The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Report was “an insult to the mothers”, and a further denial of justice, one survivor tells Donal O’Keeffe.
Terri Harrison’s baby Niall was taken from her in 1973 when she was 18. Now 66, she is still looking for him. For her, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation has, as she puts it, “retraumatised mothers all over again”, and State apologies ring very hollow indeed.
“We’ve had apologies from Bertie, from Enda, from Micheál, I’ve lost count, I think from the man in the Park, Mr Higgins, and none of them meant anything,” says Terri Harrison. “The one thing I wanted was for one of them to break ranks and to ask for our forgiveness, and to ask what they can do to help us, but that never happened.”
In 1973 Terri was 18 years old and pregnant, living in London, when she was, as she puts it, “abducted” by the Catholic Crusade of Rescue. Alone and vulnerable, she says she didn’t feel in a position to resist them.
“I was a naïve eighteen-year-old. They forced me into a car, and they drove to Heathrow, and they didn’t talk to me. They just kept telling me that I had to leave England, that I had to be sent to Ireland.”
In Heathrow, Terri remembers the police looking away as the priest manhandled her toward the plane. “They must have thought his uniform, his long black robes and his white collar, outranked theirs.” Terri says that she discovered that her designation on the plane was “P.F.I”. – “Pregnant from Ireland”. On the flight, she was told she was being taken to Cork, a place she knew only from geography class. There, two nuns were waiting.
In Bessborough, Terri was stripped of her name, given a “house name” and a number. She says the inmates in mother and baby homes were dehumanised by the nuns, and were never allowed to forget their “sin”. She says in later life she has struggled with the legacy of a shame that was not hers.
“I was imprisoned in Bessborough in Cork, and when I escaped from there, I managed to get back to Dublin, but I was caught and I was incarcerated in Pat’s on the Navan Road.”
St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home (Terri says the word “home” should never be applied to those institutions) on Dublin’s Navan Road was an even harsher place than Bessborough, and when Terri’s baby Niall was five weeks old, she discovered he had been taken away for adoption. Terri tried everything to get her baby back, as – until he was six months old – was her legal right under the 1952 Adoption Act, but at the St Anne’s Adoption Society in Cork, Terri was threatened with the Gardai, the courts and public shaming in the national press.
Terri’s baby was stolen by brute force, and now, almost half a century later, she is still searching for her beloved Niall. “I live in hope that my baby Niall will know that I’m looking for him.”
Lacking any other way to contact her son, Terri has written an open letter to Niall. Terri can be contacted c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.
To My First -Born,
I have written you many letters since I first found out you were alive. It took nearly 22 years for them to give me any information about you. I hope this letter finds you healthy and happy. I know you have no concept of how we shared my body for nine months, how I hummed tunes to you, how when I played the piano you would move so much inside of me. It felt so real, it felt so strange, just to know I was one day going to give life to a tiny new person, “You.”
My first encounter with motherhood was harsh, cold, and cruel too. You struggled to live after a birth so very terrifying, and when they eventually decided to call an ambulance, they passed seven hospitals on route. Their priority was that we both would be held in Kevin’s hospital. They owned this hospital; all paperwork would be fabricated. Despite everything we both survived, you being a true little warrior.
I know now, you have no real knowledge of your true beginnings. How much you were loved, wanted, adored. I named you “cuddles” while you grew inside of me. I tried to picture you in my mind’s eye. But nothing could prepare me for when I first saw your tiny little face.
You gave me the most precious gift I have ever received, the meaning of unconditional love. I was eighteen with no real insight into what motherhood entailed. I learned through you, I felt as though I was floating above myself, in the warmest glow of pure love. I could not take my eyes away from you, and still recall your little hand, how it grasped my tiny finger like you knew my smell my touch, my voice.
Sadly, I was not able to stand up to the people who had already decided your fate and mine. My State declared me an unfit mother; not permitted to mother you in your journey of life. To be the one you ran to, who would pick you up and hug you, stroke your face when you felt unwell. Rock you in my arms when you needed my warmth.
We were denied it all, even all the arguments we so could have had, our different perspectives, our own interpretation of life itself. Your first encounter with love, your first cognitions, your true uniqueness. I so encourage people to be themselves, not to succumb to wants or directions of others.
I hope you learned to explore your own world; find your own view, your own path, what I would have given to have crossed your path with your permission even once.
In the short few weeks, they allowed me access to you at feeding times, I delayed this every time, as every second with you was all I had; to keep our memories alive for both of us. I hope my genes flow within you. I hope my love of music flows inside of you; above all I hope you are the man you were born to be. A man of integrity, love, with a free will to truly make your own real choices.
Never allow anyone or anything else steal your real self. I know your beauty, your inner core, I am a stranger to you, but you are not to me. Nor will you ever be, I am your mother and will be till my last breath is taken. They stole you away, but not from me, they could not take my love, my memory of you my first born, nor the piece of my heart that belongs to only you.
My wonderful boy, now a man.
My love from a distance, I can wrap my arms around you, in the hope one day you will feel my energy embrace and mind you, as I did for the very first year of our precious life together.
All my love,