Susan O'Shea: At age 82 my mother found 7 half-siblings ... don't seal the records

Society can’t right the wrongs done to those who spent time in religious and state institutions, but we can treat them with respect from now on, writes Susan O’Shea
Susan O'Shea: At age 82 my mother found 7 half-siblings ... don't seal the records

Childrens teddy's and toys along with flowers sit at the 'Little Angels' memorial plot in the grounds of Bessborough House in Blackrock, Cork. Picture: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

In our house, Bessborough is a dirty word. 

It stands for lies and deception and attempts to bury the truth, keep it hidden as if it were some sort of ‘shameful’ little secret.

My mother spent the first six and a half years of her life within the walls of that mother and baby home. 

Her earliest memories are of cold-hearted nuns, and rows and rows of cots filled with crying babies. 

There was no ill-treatment, but neither was there any love or kindness. 

Birthdays and Christmas went uncelebrated. Just before she turned 7, my mother was called into the parlour of Bessborough and told to meet her new ‘mammy and daddy’ - a Cork couple in their 50s, with one grown-up son. 

She was literally handed over by the nuns. 

She was given their surname. Up until then, she had just been called Mary. 

Any questions about her birth mother, where she was from, or why she had spent so long in Bessborough went unanswered. 

She was told a number of basic ‘facts’ by the nuns and not to ask anything else: that her mother, also called Mary, was 19 when she came to the home to give birth, had left shortly after for England and then the United States to make a new life. 

This was lie number one. Deliberately designed to stop my mother from seeking the truth. 

The suggestion was why look for a woman who abandoned you without a backward glance?

My mother lived with the pain and sense of abandonment, but sixteen years ago, when the Magdalene Laundries made headlines, she plucked up the courage to try and find out the truth.

She went back to Bessborough, accompanied by my father, and met with Sr Sarto. 

“It’s a bit late at 69 years of age to go looking for your mummy... and sometimes people don’t like what they find out” was the nun’s response. 

"My mother was told there was nothing in the records about her. No files. Not a scrap of paper. Lie number 2. Nearly seven years spent in a mother and baby home, of course, there were records, but she wasn’t getting access to them. 

‘“We will have another look”, were Sr Sarto’s parting words, “but are unlikely to find anything”. 

Teddies and flowers placed outside the gates of Bessborough during the Bessborough Mother and Baby Support Group memorial service in Cork. Picture: Provision
Teddies and flowers placed outside the gates of Bessborough during the Bessborough Mother and Baby Support Group memorial service in Cork. Picture: Provision

And, of course, they didn’t.

She didn’t want to testify before the Mother and Baby Homes Commission but she always hungered to know the truth. 

Was she really abandoned as callously as the nuns said, did her mother simply make a new life in the States? Why did she never attempt to trace her? 

These questions plagued her. 

As scandal after scandal about the various homes emerged, we concluded there must be some record of her time in Bessborough, it had just been buried very deeply. 

So we contacted Tusla for help in the search. But there were many others also looking for answers. My mother was put on a ‘waiting list’... it seems there is one of them for everything in this country, especially if you are a woman...but given her advancing years she was eventually assigned a social worker. 

And yes there were ‘records’ ….they only amounted to a single sheet of paper, the details of which were read out to her. 

She couldn’t see the sheet herself because of ‘data protection’. 

But that’s when the lies began to unravel. 

Her mother was actually 32 giving birth, not 19, she did travel to England for a period, but then returned to Ireland where she worked on the family farm in the Midlands. 

She died in a nursing home at the age of 82. 

My mother had been denied the chance to trace her birth mother because she was told no records existed. 

This is what happens when you bury records, you bury people’s past and their right to discover who they are. 

Maybe her birth mother wouldn’t have wanted to be reunited, or maybe she would have welcomed my mother with open arms. 

Most babies born in Bessborough were quickly ‘adopted’ (given to couples, in other words, as adoption wasn’t not legalised until the 1950s). 

The fact my mother was there for nearly seven years is quite remarkable. A number of experts in this area believe someone was paying the nuns to keep my mother. 

The most likely answer is her mother, but because of the scarcity of records, we will never know. An adoption order was raised in a UK court in the 1940s, but nothing came of it. 

Again, because the records, apart from that single sheet of paper, were ‘buried’ or lost, or caught fire, she will never know. The trail literally grows cold.

Her birth mother never married or had other children, but did have nieces and nephews. Contact was initiated by the social worker, and when they learned of my mother’s existence they were delighted to meet with her and are in touch since. 

Most babies born in Bessborough were quickly ‘adopted’ (given to couples, in other words, as adoption wasn’t not legalised until the 1950s). Picture: Denis Minihane.
Most babies born in Bessborough were quickly ‘adopted’ (given to couples, in other words, as adoption wasn’t not legalised until the 1950s). Picture: Denis Minihane.

They were able to give my mother a picture of her birth mother, taken in the late 20s, and the physical resemblance between the two women is striking. 

My mother got to learn something of what she was like as a person, how she was known as Mai to her friends and family, had worked as a nanny for a time in Belfast and loved children, how she liked to cook and knit.

My mother’s Bessborough ‘record’ contained one other hugely important piece of information. The name of her father. 

At 82 years of age, my mother had never heard her father’s name. She knew nothing about him. 

Her birth cert lists her father as ‘unknown’ but her mother had given his name to someone in Bessborough, and they recorded it. 

The social worker couldn’t say his name until she checked to see if he had living relatives. We don’t know if he knew of my mother’s birth, but he went on to marry and have 9 children, seven of whom are still alive. 

They knew nothing about my mother’s existence until the social worker’s call came out of the blue. Their response was phenomenal. Yes, they were happy to meet her. 

A DNA test had to be conducted, but it came back as a 99.99% match. 

Imagine being 82 and discovering you have 7 half-siblings, hearing your father’s name for the first time, getting to see his grave, the house where he lived, something of the kind of man he was, discovering you are part of this big, warm, welcoming family. 

All of this could, and should, have happened 20, 30, 40 years ago.

My mother should have been granted access to her ‘records’ when she sought it. She should never have been told such a wicked lie that her mother ‘disappeared off to the States’. 

She should have had the chance to reunite with her birth mother if they both wanted it. 

She should have had more time to get to know her siblings. But the State and religious orders’ insistence on burying the past prevented this.

My mother has never told her story publicly before. But she gave me permission to write this piece because she believes what the Government did last week was ‘shameful’. 

She wants to add her voice to the thousands of other people shouting stop. 

In her words: ‘We have spent too long in this country trying to keep things hidden and hurting people as a result.’ 

Roderick O’Gorman...locking things away for 30 years is never a good idea. 

Whether it’s testimonies to the Mother or Baby Homes Commission, or any records or documents related to those who spent time in these institutions. 

We, as a society, can’t right the wrongs done to these men and women, but we can treat them with respect from now on. 

And a good starting point is openness and transparency. Don’t seal the records.

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