'I got to meet my birth family, give others same chance' - Bessborough survivor

Mary O’Shea was born in Bessborough in 1935 and ‘adopted’ by a Cork couple in 1942, around the same time the infant mortality rate at the home reached 75%. Here she recounts her memories of an early childhood spent in a mother and baby home, her reaction to the State apology, and her anger over plans to build on the Blackrock site
'I got to meet my birth family, give others same chance' - Bessborough survivor

Mary O’Shea sits at her kitchen table looking at her birth certificate. It lists her place of birth as Bessborough. Her surname is left blank.

Rows and rows of cots, neatly lined up, filled with babies. Many of them crying but no mothers to comfort them. 

That’s my lasting memory of Bessborough. I slept among those babies in a narrow little bed for the six and a half years I spent in the home. There was just me and another boy of a similar age — all the rest were babies. 

Once we saw a sheet thrown over a bed in the room, and when we looked underneath it was a dead mother. Her body was gone when we woke.

It is little wonder that so many of those babies died. We saw their mothers working outside, right up to when they were ready to give birth, many of them looked like they were ready to drop.

I don’t remember ever sitting down for breakfast, or having a meal, celebrating Christmas in Bessborough. I didn’t know when my birthday was. I didn’t go to school. The only thing I knew was that my name was Mary.

One day I was brought into the convent’s parlour and told to say hello to my ‘mammy and daddy’. 

I wasn’t sure what that actually meant, just that I was leaving the convent ‘for a new life’. I’d heard talk that babies went to ‘families’ and I wondered why it took so long for a ‘family’ to pick me.

I first heard my surname when I made my confirmation aged 12. Just as I walked up the aisle, a nun grabbed me and whispered in my ear: "When the bishop asks, tell them your name is ‘Mary Coss'."

I got so nervous and confused when the bishop asked my name I started to cry. The name Coss was never mentioned again until I was getting married and had to go to the church to get a Baptism cert. There I saw it written down. I also discovered then they had got my birthday wrong.

I was born on September 19, not September 23 as the nuns told me.

Mary and Edward O’Shea just after their wedding in 1965. 

Mary and Edward O’Shea just after their wedding in 1965. 

I also learned some more details about my mother, that her name was Mary Coss, she came from Ballacolla in Co Laois. The entry for my father was blank.

Once I left Bessborough I did my best to forget it. There was no real stigma attached. When I told friends I was born in Bessborough, it seemed like everyone had a neighbour, aunt, cousin who had given birth there.

I only ever made two trips back. The first was a couple of months after I had left as the nuns were dressing me for my Communion. I asked why I was getting my dress there, not in a shop like other girls, but wasn’t given an answer. 

In retrospect, there is every chance that my birth mother had paid for my Communion dress. It was unlike the nuns to be so generous, but I was never told the truth and it is too late to find out now.

Then in 2004, I decided to see if I could find out some more information about my mother. 

The story I had been told was that she was 19 when she gave birth, left shortly after, and went nursing in America. My children grew up thinking that they had a granny somewhere in America. 

I always wondered would she come back to Ireland and try and find me. I hoped she had found happiness in the States. 

In Bessborough I was met by a stony-faced Sr Sarto who told me there was no file on me and it was best ‘to let it go’.

I did. And then three years ago, with the help of a Tusla social worker, I finally got access to my Bessborough ‘files’. Only then did I discover that my mother had actually been in her 30s when she gave birth, spent some time in England, and returned to the family farm in Laois. 

She died in 1983. She never went to America, but lived most of her life just a couple of hours’ drive from me. The story about her going to America was a pack of lies.

That’s what makes me so angry about Bessborough — the betrayal. 

Even in the 2000s they were determined to keep families apart. I had to revise everything I thought I knew about my mother. She hadn’t ‘abandoned’ me for a life in States. In all likelihood she had paid the nuns to mind me in the hope of someday getting me out … that’s why I was there for so long.

Growing up, all I ever wanted was a sister. Three years ago I discovered I had four of them, and three brothers. I remember sitting in the social worker’s office and she asked: ‘Mary do you want to hear your father’s name?’ 

I was 82 years old. While my mother had never married, he had, and had a large family. He died in 1966. Sadly, some of my siblings have passed, so I missed out on meeting them, but those that are alive have been wonderful, warm and welcoming. 

I am their sister, they have accepted me unquestionably. The physical resemblances are striking.

Tuesday was a hard day for so many people in this country. The brightest part for me was when one of my sisters rang to ask me how I was doing. 

That meant so much to me. It meant much more than the Taoiseach’s apology. I listened to it but to me it’s just words, and it has come too late. I hope it brought comfort to some survivors, but not to me.

I guess I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones to come out of Bessborough.

Mary’s mother, Mary (Mai) Coss, photographed in the 1920s when she worked as a nanny and before she went to Bessborough.

Mary’s mother, Mary (Mai) Coss, photographed in the 1920s when she worked as a nanny and before she went to Bessborough.

I lived when so many others died. I finally got to find out the truth about my birth, not all of it, but more than most. 

I got to meet my living relatives. This is what I hope will happen for other survivors. 

I can’t speak for others, but I don’t want any more apologies, or redress. I just want those still looking for the truth about who they are to be given every help possible.

It would be such a shame if there are mothers and their children out there who want to be reunited and can’t because the State is somehow standing in their way. 

I finally got to access my files and meet my family, everyone else should get to do the same.

As for Bessborough, I don’t ever want to see that place again, but the thoughts of building apartments there makes me sick. There are innocent babies buried there.

I am 100% sure of that. And to build apartments on top of them, for some developer to make money, would be the ultimate insult.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up

HOME DELIVERY SERVICE

Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.