'You became so frightened eventually you toed the line'

It took 31 years before the Sacred Heart nuns admitted to Mary that her baby boy had died of septicaemia, writes Claire O’Sullivan

'You became so frightened eventually you toed the line'

Mary*, a 17-year-old from Tipperary, knew her newborn wasn’t well. From a big family herself, she understood babies.

“I kept trying to tell the nuns that my baby was ill but they wouldn’t listen. I knew there was something wrong as he wouldn’t feed and he had always fed. Eventually they lost patience with me and stuffed the bottle down his throat, down the throat of a clearly ill baby boy. He was so beautiful, my blonde haired blue-eyed baby boy but they wouldn’t call in a doctor,” the now elderly woman whimpers.

Eventually, the nuns gave in and called for the two-week-old baby to be brought to St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork City.

But Mary wasn’t allowed to travel to hospital with her son, she wasn’t allowed to visit him — even once. When he died in hospital six weeks later, she wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral.

“I don’t know if he was buried in a coffin, if he was buried in a gown. They wouldn’t tell me anything,” she sobs.

It was through two nuns squabbling that Mary had learned that a dirty needle had been used on her during her labour at Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork.

It took another 31 years and a visit to Bessborough however before the Sacred Heart nuns admitted to Mary that her baby boy had died of septicaemia.

When she then sought her son’s medical notes, she was handed a sheet of paper with 90% of the details redacted except for Mary’s name and that of her parents.

She then asked to put a plaque on her son’s grave at Bessborough and she was told “No”. There are a number of graves in the grounds of Bessborough but much of the burial area is off bounds to the public.

It was 1960 when 17-year-old Mary had discovered she was pregnant. Her first reaction was to get the boat to England as she didn’t know who to turn to in Ireland. She attended an agency in London called “Crusade of Rescue” who told her she would have to return to Ireland to give birth. They organised her stay at Bessborough and paid for a return boat journey.

Her labour took 72 hours — or three days — and she was in high fever for much of it. To this day, she has no idea why an injection was even administered to her by the nun as she was given no pain relief.

“When you arrived at Bessborough, everything was taken off you, your photos, your possessions everything and you just lived in this constant state of fear. It was consistent verbal abuse. You became so frightened eventually you toed the line”.

After her baby went to hospital, the terrified young mother was put in charge of feeding the babies who “had been left their by their mothers or who had paid the nuns to take them”.

“I just wanted to be with my own baby. I didn’t know what was happening to him, it wasn’t long after I had given birth and I still had milk but I sat there cradling other people’s babies,” she said. She was also seriously ill with abscesses covering her own body since she had given birth. “One day then, I was sent up to the labour ward and this doctor, this pig of an individual came in. I was told to lie down and then all I could see was his knife and the poison splashing from the abscesses on to the floor. When he was finished, he just walked out”. She got no further healthcare.

After her baby’s death, she was put on the boat back to England by the nuns “with nothing more than a sanitary pad”.

“When I was leaving some of the girls gave me letters to post for them but before I left the nuns sent me back to double check I hadn’t left anything in the wardrobe. When I got to a post box and opened my bag, the letters were nowhere to be seen. They had taken them from my handbag”.

One of the saddest things to hear down a phone is an elderly women crying — especially when you know that the woman is alone in a house in London, all alone with the memories of how her baby died 54 years ago.

“I’m doing this on behalf of all the women who have gone through Bessborough, all the women who went through the same thing I did,” says the old lady with the clipped English accent.

“I am doing this for my son too but I don’t want to upset everyone. All I can say is thank God for England”.

‘Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin’

When the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) at the Department of Health closed down the Bessborough mother and baby home in the 1950s because its neglect of children had led to a spiralling death rate, the then papal nuncio complained to Éamon de Valera.

Yesterday the Irish Examiner reported how the (CMO), Dr James Deeny closed the home, sacked its matron and its medical officer when he found children were rife with staphylococcus inflection.

“The deaths had being going on for years. They had done nothing about it, had accepted the situation and were quite complacent about it,” wrote Dr Deeny in his 1989 book To Cure and To Care — Memoirs of a Chief Medical Officer.

A few days after closing the home without any legal authority, he had a visit from the nuns’ ‘man of affairs’ and then by the Dean of Cork, Monsignor Sexton. He then discovered that the then Bishop of Cork, Dr Con Lucey had complained him to the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Robinson, a former millionaire stockbroker. Archbishop Robinson forwarded the complaint to then Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera.

However when the Nuncio was shown the CMO’s report he said they were ‘right in their action’ and Dr Deeny wrote “for once, the Bishop, a formidable fighting man, was silent”.

Dr Deeny had travelled to the Sacred Heart institution when he noticed that in the previous years, 100 out of the 180 babies born there had died.

“It was a beautiful institution, built onto a lovely old house just before the war, and seemed to be well run and spotlessly clean”.

“I marched up and down and around about and could not make out what was wrong; at last I took a notion and stripped all the babies and ....examined them. Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diahorrea carefully covered up.” he said.

The Adoption Rights Alliance has said it is widely believed that many children who died in the homes had health and disability needs that were purposefully not addressed.

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