When Robert O’Connor asked what happened to his mother he was told she was a mortal sinner and he need know nothing more.
What he was not told was that Brigid O’Connor was actually inside a Magdalene laundry just across the River Foyle from the children’s home where he was placed as a young child.
The unmarried mother of four spent 25 years in the Sisters of the Good Shepherd laundry in Londonderry until her death there in 1981.
Her children – three boys and girl – were taken from her and placed in institutions across Derry.
Mr O’Connor, who lived in the Termonbacca home run by the Sisters of Nazareth until his mid-teens, said he only found out where his mother was upon her death.
“She died in 1981 and that’s the first time I heard that my mother was in there because I got a phone call to say: ‘Your mother’s dead come to her funeral,’” he said.
“We were never told she was in the laundry, the Good Shepherd’s in Derry.”
Mr O’Connor was placed in Termonbacca along with his late brother Michael.
He says they were never told they were siblings while they lived there.
“My mother was a mother of four, I don’t know what happened or why she ended up in the laundry,” he said.
“There was no reason why she was in there apart from that she was a good worker and they made plenty of money off them as women, that’s really all they were – a reason to make money in the laundries.”
He added: “It was just a thing in the fifties that women with weans (children) who weren’t married ended up in the laundries.”
Mr O’Connor, now 65, recalls what he was told as a child about what became of his mother.
“I was told she was a mortal sinner and you don’t need to know nothing about it, that’s what I was told,” he said.
“When you’re told your mother is a mortal sinner, it’s an embarrassment, why would you look for a mortal sinner?”
Ms O’Connor was given a false surname – Conway – on a headstone on the communal grave where she was buried at Derry’s Ardmore cemetery.
Her son made sure it was corrected and his mother’s proper name is now marked on the grave.
Mr O’Connor was in Belfast on Tuesday to hear an expert panel recommend a public inquiry into the experience of women and girls in mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland.
He has already been through a similar inquiry process – the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry – relating his experiences inside Termonbacca.
The Derry man said he is not expecting much from the latest initiative.
However, he says all he wants is the truth.
“It’s just hard to know what to expect,” he said.
“What I really would like is the truth and to find out about these women who worked all their lives in the laundries and were then buried in pauper’s graves, that’s what I would like to know about.”