"We wouldn't allow a girl to take her baby to bed with her unless it was at least two months old. Then she is probably fond of it. Before then there might be accidents." – Reverend Mother of Bon Secours mother-and-baby home in Tuam
THE year was 1955 and the nun was speaking to Dr Halliday Sutherland, a Scottish doctor, author and TB treatment pioneer who visited both the Tuam home run by the French sisters, and the infamous Magdalene Laundry in Galway City as he was researching his book, Irish Journey.
To gain access to the Magdalene Laundry, Dr Sutherland had to accept interrogation by the fearsome Bishop of Galway, Michael John Browne – one of the most senior Catholic clerics and a noted supporter of the notorious sectarian boycott of Protestants in Fethard-on-Sea.
Dr Sutherland's original 1955 manuscript kept by his grandson Mark (hallidaysutherland.com) is a remarkable contemporary account of what he found at the Tuam mother-and-child home 59 years ago.
He wrote: "At Tuam I went to the old workhouse, now the Children's Home, a long two-storied building in its own grounds. These were well-kept and had many flowerbeds. The home is run by the Sisters of Bon Secours of Paris and the Reverend Mother showed me round. Each of the sisters is a fully trained nurse and midwife. Some are also trained children's nurses. An unmarried girl may come here to have her baby. She agrees to stay in the home for one year. During this time she looks after her baby and assists the nuns in domestic work. She is unpaid.
"At the end of a year she may leave. She may take her baby with her or leave the baby at the home in the hope that it will be adopted. The nuns keep the child until the age of seven, when it is sent to an Industrial School. There were 51 confinements in 1954 and the nuns had now 120 children. For each child or mother in the home, the County Council pays £1 per week. That is a pittance.
"If a girl has two confinements at the home she is sent at the end of the year to the Magdalen (sic) Home Laundry at Galway. Children of five and over attend the local school. All the babies were in cots and the Reverend Mother said: 'We wouldn't allow a girl to take her baby to bed with her unless it was at least two months old. Then she is probably fond of it. Before then there might be accidents.''' Dr Sutherland also wrote a harrowing account of being mobbed by "a score of the younger children" at the home, in the hope he might adopt and give them a family home.
"The whole building was fresh and clean. In the garden at the back of the House, children were singing. I walked along the path and was mobbed by over a score of the younger children. They said nothing but each struggled to shake my hand. Their hands were clean and cool. Then I realised that to these children I was a potential adopter who might take some boy or girl away to a real home. It was pathetic. Finally I said: 'Children, I'm not holding a reception.' They stopped struggling and looked at me. Then a nun told them to stand on the lawn and sing me a song in Irish. This they did very sweetly. At the Dogs Home, Battersea, every dog barks at the visitors in the hope that it will be taken away."
Dr Sutherland later met Bishop Browne and made a contemporaneous note of the often hostile exchanges as he tried to get permission to visit the Magdalene Laundry.
Bishop Browne: "Why do you want to see the Magdalene Home?"
Dr Sutherland: "I want to see how you treat unmarried mothers. Many of these girls come to England. It is said that 55 per cent of the girls in British Catholic Rescue Homes are Irish."
Bishop: "That is propaganda. Fr Craven began it. Cardinal Bourne repeated it. For 25 years I have asked for the figures. They can't give them. Do you know the figures?"
Sutherland: "No, I'm trying to get them."
Bishop: "You will find there are only a few. Hundreds of decent Irish girls are going to England. At this moment your government are advertising high salaries for Irish girls to go to England as nurses in your mental hospitals."
Sutherland: "English priests say that most of the Irish lose their faith within six months of coming to England."
Bishop: "Then why don't your English priests look after the Irish instead of throwing bastards in our face!"
Sutherland: "My Lord, no-one is throwing bastards in your face. Ireland is a Christian country where going to Mass is a social duty difficult to avoid."
Bishop: "That is normal. It should be so in England."