‘Bessborough was serving a life sentence. I’ll never be free of it’: book excerpt by Deirdre Finnerty

My new book Bessborough: Three Women, Three Decades, Three Stories of Courage chronicles the experiences of three women who spent time in a former mother and child facility on the outskirts of Cork. Joan McDermott is a retired nurse and social worker from Cork, Terri Harrison is an activist from North Dublin and Deirdre Wadding is a former primary school teacher living in Wexford.

Essborough House was run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Between 1922 and 1998, thousands of women and girls walked through its doors and gave birth to children they were not allowed to keep.

Joan, Terri and Deirdre’s vivid descriptions lead us straight into the asylum; Through her eyes we see the industrial cooking pots Terri scrubbed with wire wool, the hastily packed boxes in long-room dormitories, the bottle-fed babies Deirdre cared for before they were put up for adoption.

But the book also examines what happened after the three women left Bessborough and its long-term impact on their lives. They spoke with great candidness about the impact it has had on their lives, relationships, and mental health. While the stories are sad, their strength and resilience make this a hopeful book, and it has been a privilege to get to know them.

Deirdre was sent to Bessborough in 1981 as an 18-year-old student. “We thought we couldn’t go,” she said. “That’s how society worked.” Now in her late fifties, she is one of the youngest surviving women to have given birth in a mother-child facility. “It’s a life sentence,” she told me as she smoked a Rollie outside the front door of her rural cottage in Wexford. “I’ll never be completely free of it.”

The following excerpt describes Deidre’s departure for Bessborough and the first few weeks there.

Wexford, 1981
“It’s a moral issue,” Deirdre’s mother told someone on the phone. She still had that stern, matter-of-fact tone in her voice. Every weekend, when Deirdre came home from college, she’d hoped for a thaw in relationships that Mary would calm down and forgive. But she spoke to her with the same coldness, barely meeting her eyes as she addressed her.

“I’d like to speak to the matron, please,” Mary said. From her bedroom, Deirdre guessed it was a call to the Sisters of Charity. She couldn’t hear much more from the conversation, but she knew they were talking about her. It was awful to be a “moral issue.” She felt dirty, ashamed.

It was as if all the air in the house had grown stale and heavy – none of which was untouched by this new atmosphere. She heard the click of the phone being replaced in its cradle as Mary hung up, then the sound of her mother’s footsteps approaching the bedroom.

“There’s a place you can go until this is all over,” Mary said as she opened the door. “It might be for the best.”
Deirdre nodded. Maybe it would be best for everyone. Maybe then she’d get her mother back, too—the smart, funny, vivacious woman she hadn’t laughed with in ages, who looked at her daughter as if she were a stranger.

video of the day

In April, Deirdre packed her jeans and loose shirts and sweaters into a bag and got in the car with her father. After a few hours’ drive they turned onto a country lane in the Cork suburbs and stopped in front of a wrought-iron gate, which opened to reveal a broad avenue. At the very top was a three-story Georgian mansion partially screened from view by shrubs and trees. Deirdre could tell it used to be grand – two stone lions framed the front steps and there was an ancient glass conservatory with curved windows to the side. The front door was painted a brilliant red and the lawns and flower beds were neatly trimmed.

Three nuns greeted them at the door: Sister Justine, Sister Mary, and Sister Martha. Inside, she took in the wide hallway of the house, the shiny parquet floor that smelled faintly of furniture polish. Nurse Justine led her down the corridor to a small reception room, and Deirdre’s mind wandered, dipping in and out as the nun spoke.

“It’s best not to reveal too much about your private life to keep things private. Many girls choose a new name to help with this. You can choose your own if you want,” Sister Justine said.
Deirdre nodded. “I’m guessing Ciara is okay? It sounds a bit like Deirdre.”

Sister Mary, a short woman in her fifties, led her up a long wooden staircase to a small, plain room with light walls, two single beds and a dark wood wardrobe. “Ciara, I leave it to you. Some of the girls have chips on their shoulders, but you, you have nuns in the family, so you understand,” Sister Mary said, closing the door and leaving Deirdre alone.

