For the past eight weeks Marie Therese O'Loughlin has been camped in protest outside Leinster House in Dublin, surviving on only soup and yoghurt. She gained three stone in weight in advance of her protest (which started as a hunger strike); she has already lost two-and-half stone. She is protesting to persuade the Government to allow her to seek compensation under the Residential Institutions Redress Board for injuries she received whilst in the mother and baby unit at the Regina Ceoli Hostel in Dublin in 1952. The unit is not currently on the redress list.
At some point during her second year in the Regina Ceoli hostel, her mother was admitted to hospital with TB. Marie Therese remained at the hostel under the care of the other mothers living there, some as young as 14. It was common practice for one mother to look after the children while the other mothers worked. When Marie Therese's mother was ill in hospital, Marie Therese's high chair fell into an "open blazing fire". She sustained injuries that have left her with scars on her face, hand and leg. To this day she hides her hand from strangers and covers the scars on her face with her hair. Throughout her life, Marie Therese had no idea what caused her injuries. "I grew up with this imagination that somebody was trying to get rid of me.
"I never showed my hand to anyone... if anybody wanted to hold hands with me I pushed them away, I didn't ever tell anyone I had a bad hand." It was only when she was 29 and met her mother that she discovered the real cause of her injuries.
Subsequent to her stay at the mother-and-baby unit, Marie Therese went to Goldenbridge, a childcare home, when she was five years old. "There was a lot of name-calling (one of the names they called her was "scarface"), children were frightened of me, and deformity was used against me." During her time in Goldenbridge, Marie Therese made rosary beads: "nobody ever questioned throughout all my years in Goldenbridge [about]my deformity or whether I should or should not be making rosary beads... no child should be making rosary beads but especially not a child with a deformity... as far as I am concerned it did untold damage to the tissue". She describes her time in Goldenbridge as very lonely and unhappy, "I don't remember every getting close to anybody, I just can't remember… it had a cold atmosphere, I don't ever remember people saying nice things."
After Goldenbridge she went to work as an au pair in Switzerland. This didn't work out and she was sent back to Goldenbridge for a few months. She moved to London in her late teens and floated around hostels. "Ironically I was rescued by a woman from the Legion of Mary."
It was in her late 20s, after undergoing counselling, that she began to wonder about her mother. She had grown up believing that her mother was dead as this was what the nuns in Goldenbridge told her. She returned to Dublin to find her mother's grave. It was then that she discovered that her mother was alive. "I couldn't understand I said, I am looking for a grave, not a person. I was out of myself, the shock horror, they wanted to get a doctor." She returned to London where her mother tracked her down: "I got this phone call and this woman with a country accent said 'I'm your mother'. 'My mother is dead,' I said. 'I'm not that person,' and she said, 'you are, you are,' and she asked me to forgive her, and not to have any recriminations towards her."
"She [Marie Therese's mother] found it very hard to talk about [the fire incident], but I did ask questions, and I'm very glad that I did ask questions. I wrote to them seeking litigation, the solicitor told me I was statute barred, I didn't even have the education to go to a solicitor myself, I still hadn't adapted to the outside world."
In 2000, under a Freedom of Information application, Marie Therese got access to her Goldenbridge files, which included details of her medical history. "I'm actually lucky that it was recorded, and then I was lucky too that I got that information from my mother."
Marie Therese says that she will continue with her protest outside the Dáil until next Christmas if necessary. "When I get bad moments, when I am feeling so isolated and I'm lying down outside the Dáil, I think that 18-month-old baby was never acknowledged, was totally and utterly ignored." She has written more than 300 letters to members of the Government. A number of them – including Joe Costello, Joe O'Toole, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and Olywn Enright – are supporting her.
Mary Hanafin, Minister for Education and Science, came to visit her once outside, to tell her that she will not be adding the unit to the redress schedule. The Department of Education did offer her counselling for the emotional effects of Goldenbridge. "It's not sufficient for somebody to have half their hand almost taken off and for them to say 'oh yeah we'll deal with the psychological aspect of what happened to you in Goldenbridge'". p