A woman whose child was adopted through Bessborough House recalls quitting her job, moving to the home, giving birth, and handing over her infant son
Grim history: the entrance to the Bessborough Centre, in Blackrock, Cork, location of the former mother and baby home operated by Sacred Heart nuns. Photograph: Provision
I confirmed my pregnancy with a GP in September 1973, in a town 30km from where I was working. He referred me to a local curate, and I went to see him. I had no idea at that time what I was going to do.
I had told nobody about my pregnancy, so the priest told me that I could go to a mother-and-baby home called Bessborough House, in Blackrock in Cork. I knew nothing about these homes, and I don’t think I had ever heard of them.
A month later I told a friend, who told me I’d be welcome in her parents’ home. Some weeks later I told my own mother. I knew that she’d be upset and that I wouldn’t be able to come home with my illegitimate baby.
I was 24 and from a middle-class home. I had been well educated and was the oldest in a big family. My mother would not want the neighbours to know.
She didn’t throw me out, though, or condemn me, and nor did my father. But at that time this was by far the worst thing that could happen to a girl like me. I knew I had to go away somewhere to hide, and that’s where the mother-and-baby home came in.
I gave up my job and my flat, and I disappeared to Bessborough House.
I was a primary-school teacher, and it would have been impossible for me to keep my position in a Catholic school then – or to get another job – if I had kept my baby.
There were no boards of management in Catholic primary schools at the time. The parish priests managed them, and they alone selected candidates for posts.
It might be hard for anyone reading this to imagine that time and my actions. I have one daughter, who is married, but I could not imagine having sent her to a place I knew nothing about if she had become pregnant when she was single.
I would never criticise my mother for sending me away. That’s just what you did then, particularly if you came from what was called a “respectable family”. That was the way it was 44 years ago.
I resigned from my permanent job 60km from my home town, pretended I had got a job elsewhere, and went home for a few weeks, staying indoors, then stayed another few weeks with my friends’ parents.
In early December 1973, when I was six months pregnant, I drove myself to the mother-and-baby home in Cork.
Religious institution: a statue of the Virgin Mary at Bessborough House. Photograph: Provision
I changed my first name
I had been in a convent boarding school for five years, so I was well used to nuns and an institution.
It was like boarding school. I had a cubicle with a door I could lock. In the bathroom was a row of washbasins and a number of toilets, just like in the dormitory at boarding school.
People didn’t shower in those days, nor even wash daily. My home didn’t have a bathroom, and we only had an outside toilet. We washed in the kitchen sink.
No personal belongings were taken from me, as someone else who was in Bessborough has said happened to her.
I changed my first name to my confirmation name, and I changed my surname, too. I think most changed their names. You didn’t have to, but it was suggested that it would be a good idea to change my name.
My mother, who wrote to me frequently, told me she was glad I had changed my name, as people she knew in the post office would have seen my proper name on envelopes addressed to the mother-and-baby home.
Every girl had a job in the mornings. Another girl and I had to make up about 80 bottles. That involved boiling kettles, measuring out milk powder and filling the bottles for all the babies for the day.
Other girls cleaned corridors and rooms. They’d come into the kitchen for tea at breaks.
A nun would appear, keeping an eye on us from time to time. During my time there I never heard any nun condemn any girl for what she had done, as has been said by others about some of the Bessborough nuns.
Some girls who had attended rural schools may have had no experience of nuns. Most nuns were stern, but one or two engaged in conversation.
In general the place was grim. The food was basic, although I don’t remember being hungry or cold in the winter. It never dawned on me that someone, somewhere had to be paying for my keep, but it seems the government gave the nuns a sum of money for each girl they had there.
As far as I remember the afternoons were free. Some of us went into the city, walked around the grounds or sat around inside. There were no restrictions about leaving the home. I don’t remember having to ask if I could leave at any time.
Some girls had had their babies and stayed in the home, and fed and changed them, some with babies over three months old. I also remember that some girls whose babies had been adopted remained in the home too. I don’t remember why they stayed.
Some girls had visible deformities and some had special needs. I wondered if some of those vulnerable young women had been raped.
On some afternoons I went to the Douglas shopping centre, for coffee and a break from the home. I had very little money, so I didn’t go into the city. In the evenings we could watch TV in a room that was always in darkness. I don’t know why.
Most went to bed early. I read or made a rug I was working on with a hook and pieces of wool.
Former mother and baby home: the Bessborough Centre. Photograph: Provision
We would have heard if a baby had died
Once a week a doctor would come to the home. I remember him as an elderly man, so he may have been an obstetrician. As girls with problem births went to St Finbarr’s Hospital I presumed he was from there.
I’d lie on an examination table and he’d press my stomach and feel the position of the baby. A nun would be by his side. I had no complications. I had no morning sickness, but I had bought a book on childbirth, and I’d have questions for him.
I remember the nun being inclined to hurry me along, to make way for the next patient, and he mostly gave me monosyllabic answers.
Nobody had scans, but my last baby was born in 1982, eight years later, and the hospital near me had no scanner even then.
There were no antenatal classes, nor was any advice given when leaving about postnatal check-ups nor, of course, any advice about contraception. No antenatal classes were offered at my local hospital. They were available in 1982.
