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Speaking out Mother and baby home survivor fights to be the voice for brother buried in mass grave

Paul Vincent O'Hanlon died after a few short months in one of Northern Ireland's notorious homes and lies in a mass grave in Belfast


Fionnuala Boyle at the grave of her brother Paul

Fionnuala Boyle at the grave of her brother Paul

Fionnuala Boyle at the grave of her brother Paul

Mother and baby home survivor Fionnuala Boyle wants to be the voice of her brother.

Paul Vincent O'Hanlon died after a few short months in one of Northern Ireland's notorious homes and lies in a mass grave in Belfast with more than 30 other remains.

Fionnuala was taken from her mother after a week and adopted at four months, which gave her a happy life and potentially saved her life.

Now the 46-year-old from Galbally, Co Tyrone, hopes that by sharing her story and her anger she can encourage other survivors to speak out.

In January an official report into the Magdalene Laundries as well as mother and baby homes run by the Catholic Church, Salvation Army and Protestant institutions found that 10,500 pregnant and desperate women had been through their doors between 1922 and 1990. The report states the real number is probably higher because of incomplete records.

The Marianville home in Belfast only closed three decades ago and 21 women gave birth there in its final year.

Survivors told the report's authors of an atmosphere of shame and cruelty which was passed on in the poor treatment or neglect of their children. The death rate among children in St Joseph's in Belfast up until the 1950s was described as 'alarmingly high' and at one stage reached 50 per cent. Paul O'Hanlon spent most of his short life there and died in Belfast City Hospital at seven months old in 1972.


Fionnuala with the report

Fionnuala with the report

Fionnuala with the report

Fionnuala, a mental health project worker and writer, was part of the group that looked at the report and then formed a team with specialists to decide on the next steps for survivors.

Speaking in a personal capacity, she gave a deeply moving presentation to Mid Ulster District Council last month. As a result of her testimony it has agreed to ask all the councils in Northern Ireland to help survivors.

"I speak for myself and my birth mother and for Paul," says Fionnuala.

"That's my brother and he was just discarded like he didn't mean anything at all.

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"My birth mother died without me ever meeting her, in 2015. I will be my birth mother's voice because I'm part of her and she is not here any more and she never got the opportunity to speak.

"I want to encourage other people to come forward."

The mum of four knew from the start that she'd been adopted and says she was blessed with loving parents who told her the truth about herself and Paul.

"I always knew I was adopted at 15 weeks old. They were always honest with me.

"My adoptive parents knew I was the second child, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I learned his name and then started trying to find him."

That process was protracted and often painful.

When Fionnuala went to the General Register Office hoping to find her older brother she was left in shock - that was how she found out Paul was dead.

"I was handed his birth certificate and his death certificate. It took the breath from me.

"When you're an only child the thought of having siblings was like all my dreams come true.

"Then to discover that he was in St Joseph's and he had died, and he had been put in a mass grave. I was reeling."

It took countless phone calls to find out Paul's cause of death, bronchial pneumonia. Fionnuala then asked for help from a local archaeologist to find his burial plot in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, after the painful discovery that he was in a mass grave in the Bog Meadows.

"I would get so far and be pushed back. It was trauma after trauma."

As a baptised child Paul had a right to lie in consecrated ground, in a proper grave.

Fionnuala has now been able to give him the dignity in death he was never given by his carers, the Good Shepherd Sisters.

She placed a cross on his grave and plans to put a headstone on it this year to mark his 50th birthday.

"That's my flesh and blood and he was just discarded. The only reason was that someone somewhere thought an illegitimate child deserved to be treated that way.

"When I knew where he was, I could go down and I could lay flowers and mark the fact that he had been here.

"I was more at peace finally, and I had a wee bit of concrete information."

Fionnuala would like to know more about how Paul lived and died and says survivors need official support to access information about their family members.

"There has been cover-up after cover-up. I hope councils will help people, and the more who speak out the more confidence we'll have.

"This is no longer their shame to carry," says Fionnuala.

Anyone who was held, placed or born in one of Northern Ireland's Mother and Baby homes or Magdalene Laundries can contact the independent team at www.truthrecoverystrategy.com, email truthrecovery@nigov.net or call 03000 200789.

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