“We are the ghosts of the children no more. We lay in the graveyard of the home for unwed mothers, next to the church with the beautiful rose window, underneath the disturbed soil of Ireland. Our mothers came here, sharing secrets, being quiet, toiling and attending Mass with each other, though they never shared their true names. There was a momentary sisterhood, it seemed, and we thought we might one day live here, and be happy…” – Gavriela Maxime Ze’eva Person, Ghosts
Our two week journey began in typical American fashion: sitting at the gate in Newark, delayed by a line of thunderstorms.
The sit turned into four hours, as we were 40th in a line of equally delayed international flights, requiring refueling before even getting into takeoff position, and the wait was requited only by a cup of warmish water and a biscuit. Despite it all, we arrived into Shannon the next morning, Tuesday, only two hours late, released from our flying tin can disheveled and jet-lagged. My travel companion Cathy’s Kerry-based cousins graciously were on hand to collect and deliver us down to Cork, and by 1 pm, we were safely ensconced in our B&B in Glanmire. Poor Cathy had been suffering from a stomach bug before we even left New Jersey, so she required a major nap/repair session as soon as we arrived. For my part, as is typically the case on arriving Ireland, I found myself too amped to sleep, so just powered through the jet lag. We made arrangements to meet up with two of the media crews in town to cover the mother-baby home scandals and interview mothers and adult adopted people. The Rochestown Park Hotel, where media and others were staying, soon became ‘command central’, as we claimed a corner of their outdoor restaurant area as our own throughout the five-day stay in Cork. Food and drink seemed to magically appear as needed (I suspect a huge thanks is owed to some of our media friends for making a good bit of that happen!)
This little corner quickly became our haven – a safe meeting place where old and new friends met, hugged and chatted, shared our personal stories from a deep gut-level, dried each other’s tears and recovered ourselves when each day’s journey sometimes proved too much. The mix was eclectic: a renowned archaeologist and anthropologist well-trained and sensitive in the matter of infant graves in Ireland, Toni Maguire; international and local journalists; adopted people, mothers, siblings, spouses, partners, eyewitnesses and more. We were all there for one purpose – to investigate and validate what we knew were the true stories behind the Irish mother-baby homes, including the many who perished behind their walls and lay in unmarked graves across the grounds. It was a sobering mission, but in so many ways empowering as well. We could feel the ghosts of our lost mothers, brothers and sisters leading us forward and giving us strength.
Wednesday was D-Day: we met early at the Rochestown, scarfing down a quick breakfast and planning our reconnaissance for the day like Eisenhower going into Normandy. Toni was leading the charge. Ordnance survey maps were perused, privacy issues were duly considered and respected, notes were made and at last we set off for the Bessboro mother-baby home in Cork.
Our first stop was a respectful visit to the designated ‘angel’s plot’, an odious term for what is really a twee faux cemetery, where only a few nuns and two or three babies were laid to rest. New memorials have been laid by grief-stricken families who still don’t know where their departed little ones or mothers were truly lain to rest. We suspected going in that far more lay scattered throughout the property.
We quickly learned the true meaning of Toni’s oft-repeated phrase about the immediate visual identification of unmarked graves, “The earth never truly settles over these spots.” Dips and swells, vegetation patterns and colourations – all proved to mark various spots surrounding the ‘angel’s plot’, including areas even outside the marked grounds of the Bessboro property, in an area recently brokered for sale. It wasn’t even necessary to complete ground probes or sophisticated radar and soil testing (although surely that will need to happen in the course of the Commission of Inquiry‘s investigation). The visual markers were all there. And the ghosts cried out to us. It is hard to describe the feeling of walking upon hallowed but unremarked grounds. Beneath us lay the tiny remains of children for whom life (if they even drew first breath) was all too short, but perhaps mercifully so in some cases. We all felt we had a duty of care to give these tiny ghosts a voice; to share their plight and the plight of those of us who dared to survive with the world. Life was not kind in these homes.
In 1922, Bessboro (Bessborough, or “BEZZ-bora” if you come from Da Real Capitol) House was purchased by the Sacred Heart Sisters of Jesus and Mary, a French-founded and London-based order, from the Quaker Pike family. History maintains the Pikes were not a very gracious lot, and treated those who worked for them in a quite unkind manner. Family members and the babies of workers there prior to 1922 would similarly have been buried on the property, creating even more mass or Cillini graves. The Sacred Heart sisters, upon local diocesan bishops’ invitations, came to Bessboro and later to Sean Ross Abbey (Roscrea) and Castlepollard (Westmeath) for the purposes of establishing mother-baby homes, ostensibly to replace the disease-ridden and harsh county homes or workhouses with “better” accommodations for unmarried mothers and their children. But witness this excerpt from the 1939 report of Ms. Alice Litster, inspector for boarded out children in the Department of Local Government and Public Health:
“The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers. I except the Manor House, Castlepollard, in which the infantile death rate is comparatively low. In theory, the advantage should lie on the side of the child institutionally born. Pre-natal care, proper diet, fresh air, sufficient exercise, no arduous work, proper and comfortable clothing, freedom from worry, the services of a skilled doctor, the supervision and attention of a qualified nurse, all should be available and should make for the health of the expectant mother and the birth and survival of a healthy infant…Cleanliness, medical attention, dietetic knowledge, all the human skill may continue to preserve child life should be at hand. Yet any infant born in any other circumstances appears to have a better chance of life. I have grave doubts of the wisdom of continuing to urge Boards of Health and Public Assistance to send patients to the special homes so long as no attempt is made to explore the causes of the abnormally high death rate The illegitimacy birth rate shows an upward trend. In 1916 it was 1530; in 1925 it was 1662. We cannot prevent the birth of these infants. We should be able to prevent their death.”
