Kathleen McGuire and son Mark McCollum
“My mother Kathleen was a wee Derry woman. For my entire life the Catholic Church and the authorities hid her identity from me; when I finally found out who she was last year it was too late, she’d already died.”
Mark McCollum’s mother, Kathleen McGuire, grew up in the Bogside in the 1960s.
She fell pregnant following a relationship with a Donegal man who served in the British Army at Ebrington Barracks.
Like many unmarried women who became pregnant at the time, she was sent to a mother and baby home - in this case Marianvale in Newry (pictured below).
It was viewed as a ‘mortal sin’ by the Catholic Church, Mark said, which exerted its power over the community in those days.
Having a child out of wedlock was frowned upon; it brought ‘shame and stigma’ to families, he added.
“Once the Church knew or somebody rang a priest it was out of your hands. You knew where you were going and she was sent to Marianvale in Newry.
“You did what the priest said, it was very hard to stand up to the Church. And we as children were the embodiment of sin, the spoiled fruit, the bad babies.
“We were second class and they didn’t care if we lived or died.
“We had to be put in nice Christian families to be redeemed.”
Mark was born and taken to Nazareth House in Fahan.
He doesn’t even know if his 22-year-old mother got to hold him before he was whisked away.
Mark went on to live a very happy life as an only child with his adoptive parents in Raphoe.
A short time after giving birth Kathleen moved to England.
She would never return to Derry again.
As a teenager at school and throughout his adult life Mark expended a lot of energy in search of his mother.
Mark says he was met with prevarication any time he sought information. He was essentially ‘stonewalled’ by the Catholic Church, social services and other authorities.
In the late 1980s he visited Marianvale where a priest, with a rudimentary laptop, was able to run through every detail of Mark’s life and that of his adoptive parents.
He said: “I assumed then that he had all the details about my mother as well but he wouldn’t give it to me.
“That’s the way it was, they had all this information, social workers had it, but we were not deemed worthy to have it.
“Even to this day they won’t do it. It’s so frustrating.”
Until last year Mark was of the belief that his mother was from Belfast, that’s what he had been told for decades.
The Donegal man also found out that he was originally called Paul, all of these details made it nigh on impossible for Mark to find Kathleen and vice versa.
“It was like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together with lots of missing pieces.
“And when I did find out that her name was Kathleen McGuire and she was from Derry it was too late, she passed away several years ago,” an exasperated Mark explained.
What he did learn is that she relocated to Bradford and married a bus driver who died very young.
Sadly, Kathleen didn’t have any more children.
As someone who obtained double first-class honours in psychology, Mark is aware of the emotional toll it must have took.
He said: “The treatment she received can leave a deep emotional scar and these girls were told they were dirty and the lowest of the low.
“A lot of women subsequently had issues with intimacy.”
A sorrowful Mark continued: “Her own health wasn’t great I don’t think and I think she ended up in a nursing home where she passed away.
“I’m now trying to find out where she was buried in England.”
After posting a message on the Creggan Memories Facebook page, Mark connected with Kathleen’s siblings and was able to find out more about her.
The pandemic has thwarted opportunities to meet in person but communications have been positive and the family want her story to be told.
Over the years Mark has visited Derry on many occasions never knowing his familial ties.
In a strange twist of fate, one of his first jobs involved working on houses in Dove Gardens – a street that sits right next to the one where his mother grew up.
He also performed in the Playhouse as part of his theatre work, and studied and worked at Ulster University’s Magee campus.
“All the time I never knew that I was a wee Derry mucker,” he quipped.
Photo: Cable Street where Kathleen grew up.
Last week the Taoiseach Micheál Martin apologised after an investigation into the country’s mother and baby homes in the Republic of Ireland.
About 9,000 children died in the 18 institutions under investigation.
The report found an ‘appalling level of infant mortality’ in the homes which were established in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Taoiseach expressed regret for the ‘profound and generational wrong’ to survivors of mother-and-baby homes.
The Irish government said the report revealed the country had a ‘stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture’.
However, Mark believes the language in the report attempts to absolve the government and church of blame and instead point the finger at the parents and society.
“They were completely culpable for this system that ran for 76 years and more,” he said.
“The Church were riding roughshod over state law and adhering to Diocesan Law and Canon Law. “They didn’t recognise the law, it was Derry and Raphoe so it was an all-Ireland approach so the report is flawed because it’s not playing by the same rules the church did.”
He is disappointed that it precludes women and adoptees from Northern Ireland as the homes were run on an All-Ireland basis with babies from homes in NI being fostered by families living over the border.
This isn’t ancient history, he stressed, as ‘the last one closed in 1998’.
He said the Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin, apologised but not to women and children in the North.
Mark counts himself amongst many mothers and babies who were in similar homes in Northern Ireland who want an inquiry to be held in the North.
He said there should be a ‘full, unreserved apology’ which doesn’t attempt to shift blame, reparations for victims and memorials to those who died.
“Marianvale is set for demolition and there isn’t even a note outside to say what it was,” a disbelieving Mark said.
Stormont commissioned research into whether or not there should an inquiry held into the homes which operated in Northern Ireland.
It is due to be published by the end of this month.
In a statement last week after the publication of the report in the South, Archbishop Eamon Martin, leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, accepted that the church was 'clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatised, judged and rejected'.
Photo: Mark with his daughter Jade.
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