Sisters, for the love of God — tell us where the Bessborough babies are

Sisters, for the love of God — tell us where the Bessborough babies are
Carmel Cantwell whose brother died after he was born in Bessborough in 1960. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

It was a miserable day on Sunday in Cork. Rain teemed from a dark and unpleasant sky, the grass underneath turned to mud, there was no respite from the cold.

But still they came. The women, the young people, the elderly. People whose lives had been affected, in some cases destroyed, by Bessborough. They came for the sixth year in a row, to remember what happened there, to seek justice and peace, to ensure that nothing like this could happen again. 

A ceremony that would normally take place in the open, in a place called the Folly, where survivors always believed babies were buried.

But it didn’t this year, for several reasons. First of all, the nuns who still own Bessborough, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (wonderful name), have barred access to the site and demolished a section of the old folly without authorisation (it is currently being restored by a specialist contractor). Secondly, the families no longer know where any of the babies are buried.

That’s because of the latest report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, published in January. 

It revealed that a shocking total of 904 babies had died in Bessborough. But even worse than that, it could only account for the whereabouts of 64 of those babies. 

The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, inexplicably, don’t know what happened to the others —  although they operated the home from its foundation to the end and still own the property.

One nun who was in Bessborough for most of the 50 years between 1948 and 1998 couldn’t remember any children dying at all. 

The commission found this “surprising” (a quaint choice of words), because 31 children died between 1950 and 1960 alone. 

Another congregation member who was in Bessborough from 1978-1985 told the commission that one baby died during her time there.

In overall terms, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary gave an affidavit to the commission that the statutory body described as speculative, inaccurate and misleading. 

In other words, the commission didn’t believe a word of any of it.

It’s very hard to understand why members of the order have not, at this stage, been interviewed by the gardaí. 

Campaigners have in the past called for the area being demolished to be treated as a crime scene, and that too is easy to understand.

If you stop for a minute and just think, it’s an overwhelming fact that an order of nuns, funded by the State, has disposed of hundreds of dead babies and is unwilling to tell anyone where they are. 

How? Why? What are they hiding? What are they ashamed of?

And each one of those babies has someone who loved them, who mourns for them still, whose lives were devastated by the way they were born, by the forced separation from them, by the fact of their deaths, and by the haunting, heart-breaking thought that even in death they have been denied the dignity the rest of us take for granted.

Sisters, for the love of God — tell us where the Bessborough babies are

Each one of those babies is entitled to a grave. A place that can be tended. A place where flowers can be left. 

A place where silent prayers can be offered, or a moment of solidarity. A place where the name of the child, his or her identity, can be recorded. 

These children have even had their identity stolen.

In most cases, anyway. Speaking at the commemoration on Sunday, Carmel Cantwell told the powerful and riveting story of her mother’s search for her son, and Carmel’s brother, William. He died in Bessborough in 1960. 

Before she left the home she was told William had died and was buried already, although it was later discovered that he wasn’t buried until after she left — and his body was then described as unclaimed.

The appalling cruelty of that, in respect of a woman who had pleaded with the nuns to be involved in his care, and in his funeral, was compounded by the litany of lies she was told when she tried to investigate, many years later, her son’s final resting place.

Some children survived, of course. Daragh Walsh, who was born in Bessborough in 1960 (he’s only 10 years younger than me) read a moving poem about his attempts, after years of searching, to make contact with his mother. 

Those attempts were rebuffed in the past, but his mother is older now, and Daragh lives in hope that she might want to know what became of her son.

There was beautiful music on Sunday, and there were tears. There was anger too. 

The things that happened to the children of Bessborough — the neglect, the callousness — were all of a piece with what happened to children sent to institutions by a society that was oppressive to the point of being vengeful.

Nuns weren’t given authority in those days to treat dead babies as disposable. They were given impunity instead, because the babies — and their mothers — were denied citizenship. 

They were told that all they deserved was shame and treated accordingly. The babies were illegitimate. 

That was the term routinely used — and it’s really only now, when we discover how no-one is to be accountable for their disappearance, that we realise how loaded a word that was, how little they mattered.

But they matter still, especially to the people who were, and are, their loved ones. 

The thing that struck me most at the commemoration was the dignity of it. And the fact that these children are remembered with love.

When I arrived in Bessborough on Sunday morning, there were two people working — in heavy oilskins in the heavy rain — in a space outside the meeting room. 

They turned out to be the artist Jill Dinsdale and her husband Dave Gordon building an installation to honour the children.

Jill told me that the wood they used were long offcuts from a saw mill. They had painted them black, and cut marks in each of the planks — Jill called them scars — one mark for each baby who had died, and one for each mother. 

They stood tall in a circle in the rain, and it was impossible to stand in the middle of that circle without being overwhelmed. There are no names on the wood, just those little scars.

It’s not a permanent memorial, because an anonymous field outside a meeting room is not the right place for it. But its message is incredibly powerful.

If we allow ourselves to forget the stealing of citizenship; if we allow ourselves to treat anyone as “the other”; if we refuse to accord children the birthright of an identity, we will repeat the terrible mistakes of the past.

I hope a permanent home is found for that little memorial. I hope policy makers — and the heads of religious orders and others — can bring themselves to stand in that circle. 

The truth must be told. Misplaced shame must be ended. Reparation must be made to people who have been terribly hurt.

They are the lessons of those little scars on pieces of black wood. And above all this one. Never, never again.

More on this topic

Child’s burial details not in reportChild’s burial details not in report

Religious order agrees to reinstate Bessborough folly in fullReligious order agrees to reinstate Bessborough folly in full

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