only paying lip service to the all-party support for the upcoming referendum. One local councillor all-but wept to me recently for his love of equality and his intention to vote Yes. Shortly after, in the pub at the heart of his vote, he declared loudly that enough is enough and it’s time for rural Ireland to stand up for “traditional family values”. I doubt very much he’s the only sleeveen in the village.

There’s a cheap, dog-whistle nastiness to the phrase “traditional family values”. It ties to the stated strategy of some in the No campaign to sow what they refer to as “doubt” about the effect of a Yes vote on “the children”. The Simpsons parodied such stunt-acting with the Reverend Lovejoy’s wife, who regularly screeches “Oh won’t someone PLEASE think of the children?” Hence the No campaign’s attempted introduction of unrelated issues such as adoption and surrogacy.

Last week I attended the first meeting of the Avondhu branch of Yes Equality Cork in Fermoy’s Grand Hotel. There, Dave Roche of Yes Equality stressed that he believes civil marriage equality is not simply an LGBT rights issue but rather a matter of vital importance to all of civil society.

“Those saying ‘Isn’t civil partnership enough for them’ miss the point. Civil partnership is the result of legislation and could be removed at the stroke of a pen by a change of government, whereas civil marriage equality will extend to gay couples the same Constitutional rights and guarantees straight couples now enjoy.

“This isn’t about IVF, surrogacy, adoption or any of the other red herrings being thrown around. It’s very simply about giving Constitutional protection to civil unions. That’s all. It’s about equality, yes, but really it’s about fairness.”

Roche points out that – for all the alarmism about “redefining marriage” – redefining marriage is something we have done many times in Ireland, with the Protection of Spouses and Children Act, with divorce, and with the introduction of radical ideas like wives being able to refuse to have sex with their husbands or, indeed, women no longer being property to be handed from fathers to husbands.

Roche makes a convincing case. Marriage rights for all adults can surely only strengthen society. Your marriage – if you’re lucky enough to be married – is no more lessened by homosexual people getting married than it is by other heterosexual people getting married.

I believe that equality should be the cornerstone of our Republic. I believe that we should cherish all our children equally. Yes, this is us, the citizens of Ireland, simply extending to gay couples the same civil guarantees and rights enjoyed by straight couples, but it’s so much more than that too.

A Yes vote on May 22nd will send a powerful message of tolerance, respect and love. “Oh won’t someone please think of the children?” A Yes vote will say to our children – of whom roughly one in ten is gay – you are Irish and regardless of the colour of your eyes, the shape of your face or the love in your heart – you are as “normal” and as extraordinary as every child of this Republic.

A Yes vote is a vote for love.

Vote Yes.

Originally published in the Cork Evening Echo on Thursday 30th April 2015.

Evening Echo interview with Julie Feeney

“People in Cork really know their music,” says award-winning singer-composer Julie Feeney. “Cork audiences are steeped in culture and it’s always a privilege playing to them.” This month she returns to Cork to perform her first full show in the Cork Opera House.


Two years ago, in the sort of rave review more established acts might kill for, The New York Times said “A brainy, adventurous Irish songwriter lives within the flamboyant theatricality of Julie Feeney… Ms. Feeney’s songs don’t shout. They tease, ponder, reminisce, philosophize and invent parables, and she sings them in a plush, changeable mezzo-soprano that usually holds a kindly twinkle.”

Feeney’s 2005 self-produced debut album, the eerily beautiful “13 Songs”, deservedly won the inaugural Choice Music Prize. Since then, her career has blossomed in the intervening years, with hits like “Love Is A Tricky Thing” and “Impossibly Beautiful“, from 2009’s “pages” propelling the Galway native to ever-greater heights. 2012’s crowd-funded “Clocks” went straight to Number One on the Independent Irish Album Charts and was voted the Irish Times Album of the Year.

I spoke with Feeney last week and she expressed her excitement at the upcoming concert in Cork Opera House. “I’ve performed there twice before, two small slots, one for UCC’s FUAIM and the other for the opening of the Opera House season launch. This time, I’m going to have the Cork Youth Chamber Orchestra with me to perform some of my songs.

“It’s a beautiful room, a very intimate room, and while it feels like it’s a very big space, it’s not at all when you’re on stage. There’s a feeling of history there, too, a feeling that you’re standing in a significant place.”

I first heard Julie Feeney almost a decade ago on John Kelly’s late and still-lamented RTÉ Radio show “The Mystery Train”. Before interviewing Feeney, I asked Kelly for a comment.

“Julie’s a seriously talented innovator. She’s also a performer of the highest order. In other words, she’s a real artist.”

