Feb 14, 2024

The triumph of nature over religion

Being pregnant and unmarried in the 1960s in Ireland was frowned upon and humiliated the family, creating a scandal in the neighbourhood. [Source: Shutterstock]

I met Maeve a year ago when she had moved into residential care; unable to manage at home and with no immediate family to help, the alternative was to enter residential care where she would benefit from round-the-clock care.

Maeve had a haunting smile and a gleam in her eye when she talked to you in that soft, gentle Irish voice. Reading a book one day about Ireland, she turned to me and said “I was born and brought up in Dalkey”. I hear it’s one of Dublin’s wealthiest districts – writers, artists, and celebrities, including George Bernard Shaw, Jane Emily Herbert, Julius Olsson, and Maeve Binchy, have made their home there. There was pride in her voice that Dalkey had been her home and where she was born, even though the darkest memories still haunted her. The family was poor and as the youngest of six children, Maeve had few possessions to call her own. Her father was a fisherman and tried to make ends meet. Her mother took in sewing and washing for the more wealthy families in the district.

Maeve told me that what she was about to share with me was disturbing and that she had wanted to talk about the horrors of her early years before it was too late.

When Maeve was only 16 years old, she met Rory and was besotted by the attention this young, handsome eighteen-year-old Air Force cadet gave her, telling her how beautiful she was and how he would love her forever, putting her head in a spin. 

Maeve knew that this sort of thing never happened to a good catholic girl and that she had committed a mortal sin and would disgrace her family. She kept the pregnancy secret except for confiding in her eldest sister, Maureen. 

When she was seven months pregnant, her mother caught sight of her when she was washing, dragged her into the kitchen and gave her a severe scolding; her only concern was what the neighbours would say when they found out and what Father Thomas would do. Without any consultation, Maeve was sent away that night to a mother-and-baby home run by the Catholic Church until the baby was born. 

Maeve tells me of the torment, fear and terror that followed from being separated from family, friends and all things familiar to strict, cruel, regimented nuns who shunned the girls into shame and humiliation for the sins they had committed.

Being pregnant and unmarried in the 1960s in Ireland was frowned upon and humiliated the family, creating a scandal in the neighbourhood.

Two weeks later, Maeve and five other girls from the mother and baby home were shipped to Australia to start a new service life. The penance for her sins was to be banished from her family, friends, church and all she knew to a hot and foreign distant land.

Once in Melbourne, Maeve found work as a waitress, shunning the idea of being placed into service for the rest of her life. She rented a small, clean bed-sit close by and started her new journey in life. 

Maeve looked at me and smiled, telling me this was where she met Eddie, a cheeky young man who visited her tea shop every Friday afternoon. At first, Maeve was reluctant to get involved, considering her limited experience with men, tainted by her previous history. Until she felt in her heart that she could trust him, eventually agreeing to go on a date to the cinema on her day off. They dated for two years before getting married and moving to Sydney; Eddie had a promotion in the bank.

They had two sons, Patrick and Connor; always in the back of her mind was the baby she left behind, whom she named Bridget in her head.

During a family trip back to Ireland, Maeve retraced her steps through the town she once called home with great trepidation; no family members were living there, both parents had died, and her siblings had scattered across the globe. 

An old neighbour, Mary Maloney, recognised Maeve and invited the family in for tea and scones. She told Maeve that she knew the family who adopted her daughter and had called her Bronwyn; sadly, she had died the year before of cancer. Mary added that Bronwyn had a daughter, Siobhan, who was studying at Dublin University and was currently on a gap year in South America. Mrs Maloney promised to pass on Maeve’s address and phone number in case she wanted to get in touch when she returned to Ireland.

The family returned with a mixture of emotional memories, hopeful that Siobhan would contact her.

The months passed with no word, and Maeve resolved that it was probably best to let go of the past. Several weeks later, there was a knock at the door, and a young blonde-haired woman stood there with a heavy rucksack on her back, explaining she was Siobhan.

The couple sat talking, laughing and exchanging stories for hours; Siobhan spoke about her mother with great affection, and Maeve explained why she had to give her baby up for adoption.

Maeve had her daughter replaced by her granddaughter, and Siobhan got to know the grandmother she never had.

Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

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  1. This was such a heartfelt and engaging story, it really moved me. As a woman growing up in a good Catholic family, I can definitely relate. I really enjoy this author’s style of writing, keep them coming!

  2. Thankyou for that beautiful story. Sadly my sister now dead, had a similar thing happen to her. Never any chances to resolve related issues.

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