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I didn’t have a stammer when I started school. It was a small school in rural Ireland in the 1960s, and most teachers used corporal punishment. I remember the fear of being summoned to the teacher’s desk if I misspelled something or solved a maths problem incorrectly. I tried so hard not to do anything wrong, but I think some of them just enjoyed inflicting violence on us. One teacher would send me to the ditch outside to find a stick to be beaten with.

I still cry when I think about that school. When my stammer developed, I thought people would start being kinder to me, but they weren’t. Instead it opened me up to horrendous bullying. Stammering can be a genetic thing that gets switched on if we have bad experiences, I later found out. But that doesn’t describe how much it hampered my life, and I still stammer badly when I am stressed.

I didn’t have much protection or support at home. I was an only child, and when I was born, in 1956, my father was 62 and my mother 42. They had been matched in marriage in the ’50s, when matchmaking was still common in Ireland. My father was often unwell and died from cancer when I was in school. My mother also had many health problems, and I became her caretaker after my father’s death. That also left its mark, as I developed intense anxiety about my own health.

I married in my mid-twenties, and my husband moved into my mother’s house with us. When I had my own child, my son was my delight. My late husband had been a laborer, working very hard for very little money, and we both vowed that our son would have a good education and a good life. We gave him a lot of encouragement, and he has done well, teaching math and business in a secondary school.

While married and raising my son, I continued to care for my mother full-time. Adult children will, of course, want to help their parents occasionally, but I felt coerced into providing 24-hour care at the expense of my freedom, my mental and physical health, and any prospect of a career for myself.

I warned my son that I would never allow him to be a caregiver for me. Everyone should be able to follow their own path in life, but in the Ireland of my youth, children were seen as the possessions of their parents.

Twenty years after the birth of my son, when I was in my forties, I was still caring for my mother in that same house. It felt like a cage from which I had no way out. I know now that I was completely burnt out. I had started to burn dinners. I dreaded getting out of bed every morning.

My first job was to empty and clean my mother’s commode. I used to stand outside her bedroom door and wonder how I was going to face it. After that, it was a full day of endless caregiving and housework. Once my son started school, I wanted to work part-time but never had the freedom. I was told that God had sent me into the world to be my mother’s caretaker. By that time, I was 46 and my mother 88, and I no longer believed in God.

I knew I wanted to do something with my life. The Ireland around me was slowly moving forward; I could see that young women were living a different life from the one I had been forced into. And I could see that I was getting older and had achieved nothing.

Everyone should be able to follow their own path in life, but in the Ireland of my youth, children were seen as the possessions of their parents.

I decided to move my mother to a care home and apply to university. There were fierce objections in my parish, especially from health care providers. Some women my age treated me like an outcast and made me feel like a disgrace, and some still hold it against me.

I also found that as a parentified child and long-term caregiver, I kept trying to please people, to say yes, and to look after everyone else instead of myself. If a stranger dropped something in the street, I would run and pick it up for them. When visitors called in, as was the habit in rural Ireland, I would always cook for them even though I had very little myself. When someone was having a hard time, I would always listen and spend time trying to help them.

I do believe, of course, in helping people. But I did it because I thought that God would reward me, while in reality I was just uneducated and vulnerable and people were taking advantage of me. In college, I started to learn how to mix with people, and I don’t allow myself to be taken advantage of anymore.


Irish culture has undergone some seismic changes in the past few decades. The country’s membership in the European Union has been transformative, providing enormous economic and social benefits for its people. With prosperity and more social mobility, the Irish people have become more outward looking and more confident in asserting control over their own lives.

In May 2015, the Irish people passed a referendum allowing for same-sex marriage, and in May 2018 another referendum allowed the government to legislate for legal abortion. Laws are likely to be changed further so that abortion will be freely available up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and later abortions allowed if there are fatal fetal abnormalities or serious danger to the mother’s life. There are also plans to deliver sex education programs and increase access to contraceptives to reduce crisis pregnancies. And there will be another referendum this autumn on removing sexist language from the constitution.

The Ireland around me was slowly moving forward; I could see that young women were living a different life from the one I had been forced into.

These changes show a radical shift in public values and expectations in a society that has rapidly become more progressive. Though the Catholic Church tries to tell people how to vote, the majority pay no attention.

This new and modern Ireland would shock those I knew in my childhood. I have met many people from other countries who don’t know this about Ireland, who don’t realize that we were so oppressed and raised in such a misogynistic, patriarchal, theocratic, cruel place.