                                                                                 – John Kelly

A special part of a Julie Feeney performance involves her moving through the audience and singing to individual people. “I take doing that for granted,” she says. “It feels natural, it feels instinctive for me to do that.” Someone obviously impressed by one such performance last year was no less a Hollywood light than Steven Spielberg.

“It was an Oscar Party (in L.A.). Actually, I was wearing a dress from The Dress Bar in Cork and the Clocks headpiece that Mary Ginnifer designed for me. I was the headline act for JJ Abrams’ party so I was on at the end of the night. As I was singing “Impossibly Beautiful”, I just saw this guy with a baseball cap and he had this black iPhone. Next thing there was a whoosh! of photographers who all went over to that side of the room and I thought ‘No, he couldn’t be, he couldn’t be. That couldn’t be Steven Spielberg filming me on his iPhone. Could it?’

Julie Spielberg

Recognise the lad in the baseball cap beside JJ Abrams?

“And we got a photograph as well. Because there were so many photographers, there was actually a photograph. You can see him with his iPhone and me in it. So we have proof!”

Feeney has played venues in Cork city and county “a disproportionate number of times because I keep getting invited back” and has made three of her videos here. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with the über-talented Cork based Epic Productions, where a whole team of inspired people make some outstanding videos. I also composed the music and included my own songs for their film ‘Stolen’. That film is actually one of the things I have done that I’m most proud of.”

Three years ago, Feeney raised €23,000 on the crowd-funding site FundIt for the production of her album ‘Clocks’. It remains FundIt’s most successful project. (“I’ve worked out that it takes exactly three years to get over a FundIt!”)

I ask her about the current state of the Irish music industry and she hesitantly expresses disquiet at U2’s controversial decision to sell their new album to Apple for a reported $100 million dollars with subsequent free release to iTunes subscribers. “I love U2 and I’m a huge, huge fan, but to me this is just a little hard to take. It really feels like ‘We can do whatever we want – and we just did’.”

She goes on to talk about meeting a fan who told her that she loved Feeney’s music and listened to it all the time – for free on MySpace. “I think that just reflects an attitude toward paying for music.”

On media reports that U2 and Apple are working on a revolutionary new “non-piratable, interactive digital concept”, Feeney says “I am intrigued by how you can go from selling your album for a hundred million to iTunes and then you go the complete opposite and design something that’s going to save the music industry. How do the two fit together? Maybe give (U2) the benefit of the doubt, but something about this makes me very uncomfortable.

“It feels like ‘To hell with everyone else’. And to talk about a new model? It better be amazing. It better be mind-blowing.”

I ask after her next album. “Album Four is floating in the ether. It’s very different again. I think I’m informed this time by performing live, the way that I feel when I’m performing live. It’s going to be more music-based, it’s going to be about the music. When I perform live, the music is arranged in a different way every time and that playing around has influenced the sound of the next album. In terms of concepts, it’s not like “Clocks” which was all about Galway and family history, this next one is purely coming from musical ideas and the words are coming from there too.

“It comes from inside. It definitely comes from silence. All I do is I just feel it, and hear it and then I just follow and I put that down. I don’t even know why it is or why the next thing comes. I just hear it.”

Is it a phrase of music or a phrase of words? “Both. Sometimes together, sometimes separately. And sometimes a phrase might marry an existing piece of music in your head.”

I tell her that I recently interviewed Cork broadcaster John Creedon for the Evening Echo and he spoke of reading Mozart’s claim that, if only he could avoid distraction, “the music will come to me, not one note at a time, not even one movement at a time, but in its entirety. Finished.”

Feeney seems taken aback when I tell her that Creedon told me “I get that from artists like Julie Feeney. Same with Van Morrison.” She laughs. “Wow! I’ve a lot to do before I’m in that sort of company! John has always been very supportive of me and I played a session for his show once, so that’s very much appreciated.”

Julie Feeney is warm, personable and enthusiastic. She exudes positivity but there’s steel there too and, not for the first time, I find myself pitying the problem that would dare to get in her way.

I ask if she’s looking forward to playing in Cork Opera House. “Cannot wait,” she says. “Can. Not. Wait.”

Julie Feeney plays Cork Opera House on Friday, 17th of October. Her album “Clocks” is available on iTunes.

First published in the Evening Echo 16/10/14

Cherishing all the children, one unmarked grave at a time



Irish Mail on Sunday, 25th of May 2014

“Cherish all the children equally” is a defining Irish shibboleth, enshrined in Ireland’s Proclamation of Independence. It is one of our highest aspirations and, like most of the things we Irish hold dearest, it is build on a solid foundation of utter hypocrisy.

