A WEST Cork-based woman is spearheading a project whose aim is to make a doll to remember each of the 6,000 babies that died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes.
Laura Whalen, who lives with her family in Courtmacsherry, is the driving force behind The Bábóg Project which has seen hundreds of people from all over the world get on board.
Originally from Scotland, Laura has lived in in Ireland for the past 16 years, 10 of which have been in Courtmacsherry where she lives with partner Garry and her five children (ages 15, 12, 10, 5 and 3).
She has worked as a doll maker for 10 years, starting out making dolls for her own kids.
‘Soon into my doll making journey I started making customised dolls that resemble the child that they are for. This is wonderful work, allowing me to make dolls for children who otherwise would not be able to find a doll who looked like them. You might notice that most dolls on the toyshop shelves are pink-skinned, blonde-haired and blue-eyed.
'The message this sends to children, I think, is that this is the ideal. So it has been an absolute joy to make dolls who really look like the special people they are for: dolls with an amputation, dolls with scars on their bodies, dolls with all sorts of different skin tones, boy dolls, bald dolls, and so on. It is so important to tell all children, especially those who feel they look "different", "Look how beautiful you are, you are so beautiful that there is a doll that looks just like you!"'
Laura said that women also started asking her to make them dolls for themselves. ‘These are, in a sense, healing dolls, used by the women to help them heal an emotional wound that they carry. I have made dolls for women who lost babies, or who couldn't have babies. I have made dolls for a woman who was so abused as a child she shattered into hundreds of personalities and her "littles" were very soothed by having a doll made for them.’
Then back in 2018 a friend of hers told her she had been born in a mother and baby home.
‘I was so touched by her story and I offered to make her a tiny doll of herself as a little girl, around the age she had been adopted. My friend loved this little doll and found it really helpful and asked me if I would make dolls of her two siblings who were also born in mother and baby homes. Her little brother died there when he was five weeks old and is buried in an unmarked, pauper's grave. I made those two dolls for her and as I sewed his doll I cried and cried and thought that every baby who died in this way should have someone spend this time thinking of them and making something in their memory. So I resolved to do just that and make a doll for every baby that had died in Ireland's mother and baby homes. It was at this point I did a little research and realised that the estimated number of babies that died in Ireland's mother and baby homes is 6,000. Of course there is no way that I could make 6,000 dolls on my own and so The Bábóg Project was born.’
Anybody who feels drawn to it is welcome to contribute a doll to the project and Laura says there are literally hundreds of people getting involved and from all over the world.
‘We have had dolls arrive from every county in Ireland as well as the UK, Germany, France and even as far afield as Alaska! There are also many people who are contributing to the project in other ways too. People are offering what skills they have like graphic design, film making, social media, web design, even just cutting out material for workshops. So far this whole project has run with no funding at all and yet we have received everything we need. It is amazing and so humbling to be a part of.’
The dolls can be made in any way: knitted, knotted, sewn, carved, sculpted, crocheted etc. The group's only requirement is that they are small enough to fit into the palm of your hand.
Laura explains: ‘At the moment we have over 3,000 dolls. Half way! I am so happy and excited about this. Lockdown was actually great for the project because many people used it as a time to be creative and have made many dolls. Two ladies in particular in their 70s and 80s have knitted over 800 dolls between them since March! I am hoping that we will be able to complete the doll making part of the project by the end of this year. However, there is no hurry. The process of doll making is really what is important. The time it takes for someone to sit down and make a doll is time spent loving and remembering a baby that may never have felt that kind of love during its short life. This is, for me, the most important part of the project.’
Once all of the dolls have been gathered they will become part of a travelling exhibition which will tour Ireland, and the group would particularly like to bring them to the towns where the major homes were located. The project will also feature on RTE’s Nationwide and will also be part of a longer documentary when the project is complete.
Laura added: ‘We would really like for anyone who feels touched by this to get involved. There is more information on our website www.thebabogproject.com and on our Facebook page about how to get involved and about upcoming events and workshops. We have several free patterns available on our website or you can make up your own. The dolls can be sent to The Bábóg Project c/o Courtmacsherry Community Shop, where I collect them. The dolls don't need to look perfect, they just need to be made with love. You don't have to be a great crafts person to take part, you just need to have a kind heart.’