Remembering Little Nellie in the fight for universal health care

For too long people accepted the terrible toll of infant deaths like Little Nellie’s. Victoria White says we shouldn’t be trying to exhume her, but rather remember her with a fight for universal health care.

Remembering Little Nellie in the fight for universal health care

EVERY time I see a picture of Little Nellie Organ I want to get sick. The horror of it. The dying four-year-old trussed up in a chair in the bridal gown of a First Communicant. The pasty face and the huge staring eyes. It is a repulsive image.

We should be ashamed of Little Nellie Organ, not proud of her. She died from TB in the hospital of an industrial school in the Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well, Cork in 1907. Not only were her lungs destroyed by the disease, it had crippled her spine and crumbled her jaw, which was stinking and coming away in pieces.

Even children who got the best care died horrible deaths in Ireland in the early 20th century; sadly, it happens even today. But poor children died those deaths far more often than well-off children because they lived in unsanitary conditions and had little or no access to medical care. In the early and mid-twentieth century, parentless children in Ireland were more than four times more likely to die in infancy than children with parents.

Little Nellie Organ was not the poorest of the poor. Her father was a soldier in the Royal Artillery, then stationed on Spike Island. But Nellie’s mother’s death of TB in 1907 dealt a killer blow to the family, as happens so often in poor families. To this day in sub-Saharan Africa the death of a mother spells death for her child in three-quarters of all cases.

Nellie’s mother would have guessed the probable fate of her family as she lay dying of TB. Devotional literature has her clutching her rosary beads as she turned her last months “almost entirely to God”: “Towards the end”, continues the Mystics of the Church website, “ she clung to Nellie with such transports of affection that the child had to be torn, almost rudely, from her dying embrace.”

Little Nellie Organ, then three years old, was infected with her mother’s TB and without doubt severely traumatised. Barely a year later the little girl was dead. The details of her last year are heart-breaking, even through the rose-tinted spectacles which they are recorded.

What hope for a motherless family? Nellie’s father could not look after his family as well as work for their living (though that is what we expect of single parents today). A neighbour was drafted in to help with the sick and grief-stricken children but this did not work out. One account has Nellie being dropped by “a childminder” but all the evidence suggests that it was the TB which crippled Nellie’s back.

In the end, Thomas, David, Mary and Nellie met the fate of most poor, motherless children of their day and were farmed out to different charitable organisations. The entire family disappears from the accounts at this point as the cult of Nellie is being built.

But I want to ask different questions, like what happened to little Mary Organ, not much older than her sister Nellie and also with the Good Shepherds, but not quite so movingly pathetic? Why was Nellie’s father not at his daughter’s funeral?

No, instead was have Little Nellie of Holy God, deathly white amidst the white sheets and tended by gentle nuns and nurses.

“Holy God took my mudder but he has given me you to be my mudder”, said Nellie to a certain Miss Hall, who was nursing her. Every detail of this story breaks my heart, even Nellie playing with a little black kitten on the floor.

The little girl’s devotion to “Holy God” seemingly began when she formed a fascination with a statue of the Child of Prague. She used to play the tin whistle to the statue and on one occasion she was convinced it was dancing for her.

But when it came to grief this poor little girl sadly had wisdom beyond her years. When the nuns were in distress over a sick woman Nellie apparently asked if she had children. Told that she was a mother many times over, Nellie said, “I will pray to Holy God and He will see that she’ll be cured.” The woman was cured, or else we would not have heard the story, and no doubt this is among the “miracles” being trumped up in an effort to have Little Nellie venerated.

Pope Pius X changed the age at which children can have their First Communion from 12 years to seven years, on hearing from the Bishop of Cork of the solace which receiving the Eucharist gave Little Nellie. The subtext here is about emotional support for the families of the vast numbers of children who were dying before they reached the age of reason.

Though I am not a Catholic I am married to a Catholic and my children made their First Communion at eight. Reason they had not, but I was enormously moved by what was for me the real meaning of the day: gratitude that my child had survived thus far and was likely to survive to adulthood. And I began to understand the emotion of tens of thousands of poor mothers down the years, bursting with pride as they brought to church a child who survived, dressed in white clothes it had taken all their wit and work to provide.

But I don’t want to know about Nellie’s body, exhumed for reburial in the grounds of the Good Shepherd convent a year after she died, and apparently “incorrupt” in its First Communion dress and “dainty little shoes.” Let’s not exhume her again, as the Bishop of Cork John Buckley has suggested, because the grounds are derelict and people want to pray to her.

We shouldn’t be praying to her, but for her - and the thousands of tiny children who lie in unmarked graves in the grounds of industrial schools and Magdalene laundries all over the country. Nellie is a stereotypical Victorian/Edwardian dying child icon, like Dickens’s Little Nell or like Pearse’s Iosagan. Her cult does mean that people were becoming more aware of children but it was designed to help them accept the terrible toll of infant deaths.

In Ireland this cult of acceptance delayed the foundation of our national health service. It was the anger, not acceptance, which stopped this slaughter of the innocents: the anger of politicians like Noel Browne whose own mother died of TB without even calling the doctor she could not afford to pay; the anger of health professionals like Chief Medical Officer Dr. James Deeny who stopped the eradication of “illegitimate” babies by infection in Bessboro Mother and Baby Home in Cork.

I believe anger, not acceptance, is the Christian response to the idea that children must die young because they are poor or orphaned. Let’s keep Little Nellie in the ground and fight on for universal health care.

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