‘He brought me into the surgery, told me to take my clothes off. I knew something was wrong’

Mother and baby homes weren’t the only destination for women with unplanned pregnancies

Last month, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes published the findings of its long-awaited final report. The report evoked a range of responses from members of the public including from those whose lives had been directly affected by crisis pregnancies of that era. 

These included women who had had unplanned pregnancies; social workers to whom they came for help; and families around the country who invited pregnant women into their homes for the duration of their pregnancies – a system that from the 1970s served as an alternative to mother and baby homes.  

These are some of their stories. 

Crisis pregnancies, 1980s:
‘They’d say they were going away’

Maureen* was a social worker with Cura, the Catholic Church’s former support service for women with crisis pregnancies, from 1981 to 1987. She was based in the west of Ireland. 

“It started with a phone call from a single expectant mother, usually in deep distress, and panicked. She would talk to the people who volunteered at the end of the phone, and then she would come in and talk about her options. Total panic would have been the initial reaction to her pregnancy. 

“Then I would meet them face to face, after a pregnancy test had been confirmed. The women were usually late teens but could be anything up to 40. Usually middle-class, maybe professional, their biggest fear was the stigma of the pregnancy; the shame for the respectable family at home.

“They couldn’t tell the parents; that would have been their first reaction. ‘We can’t tell at home.’ If they ever told at home, it was usually the mother they told, and the father [of the pregnant woman] would not be told. They were afraid he might go on the drink, or be angry about it. 

“For the women in secure jobs, the fear was the stigma. If you were a student nurse, you were put out of training. You were out on your ear if you were training in any institution, and if you were a teacher, you hadn’t a chance.”

Maureen explains how women hid their pregnancies from their families. “They’d say they were going away, or that they were changing jobs. In those days there was very little way of tracing people; there were no mobile phones or anything like that, so it was easier to find anonymity in another county then.” 

Cura placed women within a network of families around the country, who had children of their own and volunteered to provide a temporary home for women and girls with unplanned pregnancies. 

“What Cura offered them was the anonymity of a host family, and the safety of it, and I suppose the non-judgmental atmosphere there. It was kind of a more humane response to a single pregnancy and certainly an option to the mother and baby homes.”

What were the women expected to do in the house? 

“They were there as a guest of the family. They had their own room. No money was exchanged; usually the families could afford to host somebody for up to six months. They were high-profile, professional families and they just did it without looking for any gratitude or making it known to anyone. There might have been babysitting duties at night if the parents were going out, but I don’t remember any demands for other help.”

Was she ever aware of any situations where families took advantage of a vulnerable young woman in their home?

“I don’t remember that ever happening. If that was the case, the person would have been taken out if there was any reason to believe there was an abuse of that trust.”

Maureen says “very few” women she worked with kept their babies. “I felt we colluded in secrecy. Confidentiality was what everyone needed, but I felt we were colluding in secrecy, which wasn’t helpful. We didn’t demand information, like who was the father of the child, so maybe we colluded. We didn’t pry too much into the conception, for instance.

“If the mother was going towards adoption, you would do everything in your power to say, listen, is there no way you could look at keeping the baby? It was a grief by choice, giving up the child. They were giving the baby a better life as they saw it.” 

She says she found these experiences “harrowing”, seeing women give their babies up. All these decades later, what is her view now? 

“I still don’t see them as forced adoptions,” she says. “They knew the consequences of what they doing, and they willingly did it. Their consent was valid.”

“They understood they were giving up a baby for life, permanently, and they were forgoing their natural innate longing to keep that baby with all of the fibre of their being. They were doing that because of what society expected of them.

“Often times, it was because of their parents’ decision: where the parents said they wouldn’t let them keep the baby, and told them, if you do, you’d better not come home. They had no choice about it, and they knew it.” 

Eight ‘unmarried mothers’, 1970s:
‘The youngest was 17’

Together with his late wife, Eileen, Leo Colgan accepted “eight unmarried mothers, as they called them then” as he says, during the 1970s into their Limerick home. The Colgans, then in their 30s, with children of their own, heard about family placements via word of mouth. 

“The youngest was 17. The rest were in their 20s. My late wife was absolutely brilliant at integrating them into our family. They loved her. One girl in particular, the 17-year-old, formed a particularly strong bond with my eldest, who was 18, and they went round together for the duration.

“They were a very special part of our family. They watched TV with us, and went to shows and concerts and so on. They had their own room. There was no financial exchange involved. They helped out with chores around the house. We were happy to assist the girls, and felt in some way that we were helping them.

“I don’t recall social workers ever visiting the house. My general sense is that the girls were left totally alone to fend for themselves. They usually stayed about six months.”

At the time, the Colgans knew nothing at all about mother and baby homes. “Myself and Eileen were very innocent ourselves in relation to mother and baby homes and all the scandals going on in the church. Looking back on it now, we can see the massive control that the church exerted over sexual morality, and hence the ensuing guilt and shame. 

“Very few of the girls went into any details about fathers [of the babies] at all. One girl had regular visits from her boyfriend, who would appear on a motorbike twice a week, and off they’d head on the motorbike for a couple of hours, but that was the only male support that ever appeared on the scene during all those years.

