Now-infamous Irish unwed mothers’ center was ‘evil’ orphanage for American man

Peter Ferris Cochran is a tall, tanned North Carolina man who likes his blazers colorful, his trucks big and, if conditions are to his liking, his head shielded by a baseball hat. He speaks in a slow drawl that immediately identifies him as a Southerner, and once owned a successful business called Cochran & Associates in the North Carolina beach town of Emerald Isle.

Nothing about Cochran would alert those around him of the unusual circumstances under which he came into this world. That his name was once Andrew Michael Gallagher. That, by birth, he’s not a Southerner or even an American. That he’s Irish, born in 1957 in the now-infamous Tuam center for unwed mothers in western Ireland, where the remains of nearly 800 babies — 796 according to one historian’s estimates — may have been discarded in a massive septic tank. The full extent of what happened is now the subject of investigation, with authorities using ground sensor equipment to explore the tank.

“This was the information I’ve grown with over the last 50 years, and of every bit I knew was that this was a very evil orphanage,” he said Sunday afternoon in a phone interview. “It was evil for the orphans and it was evil for the unwed mothers. My mother was persecuted for out-of-wedlock sex, and the Catholic Church was just adamant about celibacy before marriage.”

 

In the past week, as the world learned more about the Tuam center called “The Home,” the hashtag #800deadbabies clogged Twitter as officials scrambled to respond to the ballooning crisis.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny wondered whether “there are other” mass graves. The second-highest church official in the country conceded more graves like Tuam’s will likely emerge. “The indications are that if something happened in Tuam, it probably happened in other mother-and-baby homes around the country,” Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, told Irish state radio.

Singer Sinead O’Connor, who often has inveighed against the Catholic Church and once stayed in a similar home for young women, demanded a deeper investigation into local government officials who may have known about the mass graves and did nothing. “This has been the darkest secret of the church that hasn’t come out until now,” she told The Washington Post. “Did anyone collude in covering up a crime?”

While Ireland tried to place the discovery into the broader context of its complicated national history, Cochran sat a computer over the weekend, reading the stories, trying to place it into his own history. He had known about a mass grave of children at Tuam for years — but not that it contained hundreds of bodies.

He remembers nothing of his time in the home. What he knows of his early life is a poorly stitched tapestry of bits dropped by his adopted family, the Cochrans, and a thick folder of documents he’s collected over the years, some of which The Washington Post has reviewed. After he said his adopted parents paid $25,000 to a Catholic church in Englewood, N.J., he arrived in the United States on St. Patrick’s Day in 1959. According to Irish records reported by Irish Central, babies at the Home were “emaciated” and “pot-bellied” — and that’s how Cochran came to America.


Peter Cochran was potbellied and gaunt when he came to the United States in 1959. (Courtesy of Peter Cochran)

His sister, Debby Cochran, who was 3 when her new brother appeared, remembers their mother’s stories of Cochran’s first days out of the Home. “Pete was potbellied, spindly arms and legs with no muscle development, a seemingly burned tongue and a skin condition on his bottom, where hunks of skin simply peeled away,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Pete couldn’t be held because most likely he had never been held.”

While Cochran matured — spending years in Guatemala with his adopted family, passing through Miami public schools, joining the Marines — he knew next to nothing about his Irish past. But he thought of it often. “I always thought about it,” he recalled. “I always wanted to know, ‘Why do I look this way? Why do I behave this way? Why am I this way?’”

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when Cochran was nearing 40, that he began to investigate. He got in touch with social workers at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and learned of a woman named Bridget Gallagher — his mother. But hinting at the complexity of the Irish homes for unwed mothers, who were stigmatized for having premarital sex, social workers advised Cochran against contacting her — so he didn’t.

“It is vitally important to respect her confidentiality,” a social worker named Anne McCarthy wrote Cochran in October 1996. “She may have married and may not have told her family. One has to be extremely sensitive and discreet when dealing with tracing requests. … I hope that one day [you] will be reunited with [your] birth mother.”


Cochran’s mother and sisters at his sister’s wedding. (Courtesy of Peter Cochran)

He wouldn’t be. In April 1997, Cochran learned that his grandfather had died in possession of property valued at $135,000. According to correspondence Cochran had with local authorities, “the priest who buried your grandfather said NO ONE attended the funeral, which is very RARE in Ireland.”

Within weeks of that event, Bridget Gallagher, who was the sole beneficiary of the father’s estate but stricken with breast cancer, also died. “She was 17 when she had me,” Cochran said, “and I never got to know her.”

Cochran melted back into his American existence. It’s a happy, sun-soaked life: four children, a business, a wife.

But then on Sept. 17, 1998, his Irish lineage roared back into the frame. On that day, a letter arrived from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. “I was contacted this week by a Mrs. Mary Turner in England who claims to be your birth mother’s sister,” the letter said. “Naturally, Mrs. Turner is very anxious to hear from you.”


A letter Cochran’s sister sent him in 1998 after she learned he was her brother. She told him their mother had never mentioned him. (Courtesy of Peter Cochran)

Cochran got in touch with her. Finally, he thought, a chance to meet his Irish family. But he discovered she hadn’t contacted him out of familial longing, but because of an estate drama. His mother had died before she had a chance to redo her will, which meant some of her assets — including those left by his grandfather — had gone to a pair of half-sisters he’d never met.

He called his 27-year-old sister, Denise, in October 1998. She followed up days later with a letter. “As you may realize, it came as shock when you phoned,” she wrote him. “Myself and [my sister] had no idea of your existence.” Cochran was saddened to learn that in all the years his mother had raised her other family, she had never mentioned him to his sisters.

His relationship with his half-sisters, he said, was strained. At first, he and his sisters had thought he was entitled to one-third of the estate. But when his mother put him up for adoption, she forfeited every claim he had to her family. He wouldn’t keep her name. And he would never get her assets.

That loss didn’t bother him, he said. The loss of his family did.

“My mom’s daughters didn’t acknowledge me,” he said. “They were so afraid I was coming after their money, and I wasn’t. I just wanted to say, ‘Do you guys realize that you have an older brother?’ My father is also still alive — owns a pub in Birmingham — but he also doesn’t want anything to do with me either. He doesn’t want me to interrupt his family.”

Restive about his quest’s resolution, Cochran finally booked a trip to Ireland in 2009. Accompanied by his four teenage children, he arrived at the Tuam center for unwed mothers, where he had been born more 50 years before. “I had my kids with me because I wanted them to see where their dad came from,” he said.

They found the plot where the center had once stood, crunched between a park and a housing development. There stood a small statute of the Virgin Mary and a “very small rock piece.”

Before long, a red-haired woman materialized at the family’s side. Her name was Catherine Corless, a historian, and she would go on to discover the possibility of the mass grave’s existence. It was Corless’s findings that prompted the recent wave of publicity about the 800 babies.

“She was the caretaker of the grave site,” Cochran said. “She told me she thought between 80 and 100 children were buried where we were standing.”

But it wasn’t until last week he found out it was actually eight times that number. Since, the mother he never knew has filled his thoughts.

“I think every woman who bears and loses a child wants to know where that child is,” he said. “I was removed from her, and she never had any more contact with me. And my goal was to find my mother and to look at her and say, ‘It’s okay. You can close your eyes. You can sleep. I’m okay. Now you can rest.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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