Love and Courage

Noelle Brown - Actor, Playwright, Campaigner on Mother and Baby Homes

March 25, 2021 Ruairí McKiernan
Love and Courage
Noelle Brown - Actor, Playwright, Campaigner on Mother and Baby Homes
Show Notes

Noelle Brown is a well-known Irish actor, playwright, and activist. Noelle was born in the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork and much of our conversation centres around her campaign work to advance the rights and voices of Mother and Baby home survivors.

Mother and Baby Homes were institutions mostly run by the Catholic church where pregnant women who were unmarried were sent to have their babies. These institutions were established in 1922, the same time as the foundation of the state, and the last one didn’t close until as recently as 1998.

In that time, tens of thousands of women were sent to these institutions. Many of the women, incarcerated against their will in often cold and cruel conditions, were under the age of 18. Some were as young as 12. Some were the victims of rape.

The Irish state, which in many ways modelled itself as a catholic state, had the world’s highest proportion of women sent to such institutions in the 20th century. At the heart of this regime was a dominant moral and religious code which deemed these women to be somehow impure and lesser, and their children, for some reason, were to be seen as illegitimate, despite the creed that we’re all God’s children.

It is estimated that 15% of babies born in these homes died. At one point an inspection of the Bessborough home revealed a 82% infant mortality rate. These children were often buried in unmarked mass graves such as that discovered in Tuam, Co. Galway. One of those buried there was a relative of mine by the name of Peter Malone, someone my family only recently found out about thanks to the campaigning of historian Catherine Corless.

Large numbers of children were sold to foreign couples, often in secret deals and against their parents’ wishes. Many of those born in the homes are unable to access their birth certificates, despite years of trying. Many, like Noelle, never got to meet their birth parents, and were often blocked by the authorities and the relevant institutions from doing so. Another guest on this podcast, Joseph Farrell, talks about his story in a previous episode that is worth checking out.

At the time of recording this episode Noelle was fresh from running a powerful St Patrick’s Day production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin called Home where the testimonies of survivors were given voice on the stage of the national theatre. This was in the wake of a controversial report from the Mother and Baby Home commission.

Noelle is a hugely important voice on all of this and brings great depth, passion, insight and humanity to her work and her activism. We also talk about her life as an actor and a playwright.