'I loved vulnerable people, because I was that person. I always felt if I got into the Garda Síochána, I wanted to be that person who could touch them, and bring them to their truth. I suppose I wanted someone to do that for me as well. For me, the Garda Síochána was an organisation that had the ability to reach out to the vulnerable."
Majella Moynihan, whose memoir A Guarded Life, written with Aoife Kelleher, was published last week, had always wanted to be in the guards. She wanted, she writes, to protect the forgotten little children. Now, sitting in the peaceful kitchen of the house she is renting, deep in the midlands countryside, she reflects that she was one of those forgotten little children. She was trying to save herself.
The youngest of five daughters, Majella was only 18 months old when her mother died. Their father, unable to cope, placed all five children into St Joseph's Industrial School for Girls in Mallow in 1963. He went on to remarry, but his daughters were not taken back into his home until they finished their Leaving Certs.
"I knew my father loved me," Majella reflects. "But what I craved was for him to sit down, put his arm around me, and tell me that. Because as a child in an institution, you don't have that individual attention. You're one of a number and you have to fight for your place, and to be heard and to be seen."
As a teenager, Majella was repeatedly viciously beaten by one of the sisters running the institution. In one scene in her memoir, after receiving yet another beating, she runs down the corridor after the sister and attacks her. It is a display of the spirit in the young Majella, a girl who sneaks out at night to meet her boyfriend at the local chipper, who collects friends easily.
"That's when I got my voice," she says of the incident in which she finally pushed back. "I said either I fall or I stand. At that stage I said, I'm not taking this any more. Majella of those years was lonely, yet I had a wonderful spirit. There was a rebel in me, but I loved life."
When she left the industrial school, she moved into her father's house in Dublin and began working in various jobs. For a time, she had a boyfriend, Fintan, who also became a trainee guard. The pair broke up, but when Majella entered Templemore garda training college, they reunited. "I should never have gone back. But it was a sense of loneliness." Within months, what she describes as the brutality of the organisation she had entered began to fracture the dream she had held since she was a child.
"It was a male-dominated job. To me as a woman in the organisation, I felt we were second-class citizens. Even the fact of wearing the skirts and the Cuban heels… we had to fight for trousers."
At the time, the highest-ranking female was an inspector. "You had to be one of the lads. You fought against your own sexuality. You had to be really tough on the exterior - where I wasn't tough."
The fact that she was in a relationship with Fintan was viewed askance by her superiors, who called her in for questioning over the matter. "Had they anything better to be doing than questioning me about going with somebody down in Templemore?" she says indignantly.
It is only one incidence of a recurring theme in Majella's story, one universal to many women of that time: the sense of ownership that official Ireland seemed to extend over women's lives, and bodies. "It was prying into your personal life, that they had no right to. For the whole of my career, they pried into my personal life. Like they owned me."
In August 1983, Majella became pregnant. Having at first dismissed several attempts on her part to inform him, Fintan asked her father for her hand in marriage.
"I just couldn't believe it," she laughs. "There was nothing discussed. All I wanted was him to support me with my unborn child. I didn't want marriage."
A short while later, Fintan changed his mind, and walked away in January 1984.
"He said that whatever he does with his life is his business, and whatever I do with my life is mine. How did I feel? Gutted. Not for me, but for my unborn child. That he or she wouldn't have the support of a father," she says.
She was living in her father's home, and while her stepmother knew, it was deemed imperative that her father not find out. Majella's employers were told. "It went up through the channels," she says. Her superiors began to look into disciplinary proceedings against the young trainee, something she only became aware of when she returned to work after giving birth.
She reached out to Cura, the Catholic Church agency aimed at helping women with what were deemed "crisis" pregnancies (the agency closed in 2018). The support they provided was, Majella says, deceptive: "What I was seeing was somebody very welcoming and very kind. I wasn't able to see beyond that it was my child she wanted, not anything else."
The message coming from everyone was to carry the baby to term, as discreetly as possible, and then have the child adopted.
"I was in no fit state of mind to make any decision in relation to my child. And I still will say it to this day, that it was forced adoption. I know I signed the paper, but I was not in a mental state to sign the life of my child away."
Majella was sent to Galway, to a family who looked after women in her situation. They were warm and loving - she is still in contact with them - but it was an incredibly difficult time. "Often I look back at the girl of 21, and that total isolation and pain. It was an extremely dark and lonely, lonely place to be."
No one spoke to Majella about what labour would be like - in hospital she was denied pain medication and callously told to walk up and down - further punishment, she observes. The hospital felt like a factory, she writes, describing a bleak scene in which she sits utterly bereft, unable to hold her baby son, David, who was immediately taken away from her. Before David was formally adopted, she did get to meet him on several occasions.
