Wednesday 19 September 2018

Lay of the Land: May is the month to remember the many Marys

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Fiona O'Connell

'May is the month of Mary" - though this one is also when the Repeal the Eighth Referendum takes place, as placards around this country town remind us. Apparently, abortion happened in ancient Ireland, but a woman who found herself with an unwanted pregnancy 100 years ago most likely ended up in a county home.

These were the last refuges for the powerless in Irish society. "There'd be old people who had no home and were in bad health," says local Paddy. "Ten or 20 of them could die in a week if they got the flu."

And if life was cheap for these unfortunate citizens, then death was even more undignified. For they were buried in "the shankyard", as locals called the field behind the home.

"They'd bring them up there with a horse and cart; no priest, no prayers, no nothing. Dig a trench and tip them in - they kept filling it in the whole time. People arriving afterwards, from America, looking for their relatives were distressed because they couldn't find them."

Paddy knows all this, not just because he's "always been big into history". For his grandmother was born in the county home. "I did the family history and found her birth cert and sponsors."

His mother rarely mentioned her. "But she knew. We were once at a wedding in a fancy venue and she said: 'look at this place, this should have been mine'."

For "the culprit" was from a wealthy background. "But he fecked off to America and left her there. The men who did it got away with it and it was covered up. Being illegitimate, my mother had no say. And being a woman, she had less than that."

Paddy remembers the old uncle who "would have a bit of pity on my mother and gave her some money at Confirmations and birthdays. She'd shove it down into her pocket".

Many girls, who "got into trouble", worked as domestics, like the young Church of Ireland servant from Carlow that Paddy's mother remembered.

"She got pregnant by the butler and her parents wouldn't take her back."

The girl drowned in the river.

"The women in the big house laid her out in a dress. They took her in a cart with two lanterns to the graveyard at night, so no one would see."

Paddy's great grandmother, Mary, was also a servant. "When the time came, she was put into the county home to have the child." Mary left her there and later married. But tragedy wasn't done with her, for Mary and her family all perished in a fire.

What happened to the baby girl, who would become Paddy's grandmother, is in some ways just as perturbing. A local family took her out of the home and reared her. "They treated her well." When she came of age, one of them married her.

"That happened a lot. It was either that, or stay in the county home till she was 16. They were taken into homes, used for scrubbing floors." All because they were guilty of being born to an unmarried Mary.

Sunday Independent

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