U.S. Man Discovers his Beginnings at Deadly Irish Unwed Mothers Home

Monday, June 16, 2014

Peter Ferris Cochran, center, with his wife and children near their home in Emerald Isle, North Carolina (Peter Ferris Cochran)

The news last week that between 1925 and 1961 nearly 800 babies died at St. Mary's unwed mothers home in Ireland has thrust a shadowy period of the country's history onto 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, and 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," says Cochran. "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?" wonders Cochran. “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 discover his birth family. “My mother’s sister was working with a social worker in Ireland,” he tells The Takeaway. “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,” said Cochran. “Right now in Ireland, they just need to open up all their books, stop lying, and stop hiding stuff.”

The Archbishop of Dublin acknowledged that 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 said “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.’”

UPDATE 6/23/2014: The Associated Press has clarified new details of this story. Click here for more information.


Peter Ferris Cochran

Produced by:

Megan Quellhorst


T.J. Raphael


Henry Molofsky

Comments [8]

We may uncover more horrific details about the treatment of these "unwed" mothers for years to come. Do we excuse these or other atrocities on the basis that they occurred in the past? Of course not, we must confront those who participated in these terrible crimes against helpless victims and learn from our own collective ignorance. Let's not try to make excuses for ourselves not matter what our religion, ethnicity or shade of skin. We seem to look the other way all too often.

Jun. 22 2014 01:24 PM

Just to play the Devil's advocate, there is another side to all this. Sure it was horrific that the Catholic Church did things. Then again we are talking about times dating back to 1925. We are not talking about the post 1970s.
Women who had babies out of wedlock were all treated in a similar manner.
This is just a case in which it was found out about, and given publicity. Who knows where else there were "homes' for un-married pregnant women in which just-as-bad, or worse things were done?
"Shame"? Of course, back then in all of society any woman who had a child without being married to the father was "shamed." Their babies taken away? Wasn't that a standard practice if the mother was too young whether she was in a "Catholic Home" or some other similar facility? I had heard that even when teen mothers had children in a hospital the hospital doctors took it upon themselves to give the child up for adoption if they felt a teen mother was not mature enough to care for the child, which was very often.
Stillborn babies were always discarded by hospitals too. What the Catholic church did was no different. There are just certain guidelines regarding disposing of dead bodies. I wonder if it is an exaggeration to say that the Church did something that the particularly were not supposed to do considering the circumstances.

In a way it is like complaining that during Biblical times people were crucified or publicly flogged for theft even if they stole because they had no food. That's the way society was.

Furthermore, except for the "shaming" and disposing of stillborn babies,
were the mothers tortured or beaten? If so, that was a practice in many orphanages Catholic or not. Remember the "White House Boys"?


Jun. 17 2014 12:50 PM
Suzie from Texas


She did not make a decision. You were taken away from her. She had no choice, no say in the matter.

Jun. 17 2014 10:30 AM
Jan Stewart

Seriously? You couldnt acknowledge the pain and suffering your mother has gone through for the rest of her life.....she made no decision....it was made for her by a cruel government and church. The constant repeating of the " agency " utterings do not make them true. They paid a princely sum to thses nuns.....

Jun. 16 2014 04:32 PM
Grieving survivor from Syracuse

Martin Sixsmith, the writer who wrote Philomena Lee's story suggests 50 to 60 thousand Irish infants went to the US. I have been following this story closely. Anyone who wants to read about what happened in Ireland should read James Smith's "Ireland's Magdalen Laundries - Ireland's Architecture of Containment." Any American Irish, particularly in the NE USA and Canada should be aware that there were penitential magdalen programs here and young mothers were forced to suffer in stress positions like those used to "soften" terrorists. Mothers in childbirth were tied up throughout labor and then often drugged with barbiturates at the moment of delivery. Many of us are speaking out and I agree with Martin Sixsmith who says that the church and the Irish government's policy is to "deny until they die" with the "they" meaning "us." Many girls were victims of sexual assault but the "boys will be boys." I am happy Peter Cochran is happy. I grieve for his mother. There is NO peace for a mother whose child is taken from her. And, I've seen comments on the Irish Central that "we" should stop talking about this because now the story has gone international. This story should go international and it isn't being covered enough in the US papers probably because these places existed in the US - in Baltimore, Buffalo, Albany and Syracuse to be sure.

Jun. 16 2014 04:14 PM
LD from NJ

ROB - see Philomena Lee. See all the research done on these "Laundrys/Homes"

Jun. 16 2014 03:27 PM
ROB from New york

What source does Mister Cochran have for these scandalous observations? Shame, repent, lying, except in his case his birth and adoption were supervised by a social worker. Was this unique? By all means investigate but until it is complete lay off the hysterical accusations.

Jun. 16 2014 02:52 PM
Judy kennett from Bellevue, WA

Those working on ethical and transparent international and ethical adoption will be interested.

Jun. 16 2014 12:38 PM

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