"I was totally numb," she says of the months after he was born. "It literally ripped me apart. Because I didn't know what was going on in my head. Nobody had ever related to me what happens after you give birth. The post-natal depression that you get, about your breasts, I knew nothing."
Returning to Store Street, she planned to begin rebuilding her life. "And then they pounced with the charges that I had given birth outside of wedlock, and that I had sexual intercourse with a member of An Garda Síochána. Even now as I say it, who did they think they were?"
Majella was eventually cautioned, rather than dismissed, after the most unusual of interventions - Cura appealed to the church, and the Archibishop of Dublin Kevin McNamara intervened, meeting with the Garda Commissioner to argue that if Majella was fired, it would "open the gates to England", by which he meant abortion.
Her trials at the hands of her employer were not over. A year after giving birth, Majella was sent to Letterkenny, to an inquiry into Fintan, about his part in the matter. Fintan was supported by a representative of the Garda Representative Association when the two appeared before the three-man tribunal; Majella was not.
It was, she says, this incident that really broke her. She was grilled about her relationship with Fintan, and about past relationships. "They literally broke me in that room," she recalls, beginning to cry. "I felt that small; they just degraded me. And not being able to really say what I wanted to. And that was 'leave me alone, ye've put me through enough'. To question me about past men… they made me feel such shame, as if I had done something wrong. I did nothing wrong."
Giving birth and losing her child were hard enough, she explains. But for the matter then to be carried on, with the threat of disciplinary action hanging over her, compounded by this public lacerating, resulted in years of torment. "I'm ashamed to say I was a member of the gardaí. How they could do that to one of their own?"
She was told she would never progress within the ranks. "For years I believed I was promiscuous, I was easy, I was a slut. Today, it's extremely empowering to bring that back in and say 'Majella, I'm sorry for what I've done to you'. And I wish that I had been stronger, to tell them to jump in the river, and leave me alone. I lost my child, I lost my job, I lost everything," she says, her voice quivering with tears.
Majella began drinking heavily and self-harming. On several occasions, she felt suicidal. "I went out on the beat and gave the impression that I was this wonderful, carefree person, and inside I was dying. All they did during that period was load shame on me. I think only mothers will understand this: giving birth and then your child is taken, there's nothing as deep as that loss. I didn't cry for many, many years. Then one day the switch came on, and I said 'no longer am I doing this'."
It was 1989, and she took part in rebirthing therapy, a deep breathing process that brings you back into the traumas of your life, in order to expunge them. "I could see the horrific life that I had gone through, and the loneliness and the isolation. And that I always had to have my own back. I felt like I was a caged animal, and when I opened up that cage, I started to see the light. I thought 'Majella, you're going to come out of this, you'll work through this'."
She entered St John of God Hospital, a place she credits with saving her. She has been back on several occasions, including earlier this year for a nine-week stay.
"The light that shone inside of John of God's, it's like as if I was reborn."
For the first time, she feels in charge of her own life: "If I want to stay at home and read all day, I do that; if I want to walk, I do that. There are no conditions on me anymore to do anything. Whereas all my life, it was regimented. From the industrial school to the Garda Síochána: dictated, dictated, dictated. Now it's extremely empowering that the person who can tell me what to do is me. That is beautiful."
Her relationship with David, who she first met again when he was in his late 20s, is not, for now, what she would like it to be. It's publication day when we meet, and Majella has received a beautiful text from him that morning, she says. "I hope that some day, myself and himself can sit down, as a mother and son, and embrace each other for what both of us have come through. I'm with him every step of the way. I'm not expecting anything. If I do have a relationship, it's a bonus. If it's to stay like this, with contact three or four times a year, that's OK too."
She has another son, Stephen, 23, from her marriage (to another guard), which ended some years ago.
"We have always had a fantastic relationship. I know I was a great mother. I was always there, because I knew the importance of a child being loved. I loved every second of it. I would have loved to have been a mother of 10," she laughs. "It is a beautiful reward for the sadness I endured on my first child. At times, it saddens me, but it's not overtaking me. I'll never fill that hole in my heart because he has a part of my heart with him. And the stretch marks!"
Finally, she says, she is free of the shame that was forced upon her. "For me the message is: through all of our darkness comes light. The light does shine. At times there's only a snippet. But embrace that light, because that light gets bigger."
A Guarded Life: My Story of the Dark Side of An Garda Síochána, by Majella Moynihan with Aoife Kelleher, Hachette Ireland, €14.99
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