I was not aware of any babies dying while I was at the home, and it would have been known to all.
A midwife attended at births. Some of them were nuns, but there were lay women too. They were helped by a young woman who had already given birth. It was usual on many days for a girl to come to the cubicle area and announce loudly to all, “Mary had a baby boy at four o’clock – 6lb 12oz – and she had four stitches.”
I have no doubt that we would have heard if a baby had died.
Teddy bears and toys, which had been fixed on the railings, after being moved to the “Little Angels” plot in the graveyard at Bessborough House. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
I wondered where the fathers were
My friends’ family invited me for Christmas, which was wonderful. I stayed two weeks with them and returned to the home in early January.
Baptisms were held once a week, in the chapel, at five o’clock. I always found them most upsetting. The new mothers would dress up and present their babies. There would be a line of mothers and babies at the baptismal font, maybe about 10 each week.
I always wondered where the fathers of those babies were at this time of the evening. I decided that I was not going through with that when my baby was born, and I didn’t. I also knew that if my baby was adopted the new parents could give the child their choice of name, irrespective of the name chosen by the birth mother.
Throughout my time in the mother-and-baby home I wondered about the huge question facing me about the future of my baby. I wondered could I keep the baby.
But I had nowhere to live. Many landlords at this time didn’t let rooms to single mothers. I had no job, and even if I got one who would mind the baby? There were no creches then.
I discussed this a lot with one nun, who leaned heavily in favour of adoption. She said that even if I gave my baby away I would see the baby one day. This, of course, is not actually true, as some people who are adopted have no interest in seeing the mother who gave them away.
Coming up to the birth, I decided to have my baby adopted. I told the nun that I wanted the baby to go soon after the birth. I felt the longer I was with the baby the more difficult it was going to be to give the baby away.
I cried and cried and cried
My baby was due on February 26th, 1974. In the early hours of the morning of February 22nd my waters broke. I leaped out of bed and stood in my cubicle as the water poured out of me.
I wasn’t afraid. I had read the book on childbirth. I knew what was happening. A girl in the cubicle beside me walked me across a quadrangle in the middle of the night to the section where the wards, nursery and labour ward were located.
I was put into a six-bed ward. Nothing happened until later that evening. Because there was a danger of infection I was given an injection of an antibiotic.
When some pains started, at about 7pm, I was given pethidine, and the girl who was usually with me making up the bottles stayed by my side.
My baby boy was born at about 4am on February 23rd. I found the second stage of labour very painful, as no gas was given to ease the pain, but once my baby was born the pain was over.
But as my son was little more than 6lb in weight, and my stomach had looked big, according to this midwife, she thought another baby might be in there. So she waited for a while, and I lay there hoping I wasn’t about to have twins.
She didn’t check for a foetal heartbeat. She just waited. Then, as there was no sign of another baby, she cleaned me up. My son was taken to the nursery. The nurse had no kind words for me at all throughout the labour and birth. She was a gruff person, and most girls hoped to go into labour during the day when a nun, who was much nicer, was on duty.
For the next five days I didn’t feed him, change him or hold him. I went into the nursery and stood by his cot and cried and cried and cried.
I wasn’t quite ready to give my son away
The mother had to supply clothes for the baby to go away in. Some girls waited until their baby was born and went into the city to choose clothes to match the baby’s colouring. I couldn’t have done that.
So a friend sent me clothes her nephew had outgrown. On the morning of February 28th the nun who was handling the adoption came into the ward with my baby all dressed up and ready for his first outing.
Remember that this was what I wanted. Nobody made me do this so soon. I hugged and kissed him, and then she left with him. I remember having a bath then, and in the privacy of the bathroom my tears flowed and flowed into the bathwater.
My baby went to a foster home for a few days; then his adoptive parents came for him. I signed the preliminary adoption forms before I drove to my friends’ home two days later, a week after the birth.
I was told I could omit the name of the father of my child, or give a different name on forms, but I wanted my son in time to know his father’s name. I spent three months in the home in total.
I got a new job in April, and I began my life again. I was lucky. I had a qualification, but some young girls told me they had no idea what they’d do when their baby was gone and they’d left the home.
I got my baby’s original birth certificate so that I would have it to help me find him in later years.
In September I signed the final adoption paper. The priest who had helped me initially took me to a peace commissioner, as he had to witness my signature. I couldn’t post those final papers. I wasn’t quite ready to finally give my son away. I kept wondering could I rear him myself, but eventually I posted the papers three months later, one December evening.
It was great to see him
In 1994, when my son was 20 years old, I contacted the adoption society. It contacted his adoptive parents, telling them that I wished to meet him. And so I met him after all those years.
By this time I had married and had another son and daughter. Meeting him again was wonderful. It opened all the wounds, but still it was great to see him.
He is married with a son, and now lives abroad, but we talk occasionally. I meet him sometimes when he comes back to Ireland, and he has met my other two children, too. He and his wife attended my daughter’s wedding.
So that’s my story of my experiences in a mother and baby home in 1974, the same year Bishop Eamonn Casey’s son was born.
I have omitted details about the father of my child, but like many men at that time, he gave me little support during my pregnancy.
The author’s identity is known to The Irish Times