And witness these two shocking letters, transcribed from the Cork City Archives:
Found in LG 11 Box 91 "The Board of Public Assistance for the South Cork Public Assistance District. Secretary's office, Boardroom, Douglas Rd. Cork. 12th January 1945 A Chara Sacred Heart Home Bessboro Blackrock I wish to inform you that in a Circular Letter, P.2/1945 dated 10th January, 1945, Dr. Ward, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for local Government and Public Health, directs that, for the time being, no unmarried mother, or expectant mother should be sent to The Sacred Heart Home and Hospital, Bessboro’, Blackrock. Patients who normally would be sent there should be sent to the County Home Mise le meas, Signed, (unreadable) Runaidho To Dispensary Medical Officers, Medical officers, Matrons and Head Nurses of Hospitals, Assistance Officers and Superintendant Assistance Officers."
Why would they redirect mothers to county homes? Because:
"Evaluation to Ireland of Mothers and Children. Copy Cork County Council. Public Health Dept 66 South Mall 17th August 1943 F Wrenne Esq. NA County Manager Courthouse. Dear Mr Wrenne Bessboro Maternity Home With reference to the high rate of infant mortality in the above named institution as drawn to your attention recently by LCD (?) this matter has been investigated by Dr O Briain assistant (HCH?) who reports the following terms: Bessboro Maternity home and High Infant Mortality I investigated this home and figures obtained were Deaths 68% sixty eight of the births. Diagnosis in most of these cases was Debility some were given as gastroenteritis and a small number as prematurity Most of the deaths were from 2-3 weeks to 3 months. This is the period they leave the Maternity Hospital for the home. The sister in charge has no Hospital training in infants and children apart from 2 months in Temple Street Hospital Dublin. This may or may not be a cause but I suggest a specially trained qualified in infant feeding should be appointed for 6-12 months. The figures could be then compared with the previous term Signed, D O Briain Asst Co H O H"
Moreover, spokeswoman for the Sacred Heart Sisters, Sr. Julie Rose, to date cannot even publicly confirm if children were buried in proper coffins or simply buried in shrouds/bags at Bessboro. We’ve spoken with several mothers who lost, or were told they lost, children at the home. In one case, the mother went back to reclaim her son, born in 1979, only to be told (by a nursery nun, not a social worker) that the months-old baby had died of ‘congenital heart failure’, despite that he was a healthy, nursing infant when his mother was there. When confronted with this horrifying news, the young mother was offered no cup of tea, no sympathy, not even a moment to sit down and collect her breath. And chillingly, no death cert exists for this child.
In another case, the mother and her son were both infected by a dirty needle during childbirth (no explanation for the use of said needle has been given, considering the mothers received no pain relief during labour during this mother’s time, 1960). She and her infant son were stricken with septicemia, and despite her pleading with the nuns to seek medical treatment for her son, he was taken too late to nearby St. Finbarr’s Hospital and died. The mother herself barely survived, and continued to be afflicted by her infection long after she’d left Bessboro and resettled in the UK. Yet her discharge papers show her in “good health” upon leaving. She begged to know where her son lay buried, but was merely shown a weedy, overgrown patch well beyond the defined ‘angel’s plot’. Hardly a fitting resting spot for this poor infant. To say this knowledge added to the solemnity of our work on Wednesday would be understatement. And still more stories came.
We met with individuals who would have deep historical and firsthand knowledge of events and records at Bessboro. Their testimonies were equally harrowing and disturbing. It’s a small wonder any of us survived, and that theme of survivors’ guilt continued to plague many of us throughout the visit. We were physically and emotionally wrecked by the time we returned from our day at Bessboro. Why was it we mattered so little? How on earth could anyone have deemed it an acceptable ‘solution’ to incarcerate women for the ‘crime’ of a non-marital pregnancy, and then forcibly (and often illegally) separate them from their children? What sick god would sanction such an act of ‘Christian charity’?
On the 8th of January, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Inquiry will be released. The little ghosts are waiting, watching…and so are we, their living, breathing brethren.