By John Madden & David Jo Murphy
By now, we have all heard of the horrors of the Tuam case where, when the news first broke we were told of “significant quantities” of human remains being discovered at the site of a former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway. This unsettling news rocked the entire nation and once again put the Catholic Church into a very controversial spotlight. At present, the whole issue is being thoroughly investigated and until a proper report is published, much of what actually happened is down to speculation. There is, however, no doubt that something very unchristian happened there.
When the news of the Tuam case came to light, many of you may have seen the group known as the ‘Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors’ make the headlines as they worked with a number of TDs to highlight and expose the truth. It was through this organisation that we were reminded of the case of Mary Collins, whose story is one of anger, heartache, tragedy and bravery.
We first touched on this story in our August 2015 issue of Travellers’ Voice. Mary’s story tells us how much the State and church went out of their way to hide the truth. And so…to briefly recap – Mary’s mother Angela had three children out of wedlock, and we all know the type of treatment single mothers had to deal with in the middle of the 20th century, so, added to the discrimination of being a member of the Traveller Community, Angela found herself running from hatred and prejudice all of her life. In the era of the church dictating how women should live and behave, Angela was a prime target for punishment for her ‘sins,’ and the church saw her as being in need of being ‘purified,’ as she was, in the eyes of God, ‘a fallen woman.’
Mary Collins was found on the side of the road with her mum Angela (30), her sister Brigid (14) and father Patrick, near Tuam almost 50 years ago. Mary says that Angela was taken by Gardaí to a County home in Middleton, County Cork where she was seen by a psychiatrist. Angela then ran away from the home and made her way back to Tuam with Mary but was later captured again by the Gardaí and a psychiatrist admitted her into a Magdalene laundry for a period close to 27 years. Mary tells us she was not convicted of any crime and was neither a danger to herself or others. According to Mary, she has seen medical records which state that she and her siblings were well nourished when the Gardaí brought them in. Mary says that she was subsequently detained in an industrial school and her mother Angela was again sent to the Good Shepard’s laundry in Cork. The whole family were separated and didn’t see each other again until five years later.
During this time, Mary says that her mother was also taken into a Magdalene laundry and her younger sister was taken from their mother and placed into the foster system. When Mary was seven years old she was allowed to see her mother again in the laundry. The reason this was permitted was, according to Mary, her mother was told that she would only be permitted to see her daughter if she signed away adoption rights to her youngest daughter.
Mary continued to stay at the children’s home but would regularly visit her mother at the Magdalene laundries where she alleges she was “beaten, locked up with the pigs, had her face smashed into tables, was drowned in the bath, and had sores cut open with scissors by the nuns while she was screaming and howling. ” When she was visiting her mother, Mary alleges the nuns subjected her to horrific abuse, such as “name calling” and telling her she was “dirty and would end up like her mother,” whom Mary says, was also subjected to similar ill treatment.
Mary’s Mother Angela spent the rest of her life in the Magdalene laundry until the age of 48 when Mary states that her mother was admitted to hospital. Mary accessed Angela’s medical notes which she recounts disclosed that: “Angela was extremely anxious, not talking to anybody, was mute and had extremely low blood levels; “adding, “The hospital recommended that Angela have a hysterectomy if this continued.” According to Mary, the nuns “left Angela without medical treatment and Angela died of ovarian cancer at the age of 57.” In Mary’s opinion “the nuns practically killed her” adding, “When she died they dumped her in a mass grave in Cork with 72 other women.” Mary told Travellers’ Voice, “They knew that she came from a Traveller background, that she had three children, they knew me, and they still dumped her in a mass grave.”
Mary didn’t return again to the mass grave until years later when she had her own children. When they were visiting the big black headstone at St Finbar’s cemetery in Cork, one of Mary’s children said: “Mum when I’m older I’ll come back and put a flower on it.”
Mary tells us she has been contacting the government and religious institutions for several years and has yet to have her questions addressed sufficiently, neither, Mary says, has there been any apology from the State for what she claims was the horrific abuse and disruption to her family when she was a young girl. Mary told me, “The government have ignored me on the basis that I’m a Traveller and they don’t want to bring up issues regarding the Traveller families. I do believe that a lot of the Traveller families are in these mass graves and nobody is talking about it. The women and children were stolen off the streets and somebody needs to look into this. I got beaten because they (Travellers) were classed as murderers, as robbers; but these people were confused people who had their children robbed from them and if I had my child taken from me in the morning I would murder someone as well. This needs to be looked at because there was bad discrimination against the Traveller families because they were poor. ”
In the case of her mother, Mary alleges she was taken into the laundry against her will because she was poor and had children outside of wedlock. According to a person Mary knows, Mary tells us this individual told her that, “’On the first night she (Mary’s mother) was taken into the laundry she screamed the place down.’ You can imagine being a Traveller living on the side of the road and then being locked up in a laundry, she must have gone through horrendous torture to lock her up, and basically, nobody’s answering my question of why this was allowed to happen”. Mary says that her mother “wasn’t breaking the law, she was a Traveller living on the street with her three children, why did the government take me away from my Travelling family to go into a home and to be abused so badly that it’s left scars?”