His wife drove the women to the maternity hospital when the time came. “I remember there was one major drama in the carpark of the regional hospital. This girl saw someone, either a relative or someone from her parish, and all hell broke loose, and she panicked and Eileen had to bring her into the hospital under cover of a blanket to have her baby.”

Of the eight women who came to their home, two were sisters. Two of the eight kept their babies. Both those women later married the fathers of their baby. The Colgans organised the wedding for one of these two women, and hosted a party afterwards for her.

“I gave her away. They were married in the local Catholic church, and a small number of family and friends came to Limerick for the wedding. We came back to the house and had a reception. All those girls left an indelible mark on our family.” 

Unplanned pregnancy, 1973:
‘What my husband does to you is not my affair’

Jackie*, originally from Cork, is now 67. When she was 19, she had an unplanned pregnancy. “I told my parents one evening, my mother kept saying, ‘There’s something wrong with you, what is it?’

“So I told her, and sure Jesus, the world collapsed. My mother went weak. She was horrified. It was the worst trouble that any daughter could ever bring home. They didn’t want it to be known, but I wasn’t thrown out or anything. In their own way, they were trying to be understanding, but they wished it would go away. The house was in turmoil.”

Jackie went to a placement family in the west of Ireland. “This was a middle-class family. They had eight children. There was another pregnant girl there too. We were sleeping with two of the children on a mattress. I enjoyed that because we used to chat, the two of us, the girl and myself. But the conditions in the house were dreadful.

“We would be sent out of the house at nine in the morning, the other girl and myself, with the youngest of the children, sometimes all of them, and told not to come back until five. Even when it was raining. I can remember all of us standing in under bushes trying to keep dry. Hail, rain or snow, we were out every day. 

“I complained to the woman of the house and she said to me, ‘This will be all over for you in a few months and you can do what you want. But while ye are here, this is our break’. Meaning, this is our holiday while you take the children away each day. The other girl had only a month to go in her pregnancy. That’s why she took two at a time. She wanted continuum.

“I rang the woman in the adoption agency and I told her that what was going on wasn’t right. She moved me. There was no problem with that.” Jackie was moved to another western county, to the home of a doctor and his wife. “This was quite a fancy house. I had my own bedroom. Everything was gorgeous … My work there was in many ways easy: I just polished and cleaned every day. 

“On the second day, the doctor said, ‘Come on, I must examine you’, and he brought me into the surgery and told me take all my clothes off and get up on the couch. I knew there was something wrong, but what could I do? This was my second house now, so I had already complained once. The thoughts of complaining again were just beyond the Pale. I kept my eyes closed. He did an internal examination, fiddling away. It lasted a while.

“He did this every third day or so. The same thing. I don’t know how many times it happened. 

“Finally, one day, I got the courage to open my eyes while he was doing it and I looked, and there he was, masturbating while he was doing this. I got up and I pushed him away, and I said ‘ Stop it’. I was naked in the room and I was trying to cover myself. 

“And he said, ‘What’s wrong with you? You must love it, why else would you be here?’ That’s the quote that has stuck in my head all these years.

“The woman of the house said to me: ‘I don’t have any regard for girls who don’t keep their babies, or who don’t have an abortion, and whatever it is my husband does to you, it’s none of my affair’.

“At that stage, I rang my parents and the adoption society. My parents told my brother in Dublin what was going on, and they came down and took me away, and I stayed with him and had the baby there.”

Jackie gave her daughter up for adoption. “These things leave a mark you can never get rid of. With the recent publication of that report, I am right back in the smell of the 70s; the way of the thinking then, the fear. All of it.”

Concealed pregnancy, 2013:
‘None of her family knew’

Pearl Doyle, photographed here, is a retired social worker who worked in adoption services in Cork, and is currently a tutor on University College Cork’s master of social work course. 

“I am very angry about the mother and baby report. I felt that the women’s voices were not heard. Their testimonies were not seen as evidence; what were the women’s stories except evidence?” she says. 

In her job as a social worker she encountered many unplanned pregnancies. “There is an image out there that crisis pregnancies all happen in young girls. That was not my experience. They would generally be in their 20s, and some would be in their 30s.“Quite a number were single parents who had children already. There were also extramarital children given up for adoption. That would be fairly unusual, but it did happen in my time. The women felt they couldn’t raise the baby by themselves; that there was a lack of support; that the fathers were not interested.”

In latter years, many of these babies were adopted into the woman’s wider family, by a relative. But as recently as 2013, Doyle encountered a concealed pregnancy, where nobody in the family knew anything. She says that in her time as a social worker, this was one of three cases of concealed pregnancy she came in contact with. 

“None of her family knew. This woman already had a child. She told no one, except one friend. She worked right through her pregnancy, in a job where she was standing most of the day. I asked her how her mother didn’t notice and she said she wore baggy jumpers. She lived at home all that time. She went into labour at home, and her friend drove her to the hospital.

“She was back at work the following day and nobody knew. We placed her child.”

*The identities of Maureen and Jackie are known to the Irish Times.  If you wish to share a story of your experience relating to these events, please email Rosita Boland at [email protected]. If you have been affected by issues raised in this story, you can contact the Rape Crisis Centre’s 24-hour helpline on 1800 778888