Margo Harkin’s documentary about mother and baby homes is essential viewing for Irish society


Source: Dublin International Film Festival


Dir: Margo Harkin. Ireland. 2023. 103 mins

The horrors of the Irish Mother and Baby Homes have been vividly conveyed in both drama (2013’s Philomena) and documentary (The Missing Children in 2021, and more). Familiarity does nothing to blunt the power and emotional charge of Stolen. Previously entitled Limbo, Margo Harkin’s heartbreaker of a documentary gives a voice to those silenced for far too long. An elegant layering of chapter and verse testimony underpins a wide-ranging portrait balancing individual suffering with an understanding of the bigger societal issues. Essential viewing in Ireland, Stolen should provoke outrage in audiences far and wide.

The homes and their horrors were the product of an Ireland determined to punish the transgressive

Harkin sets the scene by asserting her love for Ireland but also recognising it as a country with “dark secrets” buried beneath its “waterlogged surfaces”. Mournful shots of bleak rural settings punctuate the narrative, adding to the melancholy air.  The first individual we encounter is Michael O’Donovan, a gardener at Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home in Tipperary from 1988 to 1991. He recalls the discovery of lots of small bones and a policy of planting trees that felt like a deliberate act of concealment. His many unanswered questions lay out the themes of a film which confronts shame, guilt , collusion and cover-up.

We move on to the site of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home that operated at Tuam between 1925 and 1961. Subsidence exposed a children’s graveyard on a site that is now a playground, adding to the sense that the horrors of the past are seeping to the surface. Historian Catherine Corliss is interviewed about her tireless, ground-breaking research into Tuam and the 796 babies and children who died there.

Stolen provides a litany of facts, noting the 9,000 babies believed to have died in the homes run by religious orders between 1922 and 1998. We are told  of the policies of adoption, fostering and trafficking babies once they were  separated from their birth mothers. Harkin interviews journalists, historians, politicians and campaigners, weaving together archive footage and photos all to provide an understanding of the context in which these events were allowed to happen.

The homes and their horrors were the product of an Ireland determined to punish the transgressive. It was a brave soul who dared to defy or question the moral authority of the Catholic Church as church and state worked hand in hand to control women’s lives. The oppressive grip of patriarchy lies at the heart of this history lesson.

What really lends Stolen its potency is the devastating individual stories of women who survived the Mother and Baby Homes. Harkin treats all her witnesses with respect, allowing them a chance to tell their stories uninterrupted and unchallenged. Pregnant out of wedlock, the women were bundled off to homes on both sides of the Irish border. The assumption was that the church, the state and the nuns knew what was best for these clearly unfit mothers and their “children of sin”. Terri Harrison tells of escaping to London and being abducted against her will, put on a plane and deposited at the Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Cork. Adele Johnston was taken to Marianvale Mother and Baby Home where her child was taken from her. She wouldn’t see him again for forty years. The smell of lavender furniture polish still reminds her of the home and makes her feel sick.  Actress Noelle Browne was born in Bessborough in 1965 and given up for adoption after eight weeks. Her quest to discover any information about her birth mother reveals the many obstacles that are still being put in the path of truth and transparency.

Harkin makes sparing use of dramatic reconstructions and includes a variety of poems read in the eerie settings of  abandoned, decaying homes. The physical structures of these institutions may be crumbling into history but Harkin cites a combination of inadequate official reports, continuing revelations and enduring suffering to prove that the pain caused is still very raw. 

Production companies: Besom Productions, Wildfire Films

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Producers:  Martha O’Neill, Margo Harkin

Cinematography: Colm Hogan 

Editing: John Murphy, Patrick Hodgins

Music: Deirdre Gribbins