ELLSWORTH—When Mary Harney asked the nuns at St. Finbarr’s Industrial School in Cork, Ireland, what had happened to her mother, they were confident in their response.
“They told me she was dead.”
The 12-year-old Harney had few memories of her mother. The two had last seen one another when Harney was just 2½ years old, after she was taken from the home for unwed mothers where she’d been born and given to an elderly couple in Cork.
“We still to this day do not know who authorized that,” says Harney, who maintains that her mother never signed adoption papers. “People called us orphans. We were no such thing.”
In Ireland, Harney’s family history is depressingly familiar. A young pregnant woman is brought to a home for unwed mothers. Her head is shaved upon arrival; she gives birth. Her child is eventually adopted, often without her consent or with falsified papers, or sent to one of the country’s infamous industrial or reformatory schools. Both mother and child are told the other is lost, or perished.
“From that day until I actually found my mother I used to pray for her soul every night that she’d be in heaven,” said Harney. “I believed she was dead. They told me she was dead.”
“They knew where she was. They knew.”
Harney has lived in the United States for nearly three decades. She became a citizen in 2012, and has worked and taught at College of the Atlantic (where she received her undergraduate degree) as well as working for the Down East AIDS Network in the 1990s.
The Ellsworth resident rarely tells the story of her childhood. Her years at St. Finbarr’s were marked by abuse and fear.
“To this day I have a habit of not looking authority figures in the eyes,” says Harney, a habit that was ingrained by several of the nuns, who would dole out beatings for students who looked directly at them. She was often called by her number (54) or simply, “pig.”
Harney says she is telling her story now as a cautionary tale. Harney recently returned from Ireland, where she was interviewed by the BBC as part of an upcoming documentary about the Irish government’s ongoing investigation into the thousands of children who disappeared or died under the care of state-funded homes run by the Catholic Church.
As federal authorities in the United States scramble to reunite children and their parents separated at the southern border by the court-imposed July 10 deadline, Harney has a message for Trump administration officials: “You cannot put that bond back.”
Harney was discharged from St. Finbarr’s at 16. With the help of a kind priest and several months of searching amid bouts of homelessness, she eventually found her mother: married, with two children, living in a working-class neighborhood in Cardiff.
“We had a 31-year relationship,” says Harney. “We cared about each other. But it wasn’t the same.”
When parents and children are separated, says Harney, “Something happens that breaks that bond.”
Harney’s mother had tried, over the years, to find her daughter, with the help of her new husband.
“They were told I was happily adopted,” says Harney, “and they couldn’t have me back because it would spoil my life.”
After reuniting, Harney moved in with her newfound family.
“My mother was my heroine,” she says. “She was so courageous. But I couldn’t stay there.” Harney says she quickly realized she “didn’t fit in, in any way.”
She joined the army, serving in Singapore during the Vietnam War, eventually returning to Ireland to work as a dispatcher for the fire department, where she stayed for about 20 years. She spent time getting to know her family, becoming acquainted with her mother and half-sisters, trying, as Harney put it “to find out what love is.”
Harney turned 69 this year. She still remembers the day she was taken from her mother, and the day, three years later, when she was moved again following a visit from a state inspector. She remembers the black car she rode in to the county courthouse, the itchy bonnet she was wearing when a judge ordered her sent away to school.
“I think the damage done lives on to this day,” says Harney. “It lives on for generations.”