All names in this true story have been changed.
My friend Una had a cousin called Patricia who regularly visited their home. She was our age. As I spent half my teen years in Una’s house I often met Patricia. One day, in 1968, when we were 17 years old, there was much weeping and whispering going on in their house when I called. Una locked the two of us into the bathroom to tell me the BIG news. “Patricia’s expecting,” she said, dramatically. Well, we were shocked to the core. A girl our age had had sex with a man! (This was back in the dark ages.) What was she going to do?
Only those of us who were alive at the time in Ireland understand how it would have been impossible for 17-year-old Patricia to stay at home, in her good Catholic household, and be a ‘walking occasion of sin,’ giving very bad example. Her baby would be ‘illegitimate’ and bring shame on her whole family.
Una’s mother swore me to secrecy. She explained to Una and I that Patricia would go to a home for unmarried mothers in Dublin. The nuns there would look after her and the baby would be adopted after birth. We found all this fascinating and returned to our boarding school pitying Patricia and wondering how she would be.
We were home again, on our Easter holidays, when the baby was almost due. Una’s mother announced that Una and I were to go up to Dublin, to the home for unmarried mothers, and visit Patricia on Easter Tuesday.
It was the most exciting thing we had ever heard. Both of us were bored stiff and longing for adventure. We had never been to Dublin on our own before. Throughout the Holy Week Ceremonies we wondered – 'What we would wear?', 'Might there be "fine things" (handsome boys) on the train?', 'Would we wear lipstick?', 'How would we know where to get the bus?', 'How would we know where to get off the bus?', and 'What would we say to Patricia?' (My excuse for seeming so insensitive to poor Patricia’s situation is that we were 17 and had no way at the time of knowing any better.)
We set off, full of excitement – two pure country mugs, heading to Dublin. We found the right bus and immediately asked the bus conductor did he know where 381 Navan Road was and would he tell us when we got there. He knew it well, he told us. We sat near the back door and watched everyone stepping on and off. Una decided that the conductor was ‘a fine thing.’ She put on lipstick and kept asking him where we nearly there. Eventually he said it was our stop and we alighted.
All along the way we had passed ordinary red brick houses. However, number 381 was not one of these. It was a huge, scary looking building, up a long drive way. Our sense of excitement died immediately, replaced by terror. We walked up and rang the bell.
The big heavy door opened widely and we could see inside, into a very spacious hall. I’ll never forget the shock of seeing many girls my age walking around, all very very pregnant. The only women we knew expecting babies were old women like our mothers, never girls our age. It was like seeing a class of fifth years all enormous.
Patricia cried when she met us. She too was very big, being almost due. She told us that the place wasn’t too bad and that she had made friends with some of the other girls. She talked in great detail about the forthcoming birth. Even though I was the second eldest of ten children I have never heard the likes discussed before and was horrified. We wished her well and fled.
On the bus back into town we were speechless with shock. When we recovered we both swore that we would never, never have sex with any man until we were safely married – in case we ended up in in that awful place. Perhaps that was the intention of sending us there in the first place – it definitely was the best contraceptive ever!
Patricia’s son was adopted afterwards. I am glad to add that she married later and had more children. That’s all I know of her life.
What has been discovered in Tuam is truly appalling. I was born in 1951, so I have read, with great sadness, the list of the little children who died that year, in this Catholic home, run by Catholic nuns.
I have also read about how the Bishop of Galway lived at that time. Diarmaid Ferriter, in Saturday’s Irish Times, March 4, wrote, "Dr. Noel Browne described an encounter with the Catholic Bishop of Galway, Dr. Michael Browne, in 1951. 'The bishop handed me a silver casket in which lay his impeccable hand-made cigarettes. ‘These cigarettes are made in Bond Street,' the bishop told me. Then I was offered a glass of champagne. ‘I always like champagne in the afternoon,’ he informed me in his rich round voice. My feeling of awe was mixed with a sense of astonishment that this man considered himself to be a follower of the humble Jesus of Nazareth." Oh, how very true! ‘To be a Christian means to live like Christ,’ we’re told often.
How did so many of the religious at the time lose the plot so completely? Was it because they had absolute power?