Bessborough by Deirdre Finnerty is published with Hachette Ireland and is described as ‘an astonishing and moving account of the untold stories of Irish women and their decades-long search for justice’. Bessborough House is in Cork and is a place I grew up oblivious to. While I was hanging out with my buddies, there were young girls locked away in Bessborough for one reason only – they were pregnant outside of marriage. The notion of an illegitimate child went against every belief in Catholic Ireland so the solution was to lock this shameful secret behind closed doors. Bessborough House was established as a mother and baby home in 1922, operating until 1999 under the instruction of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. When Deirdre Finnerty was asked by the BBC to write an article on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, little did she realise the journey she was about to undertake. Deirdre Finnerty interviewed many individuals for the piece, uncovering stories that were extremely disturbing and, following on from an approach by a publisher, the idea of a book came into fruition.
In Mel O’ Doherty’s powerful novel Fallen I gave a brief insight into the history of Bessborough which I will repeat here as a means of explaining the type of facility that Bessborough House was.
‘Bessborough House in Cork operated from 1922 until finally closing its doors in 1999. Almost 10,000 expectant mothers walked in through the doors of Bessborough House, placed there by the authorities, family or friends. These women were given house names to hide their true identity and the treatment they received while in the care of the state has been the subject of major reports. There are multiple horror stories of babies being taken from their young mothers without warning and given out for adoption. On the media we have heard about the barbaric regime that these girls endured and the pure pain and anguish suffered as they either lost their babies through death or adoption. My heart breaks every single time I hear a voice on the radio of someone searching for their records, searching for their mothers, wanting to know the truth of their arrival into the world. The trauma and injustice inflicted on these young girls is now well documented but every story of every baby born there is important and their voices need to be heard. Over 900 babies died in Bessborough but the records are only available for less than 100. The burial place of over 800 babies is still unknown and the controversy and fight for justice continues.’
During her research, Deirdre Finnerty met three women who were prepared to go public with their own personal experiences of being in Bessborough House. Joan McDermott (seventy-four years of age), Terri Harrison (sixty-seven years of age) and Deirdre Wadding (in her fifties). All had walked through the red door of Bessborough House pregnant and unmarried and all were left emotionally scarred, with their lives forever shaped by the appalling experiences each encountered under the system of the mother and baby institution.
Reading their individual stories is heart-breaking. Reading about their later searches for the babies they were never allowed to keep is soul-destroying. Their anguish is palpable. In writing Bessborough, Deirdre Finnerty has given these women a platform to tell their stories in their own words. In the more recent years the conditions in Bessborough House may have improved somewhat but it still remained a prison for young girls who were treated intolerably and left with ingrained shame and guilt. Numerous young women never disclosed to their families that they had spent time in a mother and baby home. Marriages were built on a never-to-be revealed secret. Babies were adopted, with their true identities locked away in a file somewhere.
Joan McDermott, Terri Harrison and Deirdre Wadding spent years trying to reconcile their past and attempting to find out more about the children that were removed from their arms. The outcome for each has been varied. Courage and tenacity are the words I would use to best describe these brave women that have refused to remain silenced or to bury the so-called shame of their past. Historian and author of Belonging, Catherine Coreless stated that Bessborough is a book that ‘should be included in the school curriculum’. Author Louise O’ Neill stated that Bessborough is ‘a vitally important book’.
The humiliation, devastation, regret, despair and suffering that was experienced by so many young women locked away in Bessborough House, and other similar institutions, is extremely unsettling and truly horrifying to contemplate. In piecing together the personal experiences of these three women in Bessborough, Deirdre Finnerty is shining a light on this story of sorrow, one that we as a nation must own and must never forget.
(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)
Order your copy online here.