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 Corkman Opinion Piece: The Marriage Equality referendum is about real people and real lives. A Yes is a vote for love. #MarRef

This Friday you have the opportunity to extend to LGBT couples the constitutional rights and guarantees enjoyed by civilly-married heterosexual couples. That’s all. Despite all the scaremongering, this referendum isn’t about fear. It’s about love.

This referendum is about real people, real lives. Look at the powerful testimonies of people like Pat Carey and Ursula Halligan and Justin McAleese. Think about all those lives ruined, all that love denied. You mightn’t know it, but this referendum may well be about your brother or sister, your son or daughter, your neighbour or friend.

This is a head-to-head debate. Alongside this is a piece advocating a No vote. It probably contains the usual red herrings about adoption and/or surrogacy, redefining marriage and/or family. It may say civil partnership – despite having no constitutional protection – is as good as marriage.

Rather than waste your time telling you this is not about adoption or surrogacy, I’ll trust your intelligence and ask you to go to www.refcom.ie, the independent Referendum Commission’s website. There you’ll see unbiased confirmation that the No campaign is arguing about everything except what’s in this referendum. This referendum is about kindness, generosity and love and the No campaign’s only weapon against that is fear.

“It won’t redefine what marriage is,” says Referendum Commission chairman, Mr Justice Kevin Cross. “It will redefine… who can marry.” This is, simply, about extending the embrace of constitutional recognition to the love of the 10% of Irish citizens who are gay.

To vote, you’ll need identification. A marriage certificate – accompanied by proof of address – will be accepted. The Department of the Environment confirms that a civil partnership certificate is not valid identification. So much for civil partnership being as good as marriage.

The No campaign claims all leading Irish children’s charities – and Ireland’s leading authority on adoption – are conspiring against children’s best interests. For all their concern about children, Ireland has long been a cold house for many of its children. Forced adoptions, Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries illustrate a cruel and deeply unequal country where discrimination and abuse reigned.

I believe equality should be the cornerstone of our Republic. I believe we should cherish all the children of our Nation equally. I believe that we, the citizens of Ireland, should extend to gay couples the same constitutional rights and guarantees enjoyed by civilly-married straight couples.

The No campaign talks about “protecting the traditional family”. One in three Irish families is non-traditional. Children have grown up in non-traditional families since Jesus was a small boy. Life is complicated. Love isn’t.

A Yes will send a powerful message of acceptance, respect and love to all our children – one in ten of whom is gay. A Yes will say to our children that regardless of the colour of your eyes, the shape of your face or the love in your heart – you are as Irish, as “normal” and as extraordinary as every child of this Republic.

A Yes is a vote for love.

Please vote Yes.

Originally published as one half of a head-to-head debate in The Corkman Thursday 21st May 2015

UPDATE: As it transpired, I was wrong to assume the NO column would stick to the touchy-feely lies about surrogacy and adoption and instead went Full Homophobe.

Nunan

Cherishing all the children, one unmarked grave at a time

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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”.

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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