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Testament of hell: the raw truth of mother and baby homes vividly comes to life at Abbey Theatre



Brenda Fricker is among those giving a voice to the women and children of the homes. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Brenda Fricker is among those giving a voice to the women and children of the homes. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Brenda Fricker is among those giving a voice to the women and children of the homes. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Home: Part One Abbey Theatre

Three hours of relentless horror melding into a single stream of misery and desolation. It’s the sub-stratum of Irish society, a truth streaming in our theatrical history from the day a sanctimonious harridan physically attacked Sean O’Casey after the premiere of The Plough and the Stars, ranting at him that there wasn’t a prostitute in the length and breadth of Ireland.

Ireland was the island of saints and scholars – and we kept it that way, our founding fathers dedicating it to the Pope of Rome, assuring him of our permanent and willing subservience for all time.

And it has taken a century for the stinking shroud of hypocrisy to be ripped off, with the truth finally being laid bare of the way women were kept in subjection, their humanity denied, their peccadilloes a weapon for Church and State to scar them and destroy their lives.

The actor Noelle Brown was born in a mother and baby home, and she has spent her adult life trying to find the truth of her identity, hampered on all sides. She even wrote a play about it.

And now she is the curator for the stories that have finally come to light with Home: Part One, the truth of what happened in mother and baby homes in the name of keeping Ireland holy.

It has been premiered on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in a concept by Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, and will be available to view free of charge for the next four months on the theatre’s YouTube channel.

It actually doesn’t belong in a theatre, because it’s not theatre – repetitive, without humour, hope or creativity; just the truth read by a large group of women, mostly actors. Very few of them even attempt to act. Clearly they have been directed not to.

This is a composite report from hell, deserving of being delivered without ornamentation or exaggeration. If you have a soul to weep, you will not enjoy it.

The line-up is impressive and includes our most eminent from Brenda Fricker and Senator Ivana Bacik to Geraldine Plunkett, Karen Ardiff, Anne Enright, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Aisling O’Sullivan, Derbhle Crotty, Mary Murray and Marion O’Dwyer. And there are many more.

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All of the testimonies including those of men who gave their stories to the various commissions of inquiry are read by women.

The terrible accusations are so repetitively familiar they almost lose their shock value. Babies taken from their mothers during feeds to be handed over to adoptive parents. Signatures put on illegal adoption papers, the young mothers being told they were “just paperwork”.

A fee of a hundred pounds demanded from every inhabitant of the home to be released from her lifelong position as an unpaid “skivvy” for the nuns.

Sick babies left in what was called the “dying room” for up to two weeks before a doctor was called, often too late.

An under-age girl forced to lay tarmacadam on the driveway in the last stages of pregnancy “to pay for her sin”.

A small boy “boarded out” to a farming family where he was beaten and had nettles put in his pants as punishment. He found out later that his mother died after being incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry for 35 years.

A twin speaking of the “infamous red door” of the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society in Dublin. He was handed over without papers to an American Catholic priest to be given to the priest’s sister and brother-in-law. The priest went on to become a senior Diocesan figure – and to rape the boy.

A 15-year-old Traveller in labour being told by a nun to hate her own mother because she was a ”dirty itinerant” like herself.

And no pain relief in labour, not for any of them.

A mother whose baby was mixed race being told it was “the first and last time a black baby will be here”. She was 15, and unable to write, but it was claimed she signed adoption papers.

Case after case of babies called “half-coloured, “half-caste” in social documentation having their chances of being adopted dismissed as unlikely. Children about to be fostered having to be taught how to use a knife and fork.

From the bizarre to the hideous, the experiences of the 57,000 women (many of them still children themselves) and the 58,000 babies to whom they gave birth are now in the open and must never be allowed to disappear from the national consciousness...or the national shame.

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