Honora was the youngest daughter in a family of five, from a small village in Wexford not far from the port of Rosslare. While her father and several brothers mostly worked quarrying rock, her own mother’s people were mostly seafarers. Hardly prosperous, they at least managed a steady living and had survived the worst of An Ghorta Mor. Honora was the pet of the family, an exquisite dark-haired beauty who learned early on how to wrap a man around her finger, starting with her besotted father. By the time she was 16, in 1926, she had become pregnant by a local farmer’s son. With Honora’s own charm, coupled with her father’s desire to do anything to keep his precious Honora from harm as well as his own local influence, they managed to keep the scandal quiet. The resulting baby boy, John, was quickly hustled off to live with a pair of uncles in the next village over, and Honora resumed her normal life. Disaster struck again three years later, when Honora managed to bewitch yet another local lad and bore him a daughter.
This time Honora’s aggrieved father shuttled her off to a small set of rooms shared by a bachelor and his sister in yet another neighboring village, but told her the child was now her own responsibility. Honora’s mother by this point had lapsed into a near catatonic state over this flagrant family shame. She would spend most days rocking by the fire, only ever asking if any of her three boys were home from work yet. Honora’s father did most of the cooking and cleaning, looking after his now witless wife as best he could. What little spare time he had, he would visit Honora and the baby girl, Ellie, or go by and pick up baby John for a brief visit with his mammy.
On one such visit, not quite a year after Ellie’s birth, Honora’s father entered the small house she shared to find her retching into a basin.
—Honora, girl, what’s wrong with you?
Ellie was squalling on a cot in the corner, and as Honora’s father went to pick her up for a cuddle (he could resist his grandchildren no more than he could resist Honora, bastards though they may be), Honora wiped her ashen face and straightened.
—It’s happened again, Da.
—What’s happened again, lass?
—A fella’s been at me
—Oh yes, that fine fella you begged me to take rooms with, Nick…well, he’s not such a fine fella is he?
—Ah jaysus, the fecker’s gone and knocked you up?
—Yes, Da…I swear I did nothing to encourage him, honest
—I believe you Nora, I do. Men can’t help but be dazzled by you, sweet. I know. But honestly, what are we to do now?
He sighed heavily and sat with resignation on a stool, scratching his balding head. He knew in his heart his own budget, never mind Honora’s (which was only supplemented by the laundry she took in for neighbours) would never stand another babby.
—Nora, you know you’ll have to give this up…the county home will find the babby a good family.
—They won’t, Da!
Honora let out an anguished cry, but just as quickly clicked her own mouth shut, realising with an awful finality that she could not support another child.
And so, when this third baby was born, Martin, he was quickly christened and given over to the county home in Enniscorthy. For agonising months, Honora and her father would make the long drive to the county home and visit with little Martin. Each time they were assured that the paperwork was in process to find him a fine family. Finally, after a full year of such visits, Honora was told that a family was found and that she shouldn’t be bothered to visit Martin anymore — it would only upset and confuse him, trying to settle in with a new family.
Honora accepted her and Martin’s fate as best she could and went back to the sad house she shared (uncomfortably now) with the father of the child and his sister, who couldn’t resist making snarky remarks and darting nasty looks at Honora behind her back. Her father promised to write to Honora’s older sister Anne, who was now married and living in Manchester, England, and see if Honora couldn’t come live with them until she could find suitable employment and (fingers crossed) a suitable spouse. Arrangements were made and funds collected to send Honora for a short visit with Anne, hoping to lift her spirits and let her glimpse the joys of a stable marriage and family life. The joys Honora glimpsed while in Manchester were evidently not quite what her father had envisioned. She came back pregnant for the fourth time, this one resulting from a rapturous fling with a handsome, dark friend of her sister Anne’s husband Michael.
Her father was now convinced Honora was soft in the head, bewitching ways notwithstanding. He could not believe a girl could be so daft as to not realise what had gotten her this way four times! Enough was enough. He sat her down in front of the fire and told her in no uncertain terms that this child was straight off to the county home, and no fond visits for a year. Afterward, she would return to Manchester, to Anne and Michael (who would be under strict orders to keep her away from men, unless it was a proper, supervised courtship) and would not be bid welcome in Wexford again unless there was a ring on her finger and a proper husband in tow.
Honora was miserable…she loved her babies, including this unborn one. She loved the sex she had had with the men who’d produced these children, no matter what the Church and the neighbours said. It was all just down to bad timing. She’d believed her father could make everything work, but even she came to realise that the man was carrying far too much on his shoulders. So when this last little babby girl was born, christened Philomena, Honora resignedly made the journey again to the county home for what she believed was the last time.
