'petrified'  | 

Woman recalls terror in mother and baby home as she worries for the son she gave up for adoption

Mary Gavigan (65), from Westmeath, was 18 when she gave birth to a boy at St Patrick's mother and baby home in Dublin in 1974 after becoming pregnant outside of marriage.
Mary Gavigan

Mary Gavigan

Children in the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in Tipperary

Children in the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in Tipperary

Alan Sherry

A survivor of a mother- and-baby home has said the traumatic experience has left her with a lifelong phobia which could compromise her health.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin last week apologised to the survivors of mother-and-baby homes following the publication of the Commission of Investigation report, which highlighted the poor treatment of young women who got pregnant out of wedlock.

Mary Gavigan (65), from Westmeath, was 18 when she gave birth to a boy at St Patrick's mother and baby home in Dublin in 1974 after becoming pregnant outside of marriage.

She wanted to keep the baby - but her grandmother told her to put her son up for adoption and she hasn't seen him since. She said she now worries what happened to him after hearing so many horror stories about babies who died.

Mary, who is now living in Wales, said she endured a traumatic time in St Patrick's, which included being slapped by a nun when she was in labour crying for her father.

She also said she was subjected to a humiliating experience a few weeks after giving birth which has left her with a life-long phobia of mammograms.

Mary said a nun called out the names of a small number of women in the home and told them to follow her without saying what was happening.

She said they were led to a mobile clinic in the grounds of the home and told to line up in single file.

"We were frog-marched out really, lined up like cattle and brought in one by one. I remember going up the steps going in and being told to take my top off. I was a young country girl and embarrassed, as well as being scared, but no compassion was shown at all. They thought we were all bad because we were unmarried mothers.


"We lined up outside with no idea what was about to happen. We were scared. They had told us nothing and we were warned to be quiet. One by one, we went up two steps into this unit. Each girl came out and the look on their faces had us petrified.

"I could hear machines making humming sounds. A nurse told me to take my upper clothes off. I was shaking with fear and crying, embarrassed at having to remove my clothes, not a word of reassurance.

"She told me to push my breast into this thing that looked like a big suction machine. I had to stand on tip of my toes because I couldn't reach. She pushed my breast in as I was so scared and it really hurt."

Mary said she was never told what had been done but now believes it may have been a mammogram as part of a medical study.

Numerous vaccine trials had taken place at St Patrick's without any consent from the mothers of the children. The home was owned by the Health Board and staffed by the Daughters of Charity.

"I had no idea what had been done to me. It was not until the time came for me to have a mammogram later in life that I realised that is what had been done to me and others.

"I'm furious because I've never been able to go to one since because of the pain and humiliation and the fear before we went in. You were outside shaking like a leaf because you didn't know what was happening to you. In those days we didn't know anything about technology so to walk in and hear the noise of this machine, it was terrifying.

"The fact a grown woman is shaking like a leaf and crying coming in for a mammogram... I was telling myself to be strong and stop being like this but I couldn't help myself."

Mary said she tells her children she's lived in two worlds, as the Ireland of the past was so different to the modern world.

She said she hid her pregnancy from everyone due to the way Ithe country was in the 1970s.

Her pregnancy was only discovered when she fell sick in work in St Loman's in Mullingar and her boss called her ambulance. When the paramedics discovered she was pregnant Mary continued to keep it hidden from everyone else.

"They didn't take me to hospital. They took me to an old people's residential home. They put me in a corner out of the way. I was really ill at the time and they gave me injections and iron."

While she was in the residential home another young woman who worked with her who had also hid her pregnancy was also there.

A local priest came to visit the home and subsequently gave a sermon which Mary said was aimed at her and the other woman.

"They recorded the mass and you could hear it on the ward. He gave a sermon on the Sunday aimed at us about purity and the Blessed Virgin and that kind of stuff. Of course they all knew. There was one lady there from my village and didn't even speak to me while I was in there and 10 years later her own daughter came looking for her. She had been one herself and the whole time she was there looking down her nose at me."

She said she wasn't even allowed utter the word 'pregnant' when she was growing up.


"I say to my children I've lived in two different worlds, having lived in Ireland back then. By the late 1970s there was a change. There were more unmarried mothers keeping their babies. The generations coming up were more modern-thinking and the Church had started to lose its power."

After spending time in the elderly home she was allowed home for Christmas where she continued to hide her pregnancy from her family.

"I remember going around in a long black mac coat and walking around with my arms crossed over Christmas so nobody would notice I was pregnant."

She went into St Patrick's in January and found it a daunting experience.

"It wasn't good at all. I remember having to get down on my hands and knees cleaning floors."

She said she grew up without a mother so had no idea what to expect giving birth.

"We were petrified. There was no doctor. I remember screaming crying for my dad and a nun came in and slapped the face off me. There was no pain relief or nothing. It was really, really traumatic. They didn't even hand the babies to us after.

"One girl was only 14 when I was there. They brought her in for an examination and she wouldn't let them examine her. Oh the crude words they said, I don't even like to repeat. We could hear it outside talking about how she opened her legs for intercourse and things like that. It was horrible. She was only 14. They were really nasty to her."

Mary said when she got to the home she realised other people she knew were also there at the same time and all of them had hidden their pregnancies and she said the nuns looked down on them all.

"I think I was lucky I was there in the 1970s. If you had been there in the '50s or '60s God help you. They never said a kind word to you. You were just afraid of them the whole time."

A spokesperson for the Daughters of Charity said: "Files related to this facility were passed to the HSE/Tusla in 2011. You will also note from the Commission Report that 'Pellstown/St Patrick's on the Navan Road, [was] a facility owned by the Dublin Board of Guardians and its successors, to include the Eastern Health Board'."

A spokesperson for Tusla said: "In January 2014, records from St Patrick's Home were transferred to Tusla. While there are no separate files specifically on medical information, it is possible that medical information could be contained on individual files.

"In a situation where a person would like to seek access to their file, they can contact Tusla's Adoption Services and make a Freedom of Information request or a data subject access request." Alternatively, they can seek a tracing service. Details on how to proceed and contact details are available at tusla.ie

Mary has now made a request to Tusla for her data.

Today's Headlines

More Real Life

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices