I've always known my mother's story, but I don't think I ever truly understood it, until now.

It’s 6 pm here in Ireland, I hear the familiar sound of the Angelus ringing out. Although I’m Catholic, I’ve never considered myself to be particularly religious. Becoming a Catholic was more of a formality than a conscious choice. For me, the sound of church bells in the evening signifies the start of the six o'clock news.

There was a time when I had invested interest in the news. Lately, the prospect of sitting through an entire broadcast fills me with dread. Like so many people across the country, I’m overwhelmed by the constant influx of bad news.

I find myself becoming desensitized to the daily COVID-19 coverage. It’s not that I don’t care, in fact, it’s the opposite. As an overthinker, I know that if I allow myself to fully absorb the information it will consume me. Avoidance has proven to be an effective remedy, until now.

This past week has been a landmark moment in Irish history. I want to bear witness to as much of it as possible. We finally heard the horrific outcome of the investigation into the Irish Mother and Baby Homes. The details of the report are certainly hard to hear, but avoiding the topic feels like a crime in itself. After all, it was silence that allowed this crime to perpetuate for so long. Looking the other way is no longer an option.

I’ve noticed a lot of division in our country over the last few months. But when it comes to this matter, we appear to be united in our outrage and anger.

Last Friday night, I sat down with my mother, eagerly awaiting the start of The Late Late Show. I was interested to see how the show would tackle the events of this week. It turned out to be an incredibly moving experience in more ways than one.

The show itself exceeded my expectations. The issue was addressed head-on, with no attempt to sugarcoat or downplay the cruelty involved. Mam wept silently as Noelle Brown spoke of her ordeal. I’ve seen my mother cry before, but never like this.

Later that night, I came downstairs to find her sitting on the couch, still deeply distraught. I begged her to tell me what was wrong. I quickly learnt that this week’s revelations had hit close to home.

My mam was 18 when she fell pregnant for the first time. It was 1977, and she had yet to marry my father. When it came to telling her parents, Mam said confessing to murder would have been easier. She was terrified. And rightly so.

As expected, my grandparents were furious. Worse than that, they were disappointed. My grandad in particular had big hopes for my mother. She displayed a natural intellect, and he assumed that she would go on to further education.

Mam told me about a particularly infuriating instance that took place several months into her pregnancy. She was in hospital for a routine check-up, when suddenly a priest entered the room. I imagine that the last thing a pregnant teenager wants to see is a priest. He proceeded to tell Mam about a lovely married couple who were unable to have children. This couple would love nothing more than to become parents, and she could make that happen for them.

By giving them her baby, Mam could make their dreams come true. She would also be free to focus on her own future, which the priest assured her would no-doubt be bright. To his dismay, my mother told the priest to kindly f@#k off.

“Fair play to you,” whispered the nurse. She told Mam that particular priest had been doing the rounds. He often visited the maternity ward, trying to convince unmarried women to give up their babies.

It wasn’t the first time that adoption had been suggested to my mam. She dismissed the prospect every time. Thankfully, my grandparents eventually accepted her pregnancy.

It makes me sick to think of how many women unwillingly succumbed to the priest’s offer. At that time, the Catholic Church was arguably the most powerful organization in the country. The motives of a priest were never questioned.

That night, as I attempted to console her, Mam told me her tears were for the women that couldn’t say no. She was one of the lucky ones, her parents stood by her. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for a lot of women.

In a tragic turn of events, my parent’s first child passed away at 18 months. I’ve always known about my older sister, we speak of her often. On this occasion, my mam said something that floored me. “Imagine if I was forced to give up my baby. I would have spent the rest of my life searching for her, not knowing that she had died." 

My mother's story is but one of many, thousands even. At that time, an illegitimate pregnancy was the ultimate sin. Mam is one of the kindest people I have ever known. It pains me to think that she was treated like a criminal. I wonder if you can ever truly shake off that level of shame?

I can't help but feel a sense of guilt. I got to grow up and exist in a time of relative freedom. Although women today still face a multitude of challenges, there’s no denying progress has been made. As a society, we owe the women who were shamed & abused our undivided attention. We must continue to hear and share their stories for generations to come. Change cannot occur when silence prevails.

*This column was submitted to IrishCentral Fiona Cooney, a freelance journalist & presenter from Tipperary. She has a passion for human interest stories. Her aim is to create content that is both engaging, & thought-provoking. You can learn more on her website and Instagram.