Cherish all the children? By all available evidence, we Irish don’t even like children. I’ve written about this before and I’m sure I will again. Ireland really is no country for small children.

The Irish Mail on Sunday reports that up to eight hundred children may be buried in an unmarked mass grave in Tuam, Co Galway, on the former grounds of an institution known locally as “The Home”. (Local knowledge says that there is no “may” about this.) Run by the Bon Secours nuns, “The Home”, which had previously been a workhouse, operated between 1926 and 1961 and over the years housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their “illegitimate” children.

Alison O’Reilly reports in the Mail that the causes of death for “as many as 796 children” included “malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia”. The children, some as small as babies, were interred, without the benefit of a coffin, in what is described as “a concrete tank” and “a water tank”. It would only be marginally more disrespectful to those poor kids if their bodies had been dumped in what I first suspected it was, namely a septic tank.

In 2014, a housing estate covers the land. There are real homes there now, proper homes where families live and children play. I hope it’s a happy place.

Expect to see the usual contortionist contextualising from the Irish Catholic and the Iona “Institute” as the Defenders of the Faith trot out their well-practised “few bad apples” lines. “The vast majority of Catholic institutions did great good for Irish children,” they’ll tell us if this ever makes it to Prime Time. They’ll wring their hands and drip sweet insincerity that times were different then and nobody knew how bad it was, as they are again “silenced” in their weekly columns in the Irish Times and the Irish Independent but the simple truth is they’ll be lying.

We knew. We just didn’t care.

In 1946 the internationally-acclaimed hero of “Boys Town”, Roscommon-born Father Edward Flanagan, visited the land of his birth. Flanagan, who had become a reluctant celebrity since the 1938 smash hit film starring Spencer Tracey immortalised him, had founded Boys Town in 1917 as a centre of education and shelter for poor and neglected boys in Omaha, Nebraska. His philosophy was built around a simple and powerful belief: “There is no such thing as a bad boy”.


Father Edward Flanagan with some of the boys of Boys Town

There were no fences around Boys Town because Father Flanagan said “This is a home. You do not wall in members of your own family.” Flanagan treated the boys in his care with compassion and respect and his kindness showed such success that he became known as “the world’s foremost expert on boys’ training and youth care.”

Father Flanagan was horrified by what he saw here, denouncing Ireland’s treatment of children in Church and State care as “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong”.

Flanagan told a public gathering in Cork’s Savoy Cinema: “You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go into these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it.” Calling Ireland’s penal institutions “a disgrace to the nation,” he said “I do not believe that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character.”

Nobody listened. The then Minister for Justice, Gerald Boland, dismissed in the Dáil Father Flanagan’s reports of children beaten with “the cat o’ nine tails, the rod, and the fist”.

“I was not disposed to take any notice of what Monsignor Flanagan said while he was in this country,” Boland told the House, “because his statements were so exaggerated that I did not think people would attach any importance to them.”

Nobody listened.

But we’ve changed now, seventy years later, of course. We’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and we really do cherish all the children now, don’t we?

Well, we’ve just had the European and Local Elections and turnout was high, by our standards, as 57% of the electorate went to the polls to administer to the Government a well-earned kick in the arse. Compare that to the turnout for the Children’s Rights Referendum of 2012. For all our guff about cherishing children and for all our crocodile tears, when we were offered the chance to enshrine in the Constitution the rights of children, only 33.5% of us could be bothered to vote.

That says it all.

Back home in the US, Father Flanagan addressed his Irish countrymen and women:

“What you need over there is to have someone shake you loose from your smugness and satisfaction and set an example by punishing those who are guilty of cruelty, ignorance and neglect of their duties in high places . . . I wonder what God’s judgment will be with reference to those who hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their God-given stewardship of little children.”

Donal O’Keeffe.

Postscript. The Journal has picked up on the story. I was wrong. It was a septic tank. The Bon Secours nuns, the brides of Christ, dumped the bodies of 800 children, who died in their so-called care, in a septic tank.

Wednesday 28th of May 2014: Many thanks to Philip Boucher-Hayes, who featured the story of the Tuam babies on Liveline. Listen here.

A clear picture emerges. Mothers incarcerated until they signed over their babies, healthy children sold to wealthy Americans and disabled infants abandoned in “Dying Rooms”, their bodies dumped in a septic tank.

To quote Bob Dylan, “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do”.

Saturday 31st May 2014: My column in thejournal.ie: “Mass grave ‘filled to the brim with tiny bones and skulls’ shows how we cherish children