SOCIAL CONTEXT

Ócáid Chomórtha | A Celebration of Máiréad Ní Ghráda

Wednesday 11 Mar 2015
1pm - 4pm
Project Arts Centre Cube

"This play is significant because it has an urgent theme and is entitled to rank as the most important offering the Theatre Festival makes available. Just imagine for a moment the sequence of articles written by Michael Viney in the Irish Times recently, on what is known as illegitimacy, crystallised into a searing drama that challenges every aspect of the nation's treatment of this social problem". (L. Mac G. on 23 Sep 1964)

VIDEO: Mairéad Ní Ghráda talks about the inspiration for Máire

Mairéad Ní Ghráda talks to Aedín Ní Chaoimh about the inspiration for Máire in this radio interview from 'Dá Bhfaighinn Mo Rogha', broadcast on 29 March 1979. 

 

An Triail was first produced on 22nd September 1964, just 3 days after the final instalment of Michael Viney’s series of articles in the Irish Times, collectively titled No Birthright. This illustrated series was a critical investigation of the treatment of unmarried mothers in Ireland; the Irish girls who travelled to Britain and of the social structures which dealt with them and their children.

The first article titled “Clare and Danny” gives a candid description of a young girl’s journey to London to have her child.

Clare made only one preparation for the birth of her baby. She bought a pair of sterile scissors, which she carried about with her in case she gave birth in the street or on the bus.

After Danny was born, Clare went home to tell her mother. She acknowledges that "it didn’t take her long, I’m afraid, to think of what the neighbours would say," indicating the general fear of public opinion under which many in her situation suffered.

Her final statement reveals the stark choices available to unmarried mothers at the time: Whatever happens, I’ll do anything to keep my baby. Anything short of prostitution - I’ve drawn the line there.

The second article titled “The Reckoning” discusses the number of unmarried women in Ireland compared with Europe (lower per capita) and the organisations that help them. The article includes a graph representing “Illegitimate Births in Ireland 1953-1963” which shows a high of around 1,350 in 1953 and a low of around 950 in 1959.

It opens with a statement by the author. Viney says: When I mentioned to an Irish prison doctor that I intended to write these articles, he warned: “If you go besmirching the name of Irish womanhood, you won’t be forgiven".

He also quotes an Irish mother who said: Tell my daughter never to set foot in Ireland again and that she has disgraced her family and her country – belying the peculiarly politicised perspective of Irish people towards unmarried women.

The next day brought “The Secret Service” which discusses the Homes for Unmarried Mothers around the country and the lengths to which they go to maintain the secrecy of the women’s identities.

Perhaps the one really distressing aspect of these secret-service homes is that Irish society should have made such conspiracy necessary. Is there not something missing from a family relationship when a girl feels she cannot confide in either mother or father in this, the worst crisis of her life.

Pregnant From Ireland” investiagtes the influx of girls arriving in the UK from Ireland to have their babies.

The initials “P.F.I.” are part of the everyday vocabulary of the social workers and almoners who help the unmarried mother in London and the major cities of north-west England.

Describing the fear of being sent home under which the girls suffer, Viney remarks: As a social worker in a Catholic welfare agency said: “What sort of society do you have in Ireland that puts the girls into this state?

In “The Lonely City,” Viney reveals what life is like for Irish girls who travel to London to have their babies, the decisions they must make and the type of help available to them. This article includes a table from a report of the London County Council* which gives details of unmarried mothers seen by London moral welfare organisations during the year.

He explains that even for young Irish emigrants in London, fear of reactions “back home” to the birth of a baby outside marriage – or even its conception before the marriage date  - can lead to pathetic decisions. Three separate social workers quoted instances of young emigrant Irish couples who had become engaged in Britain, had then conceived a baby, and who were then so afraid of what their parents would say that they let the baby be born illegitimately and be adopted before they actually married and went on to have more children.

The Chosen Children” describes the adoption process, detailing the changes that have occurred since the Adoption Act in 1952. It is a situation that favours the “perfect” baby (and the perfect baby girl at that) and leaves the less well-favoured child to linger in a nursery, or with foster parents, until someone takes him for their own.

The final article, “The Luck of Love”, details the variety of situations the illegitimate child might find themselves in from adoption by a family member, “A Family Affair,” to foster homes. Viney concludes as follows: The unmarried mother has the rest of her life to live. Her child’s has just begun. Should we not hate the sin, but love the sinner – and the sinned against?

 

 

MICHAEL VINEY has been writing for the Irish Times for half a century, with a parallel career in broadcasting, film-making and as natural history author.  In the 1960s he wrote about social issues such as No Birthright (book published by the Irish Times in 1964 as No Birthright: an inquiry) and the  fate of people in institutional care. In 1966, he won a Jacob's Award for his RTÉ Television documentary, Too Many Children.
His Saturday Irish Times  “Another Life” column began in 1977, when he moved with his family from Dublin to settle on the Mayo coast. “Another Life” has developed from experiments in self-reliance to a deep concern with nature and ecology and is illustrated with his drawings and paintings.

 

*Report of the County Medical Officer of Health and Principal School Medical Officer.