Women who survived Bessborough ordeal share their stories in new book

One hundred years ago, a grand mansion on the outskirts of Cork city became one of Ireland’s largest mother and baby institutions. Deirdre Finnerty's book tells the story of three remarkable women who survived Bessborough. Its author speaks with Donal O’Keeffe.
Women who survived Bessborough ordeal share their stories in new book

Deirdre Finnerty, author of "Bessborough: Three Women. Three Decades. Three Stories of Courage".

AS it did for many people, it was the story of the Tuam Babies which sparked BBC journalist Deirdre Finnerty’s interest in mother and baby homes.

In 2014, thanks to Alison O’Reilly’s front-page story in the Irish Mail on Sunday, the whole world learned of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, of historian Catherine Corless’s research into the missing burial records of 796 children there, and of the horror of their resting place in a disused sewerage system on the old home site.

“I think a lot of women of my generation might not necessarily have been aware of all of these aspects of our history, and I started taking more of an interest then. 

"I was asked by my employers in the BBC to look into the issue, and to think of a way to tell it that might appeal to an international audience,” the Mayo-born writer says.

That initial interest – she recalls too watching the 2013 film Philomena and being aware of the thousands of Irish children sent for adoption to the U.S – led to the BBC asking her in 2018 to write an article on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes then underway. 

Conversations with survivors and adoptees brought her to Cork, and in April, 2019, a powerful 5,000-word report entitled The Girls of Bessborough was published on the BBC website, becoming one of the most-read news articles in the world that year.

Three year later, Deirdre has returned to the former Cork mother and baby institution, and Catherine Corless believes Finnerty’s book, Bessborough: Three Women. Three Decades. Three Stories of Courage, should be included on the school curriculum.

It tells the stories of three survivors of the former mother and baby institution: Joan, who was sent there in 1967, Terri, sent there in 1973, and Deirdre, sent there in 1981.

Between 1922 and 1998, around 100,000 women were incarcerated in mother and baby homes and county homes in the Republic, and a similar number of children were born in those institutions. In its 2021 report, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes estimated that about 9,000 children died in mother and baby institutions.

The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary nuns ran Bessborough House on the edge of Cork city as a mother and baby home from 1922 to 1998, and during that time 9,768 mothers and 8,938 babies passed through its doors. Some 923 children died there or after being transferred from the home, according to the commission’s final report, but burial records exist for only 64 children who died in the care of the institution, meaning the remains of 859 children are missing.

Bessborough is not unique in this regard, with, infamously, the burial records for 796 children missing from Tuam, and – according to figures collated by Alison O’Reilly from official registrations and Freedom of Information requests – the burial records for 211 children are missing from Castlepollard in Westmeath, and 1,024 from Sean Ross Abbey in Rosscrea, Co Tipperary.

Finnerty sees Bessborough as, in a sense, encapsulating the history of Ireland’s mother and baby homes, although she pointedly prefers to call them “institutions”.

“Bessborough was a great example, in that it opened in 1922, and it didn’t close until the late 1990s,” she says. “It spans the whole history of mother and baby institutions in Ireland, so by looking at the story of Bessborough, it was a really good way to communicate the history of the whole issue and obviously, as one institution, it has many, many stories contained within it.

“The book I’ve written talks about three stories and three particular perspectives and I think no one story, no one book, could ever tell the whole story of Bessborough. 

"But hopefully, those three stories the women involved have been so generous to give us provide an entry point and will increase understanding, and that is the core point of the book, to be accessible to a wide audience, and hopefully it will do that.”

She says June Goulding’s 1998 book The Light in the Window helped her figure out how best to write about the mother and baby institutions. Goulding served in Bessborough as a midwife from 1951 to 1952, and her memoir shows it was a cruel place of imprisonment where heavily pregnant girls and women were forced to cut grass by hand and tar the roads.

Goulding writes convincingly about the abuse meted out to inmates for their “sins”, and she recalls patients denied pain relief and stitches. Worst of all, of course, was the expectation that mothers would raise their babies for three years and then give them up for adoption.

“I just thought Goulding gave us a real sense of what day-to-day life was like in the institution from her perspective, and reading that, I wondered what it was like from the perspective of the women and girls who were there,” Finnerty says. “That very much did inform the writing of it, and I wanted to be able to get that sense, but if we get that sense in the book of what it was like, it’s because the women involved were able to describe it, and were very vivid in their description, so the credit for that I think has to go to them.”

How, out of all of the many survivors with whom Finnerty has spoken over the years, did she single out the three women whose stories she helps tell in her book?

“I started looking at Bessborough in earnest in 2019,” she says. “I had made a lot of connections within the survivor community. But to frame the story, I decided, with the publisher, to have a voice in the ’60s, a voice in the ’70s and a voice in the ’80s. And, obviously, a lot of people spoke to me for the book, but weren’t necessarily comfortable with having a whole narrative about their own experiences, so it was very much who felt that the project was right for them at that time, so that was how it worked out.

“I really have to say how brilliant, generous, courageous and amazing the three contributors are.”

Finnerty says she isn’t qualified to make broad, sweeping statements about Irish history or society, but admits that in interviewing survivors of homes like Bessborough, she came to realise that she came from a place “a lot harsher and crueller than I had ever imagined my own country to be”.

She says she found deeply shocking the testimonies of the women she interviewed for her book, and their memories of a harsh and cruel Ireland in some senses closer to current affairs than to history.

Does she think Ireland is a vastly different a place now than it was a quarter of a century ago, when the last of the mother and baby institutions closed, or is the structural misogyny that made those institutions possible still ingrained?

She points out that she has lived in London for the past dozen or so years, but says she does find it heartening to see how things have changed when she comes home.

“Sometimes, in a way, it feels like a very different country to the one I left maybe 10 or 12 years ago, and while I know things are changing, if the question is whether they’re changing fast enough, I’m probably not the right person to ask, I think that’s more of a question for somebody who’s living their day-to-day life in Ireland right now.”

Finnerty has been with the BBC since 2012, covering international news stories mostly, but says she believes Bessborough has been the best and probably most important story she has ever worked on.

“I’ve really met absolutely wonderful, incredible, and amazing people who have been touched by this, and it’s a story I think will stay with me for the rest of my career.”

She began that career with the BBC World Service, is now working on the BBC World website, and previously worked in the BBC’s Westminster and Washington bureaus. She has been kept busy with Donald Trump, Covid-19, the migrant crisis, the invasion of Ukraine, and other stories, but found herself drawn back to her work on mother and baby institutions.

“I love working in news, and hearing people’s stories is a huge privilege. I work in international news and cover all sorts of stories, but it’s always especially moving to cover a story that affects your own country, and to hear stories told in accents that are similar to your own, I think there’s always something affecting and deeply moving about that.”

She says Bessborough was designed to be an accessible book, intended for a wide readership, and it is her hope that it will serve as an entry point for people who may not have previously engaged with the story.

“Even on the day of publication, somebody came up and spoke to me in Waterstone’s and told me their own story. I’ve also got a couple of messages since then, people getting in touch and telling me their stories. If the book can serve as a talking point, I think it will have done its job. I also hope younger audiences will read it and engage with a dark moment in our history. That was very much one of the aims.”

Bessborough: Three Women. Three Decades. Three Stories of Courage, by Deirdre Finnerty is in bookshops now. Hachette Ireland €14.99.

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