'I was shunned because I was a single mum'
Forty years ago, Maura O'Dea's experiences led her to form a support group for unwed parents. Chrissie Russell reports
If you work in an office, the chances are that at some point a new mum co-worker, or even new dad, has brought their bundle of joy in for the obligatory workplace visit.
There will have been cuddling, congratulations and maybe even cake in celebration of the birth where the doting parent leaves wrapped in a warm blanket of satisfaction having shown off their pride and joy.
It's hard to believe that 40 years ago, Maura O'Dea was denied this rite of passage.
The new mum had to hide her pregnancy at her Dublin office, where she worked as a financial controller.
When her daughter, Carol, was born, she had to keep the child a secret and move into a mobile home -- because she was an unmarried mother.
"It's hard to believe now what kind of bloody society we lived in," she says. "It was ridiculous.
"No one was supposed to be having sex outside marriage in Ireland, and if you did and got pregnant then you gave the baby up for adoption -- only an inadequate woman would keep her child."
Maura (now 73) did keep her child and in doing so tried to find other 'shadow women' in the same position, raising their children alone.
She put an ad in a newspaper offering to meet unmarried mothers at her new home on Kimmage Road and was shocked by the response.
"When I was pregnant I couldn't find an unmarried mother to talk to, now suddenly they were arriving on my doorstep from all over," she laughs. "After feeling such isolation it felt like vindication."
From those Wednesday night meetings, Cherish was born.
The self-help organisation, which today celebrates its 40th anniversary under its new title One Family, saw Maura and fellow single mothers take on the church and Government to grant recognition and financial assistance for unwed parents.
One of the group's members was single mother Mary Kerrigan (72) who set up the Limerick/Clare branch of Cherish in 1975.
"It's hard to explain how it felt to be part of this group of amazing women," she recalls.
"I felt like I belonged, like I had a family. It moved me into a different place in society where I felt I could make a difference."
Through the organisation, struggling single mums found emotional support and practical assistance.
Baby clothes, children's shoes and cribs were donated; women thrown out of their homes by landlords or family were given a roof over their heads, and job placements were sought for those needing work. The group's HQ was established on Pembroke Street.
News of the group spread thanks in part to Mary Robinson's endorsement as President of Cherish and Maura bravely appearing on The Late Late Show and a host of other media engagements -- the first single mother to do so.
'Brave' however is not a label Maura cares for. "I just thought to hell with it," she laughs. "Somebody had to do it. Lots of the women had parents alive and were worried about their families.
"My parents were dead and when I'd told the rest of my family, they'd been supportive."
She adds: "It's the fear that does us in. Often it was surprising how positive the public and the press were. Of course there were the wailers and begrudgers but mostly people came around."
She struggled, drying nappies in the oven of a tiny mobile home, haggling over clothes dryers and working out how to make formula all the while worrying that someone would come and take her child away from her.
While their mission was always to ensure that a mother was given every support to help her to keep her child, not all stories ended happily.
"There was a woman who had come to stay with me from west Clare," recalls Mary.
"Her family didn't know she was pregnant.
"I found her very difficult to get through to; she wouldn't open up.
"One night she tried to do away with herself by taking an overdose. I had to contact her family and, when they found out, the first thing they wanted to know was could she have an abortion.
"She went on to have a little girl who she gave up for adoption. She told me she'd named it after me."
In 1977 Maura left her active role in Cherish after marrying Graham Richards and moving to Tunbridge Wells. Her autobiography, Single Issue, is being re-released by Poolbeg this month as an ebook.
After 15 years, Mary, who now lives in Spain, closed the Limerick branch.
"My story had moved on and, because it was a different era, what I had gone through wasn't quite the same as younger women. It was time to step back."
Today is a very different world but the foundation laid by the women of Cherish continues on the work done by One Family.
One in eight people in Ireland live in a one-parent family and more than 69pc of those living in lone parent households experience one or more forms of deprivation.
One Family (onefamily.ie) offers support, information and services to enable one- parent families to enjoy the rights and opportunities of other family units.
"There's still more to be done," says Maura. "It's women who are eternally vulnerable in the economy.
"There are still big issues for single families, including a lot of resources. Things are much, much better than in our day, but single mothers often still struggle and are made feel inferior."
One Family will be marking their 40th anniversary with a talk and drinks reception at 6.15pm this evening in The Pillar Room at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. Call 016629212 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for tickets.