ELLSWORTH — Ellsworth resident Mary Harney left for her native Ireland in 2019 for two reasons: to earn a master’s degree in international human rights law and to continue pushing for truth and accountability in a shameful period in Irish history, when unwed, pregnant women were sent to mother and baby homes and forced to give up their babies for adoption. The practice began in the mid-1920s and lasted until the early 1960s.
Harney, born into such a home 72 years ago, was a member of the Collaborative Forum, advising the commission formed in 2015 by the Irish government to investigate the mother and baby homes.
“At that time, I was going back and forth to the ministers’ office in Dublin,” she said. The committee submitted its findings and recommendations, which the commission published, but it did not include “how and why we reached those conclusions, so it was a like a piece that didn’t make sense,” Harney said.
The commission recently released its report, and Harney said she’s been decompressing ever since.
“It’s emotional and heartbreaking,” she said. “I’m trying to focus on the activism and justice parts of it and not go into the heartbreaking stories from the survivors themselves.”
Harney received her master’s degree in June of 2020 with first class honors. In her studies, she said she “married the two, activism and academia, and my thesis was about the right to access identity in Ireland.”
The subject is a personal one. Harney was told by the Catholic nuns, who ran the vast majority of the mother and baby homes, that her mother had died. This was a lie, she discovered years later.
“I’m one of the lucky few. I was able to find my mother myself in the late 60s,” Harney said.
But she is still seeking information.
“My mother was incarcerated in these homes with me for 2½ years. She’s dead now, but I still don’t know what my childhood medical history is.”
Harney was placed with an elderly couple in Cork at age 2 ½, but it was worse, she said, for the children who were placed outside of Ireland.
“Many children in America don’t know they’re adopted from Ireland and that they’re actually Irish,” Harney said. “They have no citizenship. Removing their identity and not allowing them the access deprives them of their Irish heritage, their Irish culture and their Irish citizenship.”
Currently, Harney is tutoring at a human rights clinic for the National University of Ireland in Galway and working with Northern Ireland politicians on the same issue, but she plans to return to Ellsworth.
“In June, I’ll come back to Maine and carry out construction work like I’ve always done in between academic bouts,” she said.
Harney first came to Maine in 1992 to study at the College of the Atlantic and has only visited Ireland since then, including trips on behalf of the Collaborative Forum. She said her activism began when she was working in London.
“I was there at the HIV outbreak and became an activist then,” she recalled. “When I came to Maine, I continued that work with the Down East AIDS Network and with the college. We formed peer education groups to go into schools to teach the basics of HIV/AIDS prevention.”
Harney has also formed local support groups for LGBTQ+ youth, worked toward equal rights in housing in Bar Harbor and fought for marriage equality.
“I think I have this strong sense of injustice because I had no voice,” Harney said. “I was in Irish institutions or in the care of the Irish government for 16½ years of my life. I had no voice. We couldn’t tell when we’d been beaten or abused. Nobody listened to us. Nobody heard us.”
She credits COA with teaching her that protest meant more than wearing the T-shirt and showing up at the protest march.
“I learned this was just part of how to have your voice heard, and that there were ways that were effective when you invite people to join the discussion, the conversation and find our similarities, not our differences.”