Changing views on girls ‘in trouble’

When I was told that Katherine was pregnant, I was overjoyed. “The best news I have heard in a long time!” I gushed. (She is not Irish and is the niece of a son-in-law).

When I was told that Katherine was pregnant, I was overjoyed. “The best news I have heard in a long time!” I gushed. (She is not Irish and is the niece of a son-in-law).

I was told that the news was received with great joy by all the family: “even the most conservative of her aunts and uncles are happy.” The prospect of a grandchild has been particularly welcomed by her father.

Her mother was killed last year when a drunken driver ploughed into her car. Katherine had to identify her mother’s terribly broken body, while her father lay unconcious in hospital. Her pregnancy is seen by all as the promise of new life; of a reaffirmation of the family; of a bright hope for the future.

But Katherine is not married. She is 33, a teacher, bright, warm and competent, and she has been living with her boyfriend, also a teacher, for about four years. When I came down from the height of my “over-enjoyment,” I asked my daughter, the conveyor of good news: “Why have they not married?” to which I received the reply, in a tone of barely suppressed impatience: “Oh, mother, don’t you know that’s how young people do things nowadays.” There was the added placatory throwaway. “They probably will marry now.”

“This,” as we say, “is now,” but back there 50/60 years ago, when “that” was “then” had she lived in Ireland, Katherine’s pregnancy, in her unmarried state, would probably have caused a major crisis in her family. It would have been seen as bringing great shame. While there would have been efforts at concealment, the inevitable progress of her bump would have been the subject of whispered gossip. She may indeed have become totally alienated from her family, and deserted by them. Stories persist that, in some cases, “her name was read off the altar,” though I do not know if that story has any validity.

Inevitably, if there was not a hastily arranged (“shotgun”) marriage, Katherine would have been shunted off, in secrecy, to one of the several Mother and Baby Homes that then existed and subsequently may have spent sometime in a Magdalene Laundry. Both of these institutions are now the subject of hindsight perspective in the Ireland of today.

It was a coincidence that on the day I heard the good news about Katherine, I went to see the film “Philomena” in the cinema. This was the story of Philomena Lee who, as an 18 year-old, found herself pregnant in the Ireland of the early 50s. With no support from her family (“my father never spoke to me again”), she had her baby in the Mother and Baby Home in Roscrea and subsequently worked for some time in the laundry.

Her story was told in a book by the distinguished ex-BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith. He had little interest in “human interest” stories, but he was so impressed by the simple charm and sincerity of Philomena that he agreed, somewhat reluctantly at first, to accompany her on her search for her son. He became absorbed in that search, which took both of them from Roscrea, to the US Senate and various visits to contacts in the United States, ending up in the final denouement of a grave in an overgrown burial ground attached to the home in Roscrea.

Films work to a formula which has, of necessity, to be brief and concise, and there is usually little space for the exploration in depth of character. The good has to be very good; the bad very, very bad, and in this film Sister Hildegard, the nun in charge of the Mother and Baby Home, is a monster. In fairness, however, dissection of the film on RTE in recent days, and a re-play of sections of a radio documentary to which she contributed in the 1980s, indicate that this is too simplistic, and suggest she had far more of “the milk of human kindness” than that reflected in the film.

In fact, the searing confrontation between Sixsmith and herself in the film never took place, and there is no reference made to any such meeting in his book. But it made for compelling drama and a reinforcement of the convention that every good film has to have a baddie.

But who were the real baddies in Irish society at a time when young and often terrified girls were subjected to such censorious condemnation, and of which the Sister Hildegardes and the Mother and Baby Homes have now become such convenient scapegoats? Was it not Irish society itself?

And this prompts the question: What were the contributory factors to that very cruel culture? What made it tick and operate with such convoluted efficiency, that families abandoned their daughters, and even women themselves were super-critical of the young women who got themselves into “trouble”?

Coming out of the cinema on a dark November evening, having seen “Philomena” it seemed to me that the religious sisters who established and staffed the Mother and Baby Homes were as much victims of that twisted Irish culture as were the young women whose “sin” was that they had given life to another human being.

The homes themselves were established to try to redress the abuses of the Poor Law system. Out-of-wedlock pregnant girls had no place to go to have their babies except the Workhouses. There, they were detained for the remainder of their lives unless somebody could “claim” them and accept responsibility for them. They were a danger to society, as were the women regarded, often without much evidence, as of “loose moral character and who under the Infectious Diseases legislation were incarcerated for life in the same institutions.

Now, that washing our dirty linen in public has become a national compulsion (including that in the Magdalene laundries), should we not include, too, the public attitudes, and the turning of the blind eye, which facilitated so many terrible abuses. Or, do we dare?