By Patricia Devlin
WHEN Terri Harrison discovered her period was late in February 1973, she knew she had to leave Catholic Ireland.
“The plan was if I discovered I wasn’t pregnant I’d have a ball for about a month and then come home,” said Terri. “If I was then to hell with everyone else, I wasn’t coming back.”
Within weeks the 18 year-old from Drimnagh had arrived in London, landed herself a job on Oxford Street and discovered, officially, she was about to become a mum.
“I had it all figured out,” the 62 year-old told The Star. “I had a friend who was gay, we were going to move in together, tell people he was the dad and his family would be delighted. We’d bring up the baby together and I was never, ever coming back to Ireland.”
Terri didn’t come back to Ireland – willingly.
After a minor accident at a relative’s home which left her in hospital, her news didn’t stay secret for very long. Within days a priest and two nuns called to the London house where she was staying, bundled her into a car and put her on a plane to Cork.
On landing she was driven to the notorious Bessborough House mother and baby facility where she was told she would live for the foreseeable future.
She would have to work, would not be allowed to leave the premises and most importantly respect and obey the nuns who knew what was best for her and her baby. Unknown to Terri her unborn baby had already been accounted for before she’d walked through the doors.
“The first test they gave you in that institution was not to check the health of the baby, it was to see if you had gonorrhoea. That was their priority, that you were clean and that they’d get megabucks for this baby.
“I was carrying a very expensive commodity. I was even assigned a name – Tracey. My own wasn’t good enough.”
A few weeks in, strong-willed Terri had had enough of the oppression, humiliation and control.
“I was about four or five months pregnant and the baby’s dad Liam came up to visit. Somehow we were allowed into the grounds and we made a run for it. We eventually got to the train station and travelled to Dublin. I visited my eldest sister and her husband sold me out and the nuns were called.”
A decision was taken to keep Terri in Dublin and she was taken to St Patrick’s facility on the Navan Road. A few months later she gave birth to a son, who she called Niall.
“I was in labour for three days. They shut me in a room with no doctors, no nurses, and no pain relief. I was shaking that much in pain they had to tie my hands to the bed.
“I had a condition called placenta praevia, which meant the after birth came out before the baby. I lost that much blood they had to wrap both me and him in tinfoil.
“I remember holding Niall, or ‘cuddles’ as I called him, and after that I can’t remember much. I was in shock.”
Sadly the horrific birth was just the beginning of Terri’s nightmare.
“You are holding your baby, your brand new bundle of joy, and you are being told you are a filthy, selfish whore. How selfish of a bitch are you? To deprive this child of a mammy and daddy with a lovely home.
“When you were feeding your baby, you were only allowed to feed him laid out on your lap, you weren’t allowed to bond because their mammy and daddy wouldn’t be happy. And you know how they vetted the people who bought your baby? How often they went to mass and how much money they put on the plate.”
Despite watching other ‘inmates’ lose their children, Terri was convinced that somehow she would be able to take her son home. But when Niall was five weeks and four days old he disappeared.
“I fed him at 6am that morning and went back up at around 11am. As I was going up the stairs another girl shouted up to me, ‘his cot is empty’. I went ballistic.”
Terri was sedated and taken to a room inside the institution. The next day she was handed a ticket to England. She left the institution shortly after, and returned to Ireland just a few months later.
She went on to rebuild her life and have three more children, but Niall was never stayed far from her mind.
When her son turned 18 she tried to make contact with him.
Sadly he has no interest in meeting Terri, knowing anything about her, their relationship, what happened when he was a baby, or what has happened since. However she hopes someday he will change his mind.
“It gets worse as you get older because you know it is getting closer to the day you will leave this planet,” she said.
Today Terri continues to help survivors like herself who are still struggling from the horror of Ireland’s mother and baby hell. Next month she will help launch the newly formed United Survivors group of which she is a founding member.
The campaign group aims to not only achieve truth and justice for victims, but also put an end to the offensive labelling some survivors still endure today.
“Labelling me in 2016 does nothing to help educate people or change attitudes.” she says.
“I cringe, and I mean seriously cringe, when someone labels me a birth mother because I never was one. I don’t even know what that means.
“Another one is to call them a mother and baby ‘home’. They didn’t exist. They were slave camps, prison camps. I’ve researched ex-prisoner of war camps, and they were the exact same as us. No rights whatsoever.
“I’ll give you an example; down the road in 1973 there was Mountjoy Prison.
“Me in Mountjoy; one bang on the cell door and you get painkillers, health care, legal help.
“Me in the institution; none of it existed. The gates closed, the doors closed.
“But one thing I have always said is I was never anyone’s victim. I was a target carrying a very expensive commodity.”