Deirdre wasn’t sure she understood anything; she hadn’t been in control of anything for the past few months. It’s only a few months, she told herself. Soon all of this would be over and she could start reclaiming her life.


The former mother and baby home in Bessborough. Photo by Eoin O’Conaill

Besborough, 1981
Deirdre leafed through the texts by Maria Montessori and Paulo Freire that she had brought with her to Bessborough. Although she was about to give birth to a baby, her teaching exams were still ahead of her. Nurse Regina from her trade school had been nice when she told her. “You won’t be the first girl this happens to, and you won’t be the last,” she had said. Then it was decided that Deirdre would go to Bessborough, take the retakes in August, and be back at Carysfort as normal in September. At least that was the plan.

She turned on the heater. Even in May, the downstairs study she shared with Una, another student teacher, was cold and didn’t get much light. That meant she had to endure the smell of gas mingling with the smell of lunch wafting from the kitchen. Stew, she guessed. Once again. Leaning back into her book, she found that she had read the same page twice without absorbing any information. Educational theory would have to wait another day, she thought, and closed the book.

From her notebook she pulled out one of the letters she had received. Writing people felt more like writing fiction these days; She’d done what her parents said and hadn’t confided in anyone, her loose clothing hiding the bump on her slim figure. And in Bessborough there was a system: the outgoing letters were sent to the addresses of the local families and forwarded from there, so that nobody found out that the girls were in a convent.

She still hadn’t answered her friend in Wexford, who had asked about her and wondered when Deirdre would be back from testing at the hospital. She picked up her pen to respond to the question, but remained vague. “Thank you for thinking of me,” Deirdre wrote. “I’m looking forward to coming home again.” At least that much was honest.

But there were so many half-truths, so many mysteries. She hadn’t had a real conversation with anyone in months. Her parents called once a week, but the conversations were strained, their voices strained. When they came to visit and invited her to tea at a cafe in Cork City, they hadn’t looked well. Luke’s angina flared up and Mary was pale and brittle; she had had an attack of colitis.

“Ever since this happened, we’ve been trying to keep the secrets,” Luke had told her at the time. And Deirdre had felt her stomach clench with guilt and vowed to do whatever she could to make things right.

After lunch, Deirdre made his way to the kindergarten to report for duty. The study exemption only applied to mornings on weekdays; afternoons and weekends she was supposed to join the other girls at work, babysitting, who were lined up in rows of cots at each end of the room. Deirdre knew what to do: she brewed a bottle and picked up a chubby little girl who was a few months old and placed her on her knee. The baby took it hungrily, and Deirdre could see her small chest rising and falling with each breath. The radio was humming in the background, but Deirdre could barely hear it over the chatter of the other girls and the occasional squeaking of the babies.

Those afternoons in the nursery were always the hardest part of her day. It wasn’t work – the babies were adorable and she was used to the smell of sour diapers and baby food. But as she held the baby and saw her trying to reach for things with her small arms, she thought of the baby’s mother, the girl who had been in the nursery with them a few weeks ago. Soon Deirdre would leave too, having given birth to her own baby. She would be back in Wexford while someone else fed, washed and dressed her child. Stop it, she told herself, forcing herself to focus on other things. What good would it do?

The baby fell asleep again after finishing the bottle. Deirdre sat with her for a while, then put her back on the bunk and walked slowly to the door. On her way she passed Maria, the youngest girl in the home, with long blond hair and a round, childlike face. She was only about 13 or 14 years old, and every time Deirdre saw her, she felt sorry for her and imagined how lonely she must be feeling. She rarely spoke to anyone, and the bump looked out of place on her small frame. When she arrived Deirdre had shared a room with her for a few days before a single room became available. Maria sobbed for her mother every night, and there was nothing Deirdre or anyone else could say to comfort her.


Bessborough: Three women. three decades. Three Tales of Corage by Deirdre Finnerty

Bessborough: Three Women, Three Decades, Three Stories of Courage by Deirdre Finnerty is published by Hachette on Thursday

https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/bessborough-was-a-life-sentence-ill-never-be-free-of-it-book-extract-by-deirdre-finnerty-41574793.html ‘Bessborough was serving a life sentence. I’ll never be free of it’: book excerpt by Deirdre Finnerty

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