What happened to Ireland’s stolen children?

Thousands of babies were sent away to other countries, including Australia, and subjected to horrific abuse.

This article discusses child abuse and child loss which may be triggering for some readers.

Dympna McGuire walked past the imposing red brick building with its tall arched windows, slate roof and spire, and suddenly felt waves of nausea rising from the pit of her stomach. As she neared the Irish orphanage where she had been placed in the care of Catholic nuns as an eight-month-old baby, she also began to shake uncontrollably.
Dympna spent the first four years of her life at Nazareth House in Belfast before she was taken to a ship and dispatched – alone – to the other  side of the world. She was one of thousands of stolen babies born in Ireland who spent their childhood in orphanages, laundries and workhouses simply because they were born into poverty, or because their birth mothers were young and unmarried. In an unforgiving and judgemental Catholic community, illegitimacy unjustly tainted mother and child. 

They were sent to places where, rather than being protected, some of those mothers and children were subjected to horrific neglect and abuse at the hands of the people who were supposed to care for them. As well as suffering unforgivable physical and emotional abuse, some babies and children were taken – without consent – from their mothers to be fostered and adopted by families across Ireland, the UK, Canada, America and Australia. 

Decades later, the mother and grandmother from Canberra, now 72, returned to Belfast to try to unearth details of her childhood and the birth mother she never knew. 

“My daughter was with me that day and she was very distressed because she’d never seen me react like that before. It was awful. I have no visual memories of my time in Nazareth House – I think because I’ve blocked them out – but throughout my life I’ve unexpectedly reacted to certain things without knowing why,” Dympna recalls.

“During that visit to Ireland I learned I was known as number 4314 – I wasn’t even worthy of being called by my name at Nazareth House. Unless you’ve walked in my shoes, it can’t be understood how debilitating that is on the soul and on your very being.”

The former Marianvale mother and baby institution in Newry, Northern Ireland, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters.

The ties between birth mother and baby were often irreversibly severed. By the time some of those children grew up, realised the enormity of what had happened and began their search for answers, the young women who had given birth to them had already died. Some, like Dympna’s birth mother, Nora McGuire, died never knowing what became of the children who were stolen from them. 

In recent years, a series of inquiries in Ireland have exposed the experiences of babies, children and mothers placed in mother and baby institutions, workhouses and the now infamous Magdalene Laundries from the early 1900s to as recently as 1990. Many courageous survivors have stepped forward to tell government authorities of what they endured and witnessed. 

Testimonies given to the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) include descriptions of nuns beating children with sticks, scalding them with boiling water, pulling  out clumps of hair and forcing children to stand outside in freezing weather.

Allegations were also heard of babies and children being used for vaccine trials.

The HIA Inquiry referenced comments from state health inspectors who visited the homes in the 1950s and reported that homes such as Nazareth House were “utterly depressing” and that the children were “being reared in bleak lovelessness”. 

Police in Northern Ireland are investigating these and other cases of babies and children being taken from their birth mothers without consent. They are appealing for adult survivors who may have been illegally taken from their birth mothers to come forward, and they believe some of those survivors were fostered and adopted in Australia. 

“We don’t know how many people in Australia have been affected, and some people who were affected will have no idea that anything like this took place in their early life,” says Detective Superintendent Gary Reid, who is leading the investigation for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

“We are trying to collect as many statements as we can to build a picture of what happened in these places. We’ve had some accounts of physical and sexual abuse, but most people have come forward in relation to adoptions, and are questioning whether their birth mothers actually gave informed consent for them to be adopted. We know some mothers weren’t given enough time to think about handing over their children, and some people we’ve spoken to believe documentation that gave consent for their adoption was forged.”

The HIA Inquiry heard that some parents whose children were sent to Australia without their consent were told their children had died or been adopted closer to home. They weren’t told they had been sent 16,000 kilometres away.

Dympna was one of the stolen babies of Ireland.
Dympna McGuire

Untold stories of Ireland’s stolen babies

Dympna is intelligent and determined and has spent years battling red tape and silence from the Catholic institution that ran Nazareth House. She’s frustrated by the silence that prevents her filling in the gaps in her early life and continues to deny her birth mother, Nora, the dignity she deserves.

“I know Nora’s mother died at the age of 56, when Nora was still young, but she had a good life with her father who continued to care for her and her children, even though she wasn’t married. He must have been a good man,” says Dympna. “Unfortunately, he died when Nora was 23 and her family then colluded with the Church to have Nora put in a home by suggesting she had a mental illness, when really she was simply an unmarried mother.” 

Nora spent five-and-a-half years in the Good Shepherd Convent in Newry and was then transferred to work in Dickensian-style laundries at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, in 1957. The days were long and backbreaking.  Nora’s children were taken from her. Dympna was sent to Australia where she was fostered a year later.  She believes this occurred without Nora’s consent and knowledge. Nora died in 1999 in an aged care home in Dublin – three years before Dympna returned to Ireland for the first time.