She had little Ellie and would occasionally see John, and now she’d be off to Manchester. She tried to push the loss of Philomena and Martin, and her precious visits with John, out of her mind as she prepared for the journey to her sister’s.
But fate was not done with Honora yet. Shortly before Christmastime, four-year old Ellie came down with a mysterious fever and blinding headache. Nothing could console or aid her. For two days Honora and her equally distraught father administered soup, water or anything they could to get the fever down. But Ellie had lapsed into unconsciousness and they knew their only hope was to get her to the county home, which was the nearest place affording any class of medical service.
A somber resident paediatrician informed them that Ellie was suffering from meningitism. Ellie’s vital signs languished to nothing overnight, despite fluids and what treatment was offered. Four days after her illness began, Honora, her three older brothers, father and catatonic mother buried the little girl in the local cemetery. Honora’s bitter tears flowed over Ellie’s small gravesite with the cold, December rain. Something inside her hardened then, but made her resolved to always watch over her children, wherever they may be.
Three months later, Honora carried her grief and the secret of her children on the boat to Manchester. She arrived at Anne’s doorstep weary and still somewhat in shock. She had changed from the raven-haired, rose-cheeked, laughing beauty Anne had known as a girl. Now a quiet, somber young woman stood before her. Anne immediately folded her into her arms and set about restoring Honora into a marriageable catch.
Over the course of the next two years, Anne’s transformation began to work its magic. Although Honora remained a quiet and sober woman, the roses did come back to her cheeks and evidently provided enough of a lure to attract a straight-laced railway worker she was introduced to at the local Irish club. Anne made sure that Honora understand this was a fine man: God-fearing, a temperance Pioneer for many years, and exceedingly modest in his dealings with women. Under no circumstances could Honora share any of her past — nothing about her children, living, dead or missing — to this man Tom, or he’d have nothing to do with her.
Tom seemed enthralled with Honora’s quiet way, taking it for modesty as opposed to some deep, abiding sorrow. Within three months, he had offered her marriage and Honora’s entire family rejoiced.
Tom and Honora settled outside London, where work was more plentiful, especially for experienced Irish railroad workers, now stepping into the English jobs left vacant by World War II. But that itself concerned Tom; they had three young children by the start of the war and he wanted his wife and children out of harm’s way. So they were sent off to his father in Kerry, to a one-horse town where life seemed at a standstill. Honora hated it, and disliked Tom’s taciturn father, who was forever ordering her around like some servant. Her only relief was going into town to shop, where every male head would turn her way. This barren outpost from the 18th century had never seen a woman the likes of Honora. With her long dark hair flowing behind her and her imperial posture and direct gaze, she commanded men to their windows in passing. But Honora was now a married matron and had no time for these staring ohmaudans. She had another more important mission.
On occasion, Honora was able to convince Old Tom, her father-in-law, that she needed to go to Wexford to see her own family, usually because ‘someone was sick’. She’d leave her three toddlers in Old Tom’s care (the foul old bastard was well able to look after them, and besides, that’s what a grandfather was for now and again) and hop the train.
Her first visit was to Wexford, where her oldest son John, now nearly 20, met her at the railway station. She passionately embraced him, but was not surprised when his own embrace seemed a bit confused and stand-offish. Poor lad hadn’t seen her in so many years, he’d probably forgotten she was his mother. After a quick visit with her father, brothers and uncles (her mother had passed as quietly as she lived, in her own world, some five years ago — Honora and Anne had not attended the funeral), Honora made her way to the county home, now called St John’s. Her mission was to try and learn where Martin and Philomena went and perhaps check in on them. She was surprisingly able to follow their whereabouts, but no thanks to the staff at the home. Her source was local gossip and it told her that contrary to what the county home had promised, Martin had ended up an ‘orphan’ in a local industrial school and Philomena was being raised by nuns at a girls’ convent school.
Honora arranged for further ‘day-trips’ from Old Tom’s place in Kerry and was able to slip by train to Kilkenny and Cork, to see Martin and Philomena. Martin was a sad little fellow who seemed to want nothing to do with Honora, but the visits at least helped Honora to hold onto her sanity. Philomena warmed more toward her, curling her small hand inside Honora’s as they sat in the children’s nursery together and tried to make conversation. Honora did her best to explain her situation to both children, but they were far too young to grasp it and all she could do was try to cuddle them both and assure them she loved them.
The return trips to Kerry left Honora unsettled and empty. She could never tell her Tom about these children, and yet she felt compelled to remain part of their lives, somehow. Her only hope was that she somehow wasn’t doing the children more harm than good with her sporadic visits and subjecting them to a life among strangers, in foster care and industrial schools.
