Local activist and teacher Mary Harney in a tandem skydive for her 50th birthday. Harney plans to jump again on Saturday in celebration of turning 70 and to raise money to attend an advanced degree program in Ireland this fall. MARY HARNEY PHOTO

Local activist makes a jump for human rights



ELLSWORTH — As a child separated from her unwed mother, growing up in one of Ireland’s infamous industrial schools in the 1950s, Ellsworth resident Mary Harney was often called by her number (54) or simply by her nickname, “pig.”

She was beaten at the hands of nuns, she said, and became homeless while looking for her mother, whom the nuns told Harney had died, but who was actually married and living in Wales.

But Harney hasn’t let trauma hold her back: on Saturday, July 20, she plans to skydive out of an airplane over Pittsfield, plunging 10,500 feet to the ground below.

The tandem jump is in celebration of her birthday (she’s turning 70) and to raise money for Harney to attend an advanced degree program in Ireland, where she plans to study international law and human rights.

“The last [jump] I did I was 50, but I did that just for my 50th birthday,” said Harney, laughing. “This one is serious.”

Harney’s experiences in Ireland’s industrial schools led her into a life of activism: for immigrants, for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) individuals and for those living with HIV/AIDS.

“I’ve always been an advocate for different types of human rights,” Harney said.

“My current advocacy role, however, is with the Irish government.”

“When the commission of investigation started into the abuses carried out in the mother and baby institutions in Ireland, the minister set up a collaborative forum with people who had experiences of being institutionalized,” Harney said.

“I’m one of those people. The forum was set up to find the path towards transitional justice for the survivors of these institutions.”

With the help of the Irish government, Harney said she has been visiting Ireland almost every month for a year, “to come up with recommendations on how we can get to some kind of justice.”

Harney is the sole U.S. participant chosen for the 21-person forum (she became a citizen in 2012 and has lived here for nearly three decades). The group is aimed at creating legislation that will help support survivors of the homes, memorialize those children who died and amend adoption laws to help survivors trace relatives.

There is a separate commission tasked with investigating the mother and baby homes. That commission was set up in 2015 by the Irish government after the bodies of hundreds of babies and children were discovered on the grounds of a home for unwed mothers in Galway.

The discovery caused a worldwide uproar and calls for an examination of the state-funded homes.

Harney has been traveling back and forth to Ireland since last July to work with the commission, but in August she’ll travel to Galway for an extended visit: “Whilst I’ve been an ad-hoc activist, I really feel I could do much better with stronger knowledge of the laws surrounding human rights and human abuses.”

So, at the age of 69, Harney applied to an advanced degree program at the University of Ireland at Galway. “I applied to take this course in Galway and I was accepted.”

The College of the Atlantic graduate plans to study international law and human rights and return to Maine to continue her advocacy work.

To read more about Harney’s work or support her jump, visit gofundme.com/f/Its-a-long-way-to-galway.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]
Kate Cough

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