An American man discovers his roots — in a deadly Irish home for unwed mothers

The Takeaway
Peter Ferris Cochran, center, stands with his wife and children near their home in Emerald Isle, North Carolina.

Between 1925 and 1961, nearly 800 babies died at St. Mary's unwed mothers home in Ireland, and it's only recently come to light.

The whole tragic story has thrust a shadowy period of the country's history into the American consciousness. Located in Tuam, Ireland, St. Mary's was one of many unwed mothers homes run by the Catholic Church. They were designed to punish unwed mothers and house their children, but what actually occurred seems to be much darker.

Young mothers were shamed for their "sins" and forced to work in indentured servitude. If their children survived childbirth and infancy, they were often given up for adoption. North Carolina resident Peter Ferris Cochran was born at St. Mary’s and lived there for the first year and a half of his life before an American family adopted him.

"I couldn't walk, I couldn't talk, I had never been held by anybody when they received me at 18 months old," Cochran says. "These are the things that gave me the driving force to want go to Ireland and see where I came from."

Through Cochran's visits to the the location where the home once stood and his tireless research into his past, he learned that his birth mother was among those whom the Tuam Center shamed.

"It wasn't an orphanage, it was a place where women who had bastard children had to repent their sins," he says. "Like my mother. She got there in August and she had me in November and she left in December of the following year. So she had to work at the orphanage before she delivered, and once she delivered she had to stay there at the house and pay her debt to society."

A local Tuam historian speculates that the bodies of the babies who died at St. Mary's were disposed of in a mass grave on the old premises — without a proper burial or recognition.

"How can the Catholic Church be such a horrible influence in my mother's life and into all of these orphans' lives?" Cochran asks. “Now we’re discovering they didn’t even give these women a choice. It was either you delivered normally and paid your sins, or if there were complications with the child, the child was disposed of.”

Cochran was fortunate to find his birth family. “My mother’s sister was working with a social worker in Ireland,” he says. “And that social worker was working with my other mother, Cochran. The stories all matched.”

But Cochran is worried that there are more like him who have no means of discovering their family history.

"I'm sure there are a lot of mothers out there that wonder whether their child is alive or whether their child did pass away,” Cochran says. “Right now in Ireland, they just need to open up all their books, stop lying, and stop hiding stuff.”

The archbishop of Dublin says what happened in Tuam and St. Mary’s could have happened elsewhere across the country. He says there is a need for a full investigation into convent-run mother and baby homes.

Although Cochran never met his birth mother, he says “I wanted nothing but to look at her and say, ‘Look, you went through hell. But the bottom line is the decision that you made was the right decision because I am here, I’m safe, and I’ve had a good life in the United States. It’s time for you to just close your eyes, rest, and know that what happened 50 years ago turned out to be a good story.’”

This story is from an interview that aired on PRI's The Takeaway, a daily radio show that invites listeners into the American conversation.

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