Much of this can be traced back to the men who shaped the country’s identity 100 years ago. In 1922, Ireland gained its independence from British rule after 800 years of occupation and conflict. One dominant conservative politician, Éamon De Valera, was particularly influential in designing the country’s new, socially conservative constitution. Between 1932 and 1973, De Valera was Taoiseach—the head of Irish government—three times, and then president. He was pious and very close to the Catholic hierarchy. In 1937, De Valera drafted constitutional amendments that valorized a woman’s place as “within the home,” made blasphemy illegal, and set into law Ireland’s obligations to “our Divine Lord Jesus Christ.”


One of my earliest memories from childhood is forgetting the cap I had to wear for Mass one Sunday and having to run home to get it. In church, men sat on one side of the chapel and women on the other, with their heads covered. It was a terrible sin not to attend Mass back then; children would be hit if they didn’t go or if they talked during the service.

During Mass, the priest said prayers that symbolically changed bread into the body of Christ and wine into the blood of Christ. The priest consumed bread and wine, and the rest of us were just given the bread. You couldn’t touch the holy bread, known as the host, because it was sacred. One day, when the priest went to put the host on my tongue, it nearly fell out of my mouth — I held my hands tight to my face, and a woman tried to pull them away.

The rosary was recited in most houses every night. It is a long and complicated prayer ritual that can be intimidating for anyone, let alone a child, and I hated it because I stammered, which made me even more nervous. Religion and corporal punishment went hand in hand, and children would be slapped hard on the hands, the bottom, or the legs with sticks, canes, or rulers. A child could be punished for spelling something wrong, getting a math sum wrong, talking in class, or not paying attention. Left-handed children, known as citeogs, would be punished and forced to hold the pencil in their right hand. I remember getting punished because I didn’t understand some part of the Act of Contrition, which is a prayer to ask God to forgive your sins as you promise not to sin again.

I had a terrible fear of dying and going to hell for all eternity. When someone would die, old people would say, “Well for her, to be gone from this valley of tears,” and that “sickness was a punishment from God.” And if things were going well, then we’d have to watch out as something would come to strike us down. It was as if we could never hope for anything to go right for us. We always expected bad things to happen.

My parish church always had confession on the evening of the first Friday of the month. When you entered the confession box, you would say. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” and then tell the priest how long it was since your last confession. And then you would tell him your sins. He would ask you to recite the Act of Contrition, absolve you from your sins, and give you a penance, or self-punishment. I usually had to say three Hail Marys for my penance. When I was a teenager, I remember feeling that I had committed a terrible sin because I felt hatred for someone who had yelled at and bullied me. I was too afraid to go to confession in my own church in case the priest recognized me, so I hitched a lift to a different church in town. I confessed and said I was sorry and vowed to not hate again. When I think back now, I realize how brainwashed I was. It is 40 years since I stood in a confession box.


Women suffered particularly in the oId Ireland. When I was young, I heard them say that fallen women went to Roscrea — a threat that was laden with guilt and sin.

Later, I found out that Magdalene laundries were homes run by nuns, where girls would be locked up for having babies outside of marriage. These laundries were named after Mary Magdalene, who was considered a fallen woman, like the single pregnant girls who were supposedly fallen women too. The laundry near me was Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary, and it ran from 1930 until 1970.

Sometimes a girl could be put into one of these laundries for the crime of having good looks, or because she was a little bit wild, or maybe because she was an unwanted stepdaughter. The girls had to work hard in the laundries with no pay to atone for their sins. I remember a nun saying that fallen girls had to be kept in confinement because “when they did it once, they would do it again.” Young girls from my area were threatened with Roscrea, and young boys were threatened with the reformatory in Daingean, County Offaly.

These laundries were really mother and baby homes, where babies and toddlers were taken from their mothers and placed for adoption — in some cases sold to couples in America. A mother might look after her baby for two years and suddenly have her child taken from her.

If her baby was stillborn, it was believed that the baby was born with the stain of original sin. Those babies would be forgotten, hidden, the women treated as if the baby never existed, even after the distress of giving birth to them. They would have to bury their grief and could never talk of it. Even menstruation could never be talked about, because the Blessed Virgin would blush.

Local priests held sway over their communities, who believed it was unlucky to go against him. Sex was an evil, sinful act, and for a girl to become pregnant outside marriage was the greatest sin of all. Even married women had to be “churched” after childbirth; they weren’t allowed to leave their home for six weeks, and they had to go to the church outside of hours to be ritually cleansed by a blessing before they were allowed back. I heard stories about priests coming to take pregnant girls and bring them to the nuns. And I heard of priests calling a girl’s name from the altar for bringing shame on her parish.

I had a terrible fear of dying and going to hell for all eternity.