Twenty-five years passed, bringing Honora another four children with Tom and a settled life in the London suburbs. And although she occasionally saw her eldest son John, who was now married with his own son and living nextdoor to her sister Anne in Manchester, she had still not acknowledged her four Irish-born children to Tom and the younger children. And on visits with her sister Anne or the requisite funerals and weddings where John was present, she was forced to pass him off as a “cousin” to her husband and children. The pain and confusion that registered in John’s eyes on these occasions broke her heart.
She had also not set foot back in Ireland since the War years, and so could only follow Philomena and Martin’s progress through sporadic letters from her father, who didn’t know much about them himself.
One day a letter arrived, not from her father, but from one of her aging uncles. Honora’s father had died, they said, peacefully in his sleep. She knew she would have to go back for this funeral. So it was arranged that Honora would travel with her sister Anne. She was shocked at what a small, sad place her family village in Wexford had become. She and Anne tearfully buried their beloved father and Honora felt as if she was burying her last link to Ireland with him. Except for the children — still out there, somewhere. At the small gathering held in her bachelor Uncle George’s home, Honora struck up a conversation with a cousin, Biddy, who seemed to be in the know on everything. Biddy also knew about John, Martin and Philomena and tactlessly asked Honora if she’d been in touch with them. Honora sadly admitted she had not seen Philomena and Martin in over twenty years, and John only occasionally. She was unprepared for the shock, then, when Biddy told her Philomena was still with the nuns, now in Waterford, doing sewing for them. Honora had thought pretty Philomena would be lucky, and some nice family might’ve taken her in by now…or she’d by now be successfully married. Without hesitation, she hastily re-arranged her trip back to England, telling Anne to let Tom know she would be spending a few extra days ‘straightening out her father’s affairs’.
She wasted no time in traveling to St. Dominick’s, demanding to see her daughter when she arrived. The nuns led her to an ornate parlor and she nervously sat waiting for Philomena, clutching her purse. The spectre that soon appeared before her was shocking. Now a grown woman, Philomena was still small, thin and had horrendous dark circles under her eyes. The lively, sweet child Honora remembered had turned into a docile, resigned woman. She didn’t know where to begin, so just stood up and hugged Philomena to her. She could feel the bones in the girl’s back and was horrified.
— Oh my Phil, my poor, sweet Phil! What have they done to you?
Philomena looked up into her mother’s eyes, a woman she barely knew, and felt nothing. No sadness, no remorse, no anger. Just a giant void of feeling. However, that soon turned to relief when Honora announced her intentions to get Phil out of there.
They packed Phil’s meager belongings together and Phil noted the small wad of bank notes that passed between her mother’s hand and the sister who ran St. Dominick’s. Honora hired a cab to take them down to Cork City, and soon they were settled in a small restaurant on Patrick Street, sipping tea and eating sandwiches.
—I know I haven’t been much of a mother to you — Honora hesitatingly began.
—Mum, it’s all past. I understand. John and Uncle George would send me letters and they told me about your husband and children. I’ve been fine, really.
Honora eyed Phil suspiciously. Her appearance told her otherwise, but for now, she was just glad to see and touch Philomena once again.
—Look, because of Tom, I still can’t be much of a mother to you, but I can do something. Tom has a sister who is head Matron at a hospital in Dublin. I’m sure we could find you a suitable job there. Better than working for the nuns. Did they even pay you for the work you did?
—No, mum. None of us were paid. We got our keep and that was it.
—Right. Then that’s it…you’ll slave no more for the likes of them.
The two women finished their lunch in awkward silence, not knowing what else to say between complete strangers who hadn’t seen each other in twenty-five years. Honora paid for lunch and called for a cab to take them to the train station. Soon they were on their way to Dublin, and a whole new life for Phil.
Honora located them a small, reasonable bed and breakfast in the city and rang to make an appointment with Tom’s sister, the head Matron at Our Lady’s Hospital. She was careful with her words, introducing Phil by phone as a “cousin” from Wexford, with solid training from the nuns. Tom’s sister happily agreed to meet them, and soon after their proper introduction, Philomena was welcomed to the small army of ward staff employed at the hospital.
Satisfied that at least Phil was rescued from a life of slavery to the nuns, Honora said yet one more sad good-bye to her daughter, as they stood in the staff dormitory. Honora’s eyes filled with tears as she hugged Phil tightly to her.
—I wish things didn’t have to be this way. I wish I had you near me every day.
—Don’t worry, mum. I’ll be fine. I’m a grown woman now. And thank you for getting me out of St. Dominick’s. I know I’ll love this job. I’ll write as soon as I’m settled. And don’t worry — I’ll write as your ‘grateful cousin’.
—Thank you for understanding, Phil. I love you so.
And with that Honora turned and exited the dormitory. Phil would not see her again until Honora’s death, some twenty years later.
Part I, Our Lady of Nothing at All