“I have no idea where  I was for the first eight months of my life, or how I ended up in Nazareth House, and at four years old I was taken to the wharf by the Mother Superior, put on a ship and spent six weeks at sea,” she says. “When the ship arrived in Fremantle, I remember other children like me getting off and we were sprayed for lice. I was put back on the ship, arrived in Melbourne and was taken to Nazareth House in Camberwell. One of my enduring memories there is being told by the nuns that I’d ‘end up in the gutter’ like Nora.

“I still can’t come to terms with how cruel society was. Nora was scorned and judged and tossed away – nobody had the right to  do that and I want her story to be told and for Nora to rest in peace.  I also want to fill in the gaps in my story before I die. “I know nothing of my biological father. I don’t know why nobody  ever visited me in the orphanage in Ireland.

“Even though I was fostered by a fabulous family in Australia,  part of me has always felt like that little girl who nobody wanted.”

– Dympna

A lonely life

Belfast-born David Ralph is also searching for answers and for surviving family members.  The 88-year-old from Ipswich, Queensland, knows he was born  in a workhouse to an unmarried mother called Sarah Annie Brown. Beyond that, he knows little else.

“I know Mum gave me away to a couple called Minnie and Stanley Boylan when I was two months old. They looked after me until I was four. For some reason my mum then took me away from them and I was advertised for adoption in the local paper,” David tells The Weekly.

David was one of the stolen babies of Ireland who lives in Queensland now.
David with adoptive father Eugene Ralph.

He was adopted by a couple called Helen and Eugene Ralph. But when Eugene went to war, Helen fell on hard times and turned to drink and prostitution. David remembers often going to school without breakfast or lunch. He never owned a toy throughout his childhood – he only remembers once being given a red balloon.

“One day, my teacher asked what I’d had for breakfast and I said ‘nothing’. She asked what I’d had for dinner the night before and I said ‘nothing’. She gave me sixpence and told me to buy some buns in the local cake shop. When I returned to the classroom, she told me to sit down and eat the buns until they were finished,” David recalls, his voice breaking as he remembers the kindness shown to him.

David was sent to Balmoral Boys’ Home where he spent the next seven years. Primarily a home for troubled youths, it was also a place for children like David who had no family to care for them. He says it was the best time in his young life because he was fed, bathed and had friends.  

But at the age of 12, he was moved to Manchester, England, to live with Eugene Ralph’s sister and her husband. Life was lonely and David says he was regularly beaten. At 17, David struck out on his own. He joined the British Army for a few years and in 1959, while working as a bus conductor,  he met his future wife, Patricia, and together they raised four children in  a loving home. In 1969, they migrated to Queensland. David became a nurse in a mental health hospital and then a prison officer.

The many questions he has about his early life and birth mother remain. “I want to know what happened to my mother and whether I have brothers and sisters,” he says.

“When I was younger, I often felt alone, even in a crowd.”

– David

“I always wondered why my mother gave me away and if she ever thought of me on my birthday and at Christmas. But I don’t blame her for what happened  – what kind of family sends their daughter to the workhouse to have her baby and then give him away?”

David’s daughter, Traci, says her dad’s lack of family connection and love in his early years had a significant influence on the kind of father he became. “It’s been really important to Dad to have a family of his own to love and care for, and who need him and love him dearly. He brought us up with beautiful memories and he’s always put family first and still does. He’s always the first to offer help, love and support to everyone around him, but I know  he’s always wanted to find out who he is and he desperately wants, and deserves, peace in that part of his life.”

Castledare Boys Home, Cannington, Western Australia.

Finding home

Like David, Dympna created a future and a family of her own. She was fostered by “the best family in the world” a year after she arrived in Melbourne and feels lucky and grateful for the love and support that they gave her. “They tried to adopt me but the nuns said my birth mother wouldn’t allow it – even though Nora didn’t even know where I was. That was extremely sad and cruel,” says Dympna.

She studied, joined the public service and had children and grandchildren, but she continued to endure tragedy with the loss of a baby to SIDS and then the sudden death of a son at the age of 26 in 2005. “He was a teacher and healthy but he suddenly died and we don’t know why, so I’d like to find Nora’s medical records to see if they can reveal any useful information that helps us understand why he died. I’ve lost two children and that broke me and I need honest answers that can help shed some light on that.”

Throughout her life, Dympna has felt an affinity with Ireland, despite the trauma she experienced there in the early years. “It’s my home and  it’s who I am. When I first went back, I couldn’t believe how overwhelmed I was. The country was part of a dirty history at the beginning of my life but I’m Irish  to the core,” she says proudly.

Detective Superintendent Reid says the people like Dympna and David who have come forward to the investigation are some of the bravest people he’s come across  in 30 years of policing. “There’s an acceptance that what happened back then was totally wrong – it shouldn’t have happened and these people want acknowledgement of  that and to ensure it’s not airbrushed out of history,” he says. “In some cases, these things happened long ago but they’re very much alive in the minds of those who were affected by this trauma,  and people live with those memories every day. I hope they understand they’re believed.”

 To contact the Northern Ireland police investigation, email MotherBabyHomes. [email protected]

If the issues raised in this article have affected you or someone you know, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14; Call 1800Respect on 1800 737 723; Call Bears of Hope on 1300 11 HOPE.

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