Harrowing tales of Bessborough

Staying In

GIVING THEM VOICE Author Deirdre Finnerty with her book, outside Tertulia bookshop at Westport Quay.

Book review
Brid Conroy

In the eighties I spent a wonderful summer in the Channel Islands working in a hotel. It was there I met a lovely, gentle, caring young girl from the Midlands. We lost touch as the years went on but her story stayed with me.
Two years prior to us meeting, she had become pregnant and was sent to a Mother and Baby Home to have the baby and to have it adopted. She was happy and getting on with her life but inside she yearned for her baby. I could see it in her eyes. When the stories of the Mother and Baby Homes became centre stage around the year 2000, I thought of my old friend and wondered if she would ever gotten to meet her child.
Deirdre Finnerty is a multimedia journalist from Ballinrobe who works for the BBC, specialising in international news. She has a keen interest in stories about inequality and social affairs. After writing a highly acclaimed piece on the Bessborough House story, she was then approached to develop the story into a book. Duly, ‘Bessborough: Three Women, Three Decades, Three Stories of Courage’ was recently published by Hachette Books Ireland.
We’ve heard many of the facts in the last 20 or so years about the unjust and inhumane way these homes were run, but this book is different. It tells the story through the eyes of three women whose story it ultimately is.
The first narrative is about Joan, who became pregnant in 1966. Her mother and stepfather told her to pack a bag, and she was delivered to the doors of Bessborough House and off they drove. It was not for the lack of money that they sent her there. Her family were well off financially. In the home she was given a new name and told that if she were to leave the police would bring her back. She was also told to have no contact with the outside world.
She worked for the duration of her stay. When her time came and the pains of labour started, she was taken to a small room, the key was turned in the lock and she was left alone until the last moment when her son was born. She got to feed him in between her work in the next few weeks until one day she saw one of the nuns take him. Legally, she did not sign any adoption papers. She never gave up hope of finding him one day.
The other two stories are about Terri and Deirdre, who spent time in Bessborough and two other homes between them.
Terri’s story starts in 1972. Suspecting she might be pregnant, she went to England to stay with a relative. Terri was one of the last women known as PFIs, ‘pregnant from Ireland’. She was taken against her will back to Ireland by a Catholic Association and an unspoken policy of the British Government to repatriate these women back to Ireland so they would no longer be a burden on the UK. Terri also did not sign any adoption papers.
Deirdre’s story begins a decade later. A few days after a difficult birth, during which she had an episiotomy, she signed adoption papers for the baby she named Paul and was driven home by her parents. Trying to cope with the trauma of losing her baby, she became pregnant a second time and gave birth to another baby boy in another baby home.
Their stories are heartbreaking. We all know someone who knows some woman this happened too. We may think of it as another time yet the injustice continues. From the years that immediately followed the story as it broke (officially), these women waited years to access their files. Joan quotes a wait of nine years by the state to access her own records.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was established by the Irish Government in February 2015 submitted its final report in 2020. For me, in the report I was struck by a lot of ‘there was no evidence of” quoted, and by the fact that the 550 testimonies given by the women themselves were not admitted as evidence because they were not taken under oath.
The redress scheme which has emerged from this enquiry requires the women to sign a waiver ensuring they will take no further action against the State. It may a bit hard on my part, but in the end it seems that the State is still trying to protect itself from these women, and it breaks my heart. It could have been my mother having me in one of those homes or me having my daughter. And for the women who have not gotten to reunite with their children – one quote from the book will stay with me: “How do you grieve someone who is not dead?”

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.