Joan McDermott was 16 and fresh out of boarding school when she met her boyfriend Tony, a medical student, in their rural hometown in County Cork, Ireland. Together for about a year, they had sex twice. She fell pregnant.
“I honestly didn’t know that was how you got a baby,” says Joan, now 73 and living in the small coastal town of Cobh in Cork. “When I told my mother I was three months’ pregnant, she said to go upstairs and pack a small bag; I’d be going away. Then she stood in the hallway while I rang my boyfriend. His family ran a well-known local business; he said he was sorry but that he could do nothing for me.”
Joan’s father, a vet, had died earlier that year and her mother was in a new relationship with a local politician. It was the mid-1960s.
“She was about to marry this man – if word of the pregnancy got out it could have ruined his career,” says Joan, a handsome woman with pretty drop earrings and fair hair cut in an elegant short bob. She makes a point of dressing well, she tells me, even to walk her dog in the mornings.
“The next day, I was told to get in the car with them [her mother and future stepfather]. I had no idea where we were going and nobody said anything for the whole 40-kilometre journey. Then there were these big gates and a house with steps going up to a red door. My mother said, ‘This is a home for unmarried girls and you will stay here.’ A nun came out onto the steps, they had a few words, then my mother turned on her heel and walked away.”
Joan was taken inside, where she was allocated a “house name”, her identity to be kept secret. “It was a dreadful place, strict and humiliating,” she tells me with finely controlled contempt.