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.
“My mother worked as a slave, washing floors, washing other babies and feeding them,” he says.
A year later, she had served her time and was permitted to leave, but having no other place to go, his mother ended up spending the rest of her life living and working in church facilities, he says.
Peter was left at the Tuam home – motherless. Then in 1949, the gates of the home opened and he went out into the world.
“Children all dressed up on days when families came to find kids to board out,” Peter says, describing how he, like other children, was chosen to be sent off to foster homes.
“You had your choice: Boy or girl, male or female. You would take out the best-looking, the healthiest, the strongest. Other people were left behind; there might have been problems with their features: small, a crooked eye, anything.”
His time at the Tuam home was over when he climbed into the back of the ambulance. He was unable to look out of the ambulance’s high windows and had no clue where he was going, he recounts. Then the ambulance stopped and he was let out at a farm house in north Galway County.
“The first thing that struck me at this house was the trees moving, waving in the wind,” he says. “The weather was damp. I remember very clearly the place was damp, cold.”
There was a dog wagging his tail. He had never seen a dog before.
He had been boarded out to a mother in her 70s and a son named John in his 50s. He remained at the house until he was 31 years old.
He was brought there for two primary reasons, he says. One was to look after the ailing mother and the other to work on the farm. The farmer also received money from the state for taking him in.
“I was looking after her. That’s what I was doing. I was put into her bed early when I came there to keep her warm,” he says. “And I would have to put cream on her back when she had arthritis.”
His eyes narrow when he thinks about his time in servitude at the home.
“She was pretty good to me, but he was a tyrant — cruel,” he says of the son. “I had no problem with the work, but the beatings I got.” He pauses and quickly draws in his breath. “It was horrible.
“My clothes would be taken off, I don’t know for what reason, and he’d he put me across the knee, take off his belt and he’d lash me with it. And in the summertime, I would be beaten with nettles.”
Summers were the worst. “I hated to see summers coming because of the nettles. He would beat me and beat me, you know. For what? I do not know ‘til this day.”
He shudders at the memory of being beaten by the farmer in the field, no one else around.
“I was afraid. I never fought back,” he says. “He was a big man.”
This went on for years, he said.
As a foster child, he was supposed to get an education and was allowed to attend school. He remembers seeing lice fall from his head onto notebooks as he wrote; he would play with the lice with his pencil.
But often, he had to work on the farm instead of going to school.
“I got very little education. Education didn’t count at all when those people boarded me out, or any farming community,” he says. “They could use us whenever the sun shone to work on that farm. I had no choice in the matter. I just went [from school] and I worked at the farm when the sun shone.”
He lived as an outcast. “I was different from anybody else. I spotted that very early on,” he says. “I was classified as nobody in society. I wouldn’t get on a football team or anything like that, you know.”
He was not allowed to go to birthday or Christmas parties or to invite friends to his home. At church, he was not allowed to serve Mass because his mother had not been married. Later, he found it difficult to tell girls about himself. “I was all bottled up about my past,” he says.
It pained him not to know who his parents were, he says, recalling how his agony erupted when he was beaten by the farmer.
“When I got a hammering and a beating, I would go outside, cry and cry, scream, hoping somebody would hear me. But no, no one heard me. So at night I’d go: ‘Where am I from?’”
When he was in his teens, he contacted the Galway Health Board to see if he could find out who his parents were. But his inquiries were dismissed.
“‘We have nothing here, we have nothing,’” they told him.
The years passed. Then when he was 31, he fell in love and married. It was 1975.
With his wife, he again sought to discover his parents. This time, with his wife’s help, he was able to pry information out of the health board and church officials about his birth and the whereabouts of his mother. A priest informed him that his mother was at a laundry in Galway, he says.
“I thought she had a job there,” he says.
But the reality was far different. His mother, he found out, was confined to a Magdalene laundry in a Galway convent. In the 1990s, Ireland was shocked to learn about the system of church-run laundries. Similar to the discovery at Tuam, in 1993 a mass grave was found at a Magdalene laundry in Dublin and that led to a series of revelations about the confinement and abuse of women in the laundries. In 2013, the Irish government issued an apology for its role in maintaining the laundries and agreed to compensate victims.
In the 1970s, when Peter found his mother toiling from dawn to dusk with dozens of other “fallen women” in the laundry in Galway, the horrors of the Magdalene laundries were still mostly a secret. Even back then, though, it was obvious to Peter that his mother was suffering.
“She looked like she was in her 80s when in fact she was only 64,” he says. “She looked horrible. The clothes she had on. Her hands were all blistered, all red blotches; very bad shoes on her. A real pauper in there.”
When the nuns allowed him to talk with his mother, he was given 15 minutes to visit. They had tea and biscuits while a nun was stationed outside the small room, listening. He asked his mother questions, but she wouldn’t talk.
“She knew they were listening,” he says.
In time, he came to understand what life in the laundry meant.
“They weren’t allowed to talk to one another. It was a real prison regime,” he says. “The nuns would say: ‘You’re not to be talking. Get on with your work. Get on with your work.’”
Eventually, Peter and his wife were allowed to take his mother outside the laundry for coffee and tea. In the summer, they took her to the beach for a couple of hours. His mother died in 1989.
After he married, a new life began for him. He got a job for a telecommunications company and became Ireland’s national handball champion. He had seven children and a happy home life.
But he kept the horrors of his life locked up inside him.
“I was told I should have brought to my grave that kind of story, what happened to me in my life,” he says.
“I didn’t tell half my stories,” he says. “I didn’t speak to my children until I was 70. I didn’t want to upset them. But they had a doubt in their mind.”
Today, though, Peter wants to expose the horrors. “I’m not afraid to speak out now.”
Despite the traumas caused by the Catholic Church, Peter says he still goes to church and believes in God. He sings in a choir.
“When I was very young, I’d be depressed a lot,” he says. “I’d pop into church to clear my head. That was the only thing I could do. I found it helped me. It kept me sane.”
Now he has a new mystery to solve. Records from the Tuam home indicate his mother had another child — a girl — out of wedlock 10 years after Peter was born. That girl, like Peter, was sent to the mother and baby home.
Records say the girl — his sister or half sister — died at the home in Tuam: leaving open the possibility that her bones lie among those in the mass grave inside the sewage tank. But there’s another possibility, he says. It’s possible she was classified as dead when in fact she was alive and sold to an American family. He says there is evidence that such secretive acts were committed.
“They would say that a baby died in Tuam and would not register the death until a few years later, drawing money from the state all the time,” he says.
He’s not done digging up the past.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)