The legacy of Ireland's Catholic Church-run Mother and Baby Homes


The recent release of the Ryan Report and the allegations of abuse against children and women in Church and State-run institutions are also not far from O’Brien’s mind. In her early work to understand the historical angle of adoption in Ireland, she adds that she is “trying to examine through the lens of the Ryan Report what might have happened if the children had stayed. I think some of the children were probably very lucky, that they didn’t stay in institutions where we now know so many children were treated abysmally.” That O’Brien can see the positive side to these adoptions, despite their circumstances, is a testament to the project’s ultimate goals of justice and sensitivity. “When we uncover the past we must be very mindful of people’s sense of self and identity and integrity. We’ve no wish to pathologize individuals…because for many people that came here [to the U.S.], they’ve had very successful lives. So what we’re really interested in is hearing about those successful lives but also how they learned to integrate the stories from the past and how they learned to integrate their identity in relation to their Irishness, especially for those who weren’t raised in Irish American homes.”

For the mothers who raised their children in mother and baby homes without power or choice, O’Brien has found common ground with the calls to expose the horrors of the Magdalene laundries in balance with respect and privacy for women involved. “I think it’s the same issue of justice for women who have been through quite a horrific period where to be pregnant outside marriage in Ireland was such a taboo, and while the Church played its part the community did as well…I don’t think any of us can walk away.”

Like these other projects that attempt to heal the wounds of the past in Ireland, so much depends on access to state records. But in the absence of concrete numbers, the significance of what O’Brien calls “memory work”—focusing on remembering rather than uncovering the truth—becomes all the more clear. She and Maguire Pavao are conducting interviews with everyone “from policy makers to air hostesses to students that were in applied social sciences at UCD, my university,” says O’Brien. “There were many stories of students going to live or study in America very often had their passage paid and brought the child on their knee. Again we don’t have any firm data, and those are the stories that need to be collated.”

This memory work provides the chance for connections that concrete statistics often cannot. O’Brien learned that for herself when she described the project she was working on to her aunt one day. Her aunt replied that as a child she remembered babies, wrapped in shawls, coming through the house with nuns on their way to the airport. It turned out O’Brien had relatives who worked in mother and baby homes and they would often stop for a cup of tea on the way. O’Brien had already been working on the project for years before she made this accidental discovery. “It was just amazing. It was so powerful to think that some of the people that I might get an opportunity to meet in fact were held in arms in my family home.”
*The Ryan Report is the published report of the Irish government’s investigation of child abuse in reformatory institutions and industrial schools operated by the Catholic Church and funded by the Irish Department of Education from 1936 on. The Murphy Report investigates cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin.

**Magdalene laundries were Church-run institutions in Ireland where young girls and women engaged in hard labor and many allegedly suffered physical and sexual abuse. This abuse was also covered in the Ryan Report.

If you are interested in participating or have any questions, please contact Dr. Valerie O’Brien at or Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao at