Bessborough – We Must Know What Lies Beneath….
I grew up only a short distance from Bessborough Mother & Baby Home, or as it was known locally “the Sacred Heart Convent”. When I was a lad, it was spoken about, publicly at least, as a place where kindly nuns took in girls who had “gotten into trouble”, and “took care of them when nobody else would.”
Looking back, in my heart of hearts, I am sorry to say that in my youth, I more or less accepted this narrative. I knew that babies were adopted from there, but the lie that I swallowed, was based on a story, again, of “misfortunate girls who couldn’t raise them, and gave them to families who would offer them a loving home and family..”
Fast forward to now, and I cringe when I recall what I then believed, because I know that while Bessborough did indeed serve a purpose for those who found themselves with an unwanted or inconvenient pregnancy, at a time when this was deeply frowned on by society, it was most certainly not a place of kindness and care. It was a place where some unspeakable cruelty was meted out to young women and their tiny children.
I first developed an interest in what you might call “the real history” of Irelands Mother and Baby Homes, when a close friend, who was adopted from there, asked me if, as a journalist, I knew how she might go about tracing her birth mother. In my ignorance, I did not know that she had no rights to any of the personal information held on her, or on her mother, by the nuns. Immediately I recognised that this was grossly unfair and began to research it a bit more.
This was the late nineties. By about 2003, I had learned a great deal, and was not at all happy with what I had uncovered. I became an activist for the rights of adopted people and their parents, and I’m proud to say, a founder member of an organisation called Know My Own, which to this day, lobbies at the highest level for legislative change, for the right of access to the content of adoption files, and the right to trace ones origins. Great expertise in tracing and reunion now exists, but for the most part, this is despite, not as a result of successive Governments response to various related issues.
I mentioned that I had learned a great deal. You are possibly wondering what I learned – so I’ll share it with you. I discovered that young women in Bessborough were treated with unspeakable cruelty. Many of their babies were adopted against the Mothers will. Some were literally trafficked to America and adopted there by wealthy families, while their poor mothers had no idea what had happened to them. Some women were told their babies had died, only to discover years later that this was a lie.
Women in the eighth month of pregnancy were put working on a farm, forced to polish floors and maintain manicured gardens and flower beds, when what they needed was rest, care and kindness. Their babies were used in vaccine trials without their consent. Women who rebelled against this treatment, often ended up being sent to a Magdalene Laundry in Sundays Well, where some of them stayed for years, if not decades.
Some readers may accuse me of exaggeration. I’m used to it. Twenty years ago I might have said the same to someone relating these horrors to me. Let me tell you, I’ve met, interviewed, and befriended women who went through all of the ill-treatment I mentioned above. It all happened. All of it. I’ve sat in meetings with the nuns, and listened to women being shamelessly lied to, before calling out those lies to the horror of the nuns. I even count as friends, men and women who were subjected to the vaccine trials. I broke that story in 2002 on 96FM. In fact, a long time before these stories rightly became part of mainstream news, my editor at 96FM, Barry O Mahony, and senior management, were unfailingly supportive of my work. I will always be grateful to them for that.
Every June, I am deeply honoured to MC an event on the grounds of Bessborough, to remember and reflect on the Mothers and the Babies who suffered under the regime of the nuns (and the State, which funded them). People come from all over the Country, from the UK, from the USA and from Canada, to reflect and remember. That event is held in the shadow of what is known as “Pikes Folly”. It’s like a little castle, built in the 1800’s by the Pike family, who subsequently sold Bessborough to the Sacred Heart order. It is the earnest belief of those who meet here every June, that hundreds of babies who died at the Mother & Baby Home, are buried in that area, without records kept, without an indication of where they lie. A recently uncovered Ordinance Survey map, dated by eminent historian Diarmuid O Drisceoil to the 1950s, indicates a “childrens burial ground” – but it’s not marked, it’s not cordoned off, and there are no records as to how many children lie there.
In March, Pikes Folly was torn down and partly destroyed, purportedly for “safety” reasons. It needed refurbishment and reinforcement, that’s for sure, but its destruction was deeply wrong. Thankfully, that work was stopped under orders of Cork City Council, which has ordered that the folly be reinstated. The destruction of the folly was deeply upsetting to those who consider it, as it were, a “headstone” for the children buried in the area.
It is now the earnest hope of the Bessboro Commemorative Committee, the Know My Own organisation, and many surviving Bessboro mothers and children, that the Commission on Mother & Baby Homes order a full investigation of the grounds, and a forensic search of the folly area in particular. They have called on Childrens Minister Katherine Zappone to make a personal intervention and order that this happens.
In the light of the horrific discoveries in Tuam, it’s imperative that a search takes place. It’s the least that the Irish State can do, for children and their mothers who suffered at the hands of the Bessborough nuns, given that it funded and supported them so generously. As a decent society, we must not let this go. I won’t, while I have a breath left in my body.