That was where we left off with Mary in 2015. Since then she has been pursuing the truth and has also protested outside the Dáil to keep the pressure on. We recently caught up with Mary to see what, if anything, has come to light.
Mary tells us…”After the Dublin Protest we marched down to the Justice Department, they must have known we’re coming because we were locked out! We were going down to hand in a letter regarding the injustices suffered by my mother, and the Traveller community when it came to the issue of the abuses endured in these Church and State institutions; but we weren’t even allowed past the door. We returned to England, and once again, I wrote to the Justice Department. In the letter, I outlined everything. I mentioned being locked out of the Justice Department and I informed them of the person who abused me within the home and that the same person was now living far away from Ireland now, in America. I included the fact that I had reported her to the police and that nothing had been done. I stated in the letter that I felt discriminated against because of my Traveller background, I also wrote about my experience with the Redress Board who had said to me “we’re not going to investigate the Magdalene laundry, it’s private,” even though the records were there in front of them! I reported it to the English police; they then transferred it to Dublin Interpol. One official has been in contact with me and he has told me that they are trying to extradite this woman back to Ireland over the last few years. I wrote another letter to the Justice Department, their reply was that they could not intervene and that it was in the hands of the Dublin Police, and, “they are doing everything they can.” Then came the horrendous story of the findings of ‘significant quantities of human remains’ found at the site of the Mother and Baby home in Tuam.”
Mary Continues…”I went back to Cork in January to visit my mother’s grave and to have her body moved but the nuns ignored my request. I contacted Cork County Council and they were able to tell me where my mother was located within the mass grave. They also informed me that she could be exhumed and put into a private burial plot, but, that I would need the permission from the people who own the grave… and that is the Sisters of Charity. I sought that permission but it’s a no-go area, all doors have been shut but it’s ongoing, I won’t stop, but essentially a lot is happening but it’s going nowhere. Paths have opened but each path is blocked the further you go down.”
My belief is that a lot of these unidentified bodies of women and children are members of the Traveller community.
In terms of the Tuam case, Mary believes that the bodies there belong to the County home that was there previously. County homes were used before the introduction of Mother and Baby homes. These County homes’ remit was to provide healthcare and welfare. They contrasted in many ways from mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries, where disciplinary regimes were far stricter and based on redemptive morality. Mother and baby homes such as Bessborough in Cork City were intended for women with one ‘illegitimate’ child or ‘first offenders.’ Such “criminals” were often considered “hopeless cases” whose moral character could be brought back from the effects of immoral behaviour. A lot of women in county homes had one or more “illegitimate” children. These were “repeat offenders” and subjected to the harshest attitudes. Mary argues, “There needs to be a full investigation around all of this too, all of this has origins in the County Homes and leads onto the Mother and Baby Homes. If it was investigated thoroughly, I firmly believe that you will find out where all of these unidentified bodies of children came from, and I also have a strong belief that many of them came from the Traveller Community as well as others from Society’s outcasts. Mary finished by telling us that she is of the mind that there are many victims of this scandal within the wider Traveller Community who are fearful of coming forward.
The following is the list of names that Mary believes to be her relatives in Tuam. Her daughter, Laura told us, “My mum has contacted the Gardaí in Tuam, regarding a DNA on the remains. Her own mum had talked about twins dying while in the Magdalene laundry and two of these children would be about the same age and died in the same year.”
Geraldine Collins – 13 months (died 1947) Luke ward – 15 months (died 1934), Joseph Ward – 7 months, (died 1928), Thomas Collins – 17 months, (died 1947), Bridget Collins – 5 weeks (died 1937), Eileen Collins – 2 months (died 1936).
It is likely that this saga will go on and on for some time to come. If you would like to know more of the story or get involved in supporting Mary and the other victims and survivors of institutional abuse, you can visit the Facebook page www.facebook.com/Justice4AllMags/