What follows are excerpts from a public roundtable discussion among individuals with experience of Ireland's institutional and gender-based abuses and moderator James M. Smith at the international conference entitled Towards Transitional Justice: Recognition, Truth-Telling, and Institutional Abuse in Ireland, held on 2 November 2018 at Boston College.1
All of the discussants have previously written and spoken publicly about their experiences, and all have provided the editors with their consent to publish their contributions to the roundtable. The participants were Mary Harney, Maine resident and civil-rights activist, painter, and educator; Mari Steed, Virginia resident, cofounder of Adoption Rights Alliance and executive committee member of Justice for Magdalenes Research; Caitríona Palmer, Washington, DC, resident, journalist, and author; Terri Harrison, Dublin resident, musician, and community organizer; Rosemary Adaser, London resident, activist, and founder and CEO of the Association of Mixed Race Irish; Conrad Bryan, London resident, activist, and member of the Association of Mixed Race Irish; Susan Lohan, Dublin resident and cofounder of Adoption Rights Alliance; and Connie Roberts, New York resident, poet, and lecturer at Hofstra University.
Terri, Rosemary, Conrad, Mary, and Susan were, at the time of the conference, members of the Collaborative Forum for Former Residents of Mother and Baby Homes and Related Institutions established by Ireland's Department of Children and Youth Affairs [End Page 17] in 2018. The government published the Collaborative Forum's summary recommendations on 16 April 2019, although it declined to publish the forum's report in full. Readers will note references to the Collaborative Forum in the text below.
The audience for this discussion included not just the conference participants and attendees but also survivors and other members of the public who watched via live stream on the Justice for Magdalenes Research Facebook group page and engaged in their own conversation in response over Facebook and Twitter.
I. Mary Harney
My name is Mary Harney. I am the proud daughter of Margaret "Peggy" Harney. I was born in Bessborough in 1949. My mother and I stayed together in the mother and baby home for two and a half years. When I was born, I apparently almost died, and I was put into what was known as the "dying room." But my bawling and my crying and my gurgling apparently kept me going until the morning, and I was handed to my mother the next day.
My mother chose to do some of the most menial tasks within the institution like sluicing out the babies' napkins (in America you call them "diapers") so that she could sneak in to see me and pick me up, because women were not allowed free access to their children at any time of the day.
I suffered whooping cough and measles while I was there, and therefore I was not eligible to be trafficked to America. Those were communicable diseases, and in getting children to America, they had to be free of such prior conditions. A bit like America today, really. My mother was given a half an hour's notice to get me ready to have me taken from her. She and the other women used to knit for their children. And she had made me a little—I guess you could call it—a coat-type thing and a little bonnet. And when she got me dressed, she put me in those clothes. She walked me down to the nun who took me from her, and basically that was the last time my mother was ever supposed to see me. Within half an hour of being taken away from her, the nun came back and threw the little knitted clothes back at my mother and said, "She won't be needing those where she's going."
I was illegally fostered by an elderly couple who knew nothing [End Page 18] at all about children, and they took me to a house in Cork that was terrifying in its tiny-ness. I had been in an institution, a mother and baby institution...