Recently, mass graves of babies have been discovered buried in sewage facilities beneath former laundries. It is not known how these children died, but it is thought that malnutrition and neglect may have contributed to their deaths. Many people in Ireland are trying to reconcile their faith with these horrific revelations and instinctively want to defend the Catholic Church. Others are simply in denial that any of this could have happened and blame parents for putting their daughters into Magdalene laundries.

This country claimed to be Catholic, that its people were followers of Jesus, and that every child was considered a child of God. The scandal of these places and the cruelty they dealt out casts a heavy shadow of shame over Ireland.


Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of children was endemic. Orphanages, reformatories, and industrial schools were cruel, neglectful places filled with children from poor families. Many children were abused in these institutions — institutions that were supposed to care for them but gave no education or support to help them lead independent lives in the adult world.

I knew many children institutionalized by these places whose lives later spiraled downwards as dysfunction passed down from generation to generation. Ireland still suffers from a high proportion of mental health problems, a huge drug problem, and a lot of violent crime. The country has the world’s fourth highest suicide rate among young men, and according to Ireland’s Health Service Executive, there are 500 cases of suicide and 12,000 attempted suicides every year.

Religion played a large part in creating this climate. Education for institutionalized children was poor, and they often left school barely able to read and write. The real cause of misbehavior was often poverty or a lack of proper parenting skills in very large families. And families were large because contraceptives were illegal for many decades and family planning of any kind was regarded as a sin.

This country claimed to be Catholic, that its people were followers of Jesus, and that every child was considered a child of God.

In 1971, a group of young women protested the ban on contraception, catching a train from Dublin to Northern Ireland to buy condoms and spermicide. They arrived back in Dublin triumphantly waving their condoms in the air while the nation looked on in outrage.

Even when the law changed in 1980 to allow doctors to prescribe contraception for “genuine” family planning, there was fierce resistance from the Catholic hierarchy and from many politicians. Many pharmacists objected and would not dispense contraceptives — some still won’t. In 1985, spermicides and condoms became available over the counter without a prescription; in 1993, they could be sold in vending machines. Women have had to fight long and hard to have control over their bodies and their lives. The abortion vote in May 2018 finally told the church, the conservatives, and the world that Irish women have risen up.


I was not allowed to follow my own path when I was young, because as a girl and an only child I was expected to stay at home to care for my parents. Middle-class girls could expect to become nurses or teachers or work in the bank, at least until marriage. But if poor, working-class girls expressed any ambition, they were accused of trying to rise above their station — of having “notions.” Instead, they were tied to full-time, unpaid housework and caring duties, often with very poor facilities. I heard old women say that married women shouldn’t work because they would be taking jobs from men, and that girls shouldn’t be educated because there was no point when they were only going to get married. It was a woman’s duty to look after everyone who needed help and to never expect anything in return. And then they would be rewarded by God.

Sons were often not allowed to marry because they were expected to stay at home to help work the family farm, and their mothers didn’t want another woman in their kitchen. Some would marry in their forties when their mothers’ resistance softened, but there are still many elderly bachelor men living alone and lonely in rural Ireland. Other young men from poor families had to go to England and take on hard manual work. Anyone unlucky enough to be both poor and disabled would find it very hard because there was fierce discrimination and no government help.

A common undercurrent of all this was depression, but I never heard that word used at the time. If someone felt sad, they would be told to stop whining and “looking for notice.” There was no kindness, no compassion. The combination of poverty, exploitation, and oppression meant that many bright, intelligent children never got the chance to reach their full potential.


There is still a very conservative element in Irish society. Many of those people are clinging to the past because they don’t want to see Ireland become a modern, secular society.

But I am so glad the old Ireland is gone. Children born today have so much opportunity to flourish and achieve the best for themselves, not least because as part of the European Union, we are connected to a progressive community that has helped pull Ireland out of poverty. These new referendums on abortion and gay marriage have given a voice to the majority of people who want more control over their lives, more freedoms, and to move Ireland forward.

I am so glad the old Ireland is gone.

There is still much to be done. Most recently, the Taoiseach apologized for historic hurt caused to the LGBT community and supported the referendum on that sexist language in our constitution. Now I want the government to formally apologize for the hurt caused to tens of thousands of Irish children who were beaten and abused as part of the institutional culture of corporal punishment.

I would also like to see more done to help children born into dysfunctional families like the one in which I grew up. I felt completely alone when I was growing up and caring for elderly parents. I lived my life in fear of abuse and bullying at church and at school — both institutions that were supposed to protect me as a vulnerable child.

The legacy I carry is a heavy one. My childhood offered no guidance, no support, no joy. I have only just begun to grieve for the youth that was stolen from me by the Ireland in which I grew up.