BALLINASLOE, Ireland (CN) — His first memory finds him walking for the first time beyond the walls of the big gray building where he'd been locked up since birth. He's 4½ years old. He had never seen an automobile. He had never seen a dog.
“I remember that as if it was yesterday,” says Peter Mulryan, now in his mid-70s, reflecting on the first part of his life cruelly stolen from him by the circumstances of his birth: He came into the world born out of wedlock in an Ireland ruled by a repressive Roman Catholic Church. “My first memory is the day I was taken out of there when the gates opened.”
The gates that opened on a January day in 1949 were those of the St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, an institution run by Catholic nuns in western Ireland’s County Galway where unmarried women and their children were housed in harsh conditions between 1925 and 1961. The home in Tuam is now the focus of a government inquiry looking into the deaths of hundreds of children whose bodies were likely buried in a sewage tank at the back of the building.
Outside the gates, an ambulance waited to take him to a new life: But it was going to be a harsh, cruel and twisted life.
“I'd never seen a vehicle before that,” he says, sitting at a table in the kitchen of his home, telling in detail the story of his life in an interview with Courthouse News.
All this is still new to him. He's begun telling strangers about his life only in the past few years, ever since he joined a movement of people talking out against horrors inflicted upon them for being the children of unmarried women in Ireland.
Today, he can reconstruct his life story due to years of research in a quest to find out who his parents were.
His story of misery starts in 1944 in the impoverished farmlands of western Ireland near Galway. This was where his mother, the daughter of farmers, came from.
His mother, Delia Mulryan, becomes pregnant. She's 33 years old. But she's not married and a pregnant unmarried woman at the time in Ireland was a “scandal,” Peter says.
“The normal thing was that the local parish priest would come when a scandal like that would erupt; anything like that which became public knowledge,” Peter says. “'She has to leave the parish,' the priest said.”
Delia's father, afraid of the church, did not object.
“So that was it,” he says. “The church controlled families.”
So one night Delia, her father and a sister mounted on two bicycles and rode 24 miles in cover of darkness to a facility run by nuns. Delia was seven months pregnant when her father and sister left her with the nuns. She never saw her family again.
After Peter was born, Delia and her newborn were taken to the St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. But Delia was forbidden to be with her baby.
“We weren't allowed to bond together while we were there,” Peter says. “That was the tactic.”
Under the rules of the home, women had to pay 100 pounds to be allowed to leave, he says. But his mother did not have that money and was forced into servitude.