Strangers to me... but this was my Christmas ‘family’ in Cork 68 years ago

Holly Bough editor's pick: For much of his early life, DERRY TWOMEY only saw his parents for an hour a week. This single photo is all he has to remind him of that time
Strangers to me... but this was my Christmas ‘family’ in Cork 68 years ago

Derry Twomey as a child of two in 1952 in St Raphael's Hospital in Cork, pictured just to the right of the left-hand blackboard, in a nurses's embrace. He spent most of his life there up to that point

THERE are some aspects of our lives we like to let other people know about, and sharing photos is a great means of doing that.

There are, however, other parts of our past we definitely prefer to keep quiet about, so any related photographs are torn on arrival from the printer, or hidden away in locked cupboards.

But what do we do about a period in our lives we know very little about and, over the years, try to piece together from old photographs?

The above picture, which I rescued from an old family album before it was raided by my siblings, shows a Christmas scene in 1952 at what I believe was St Raphael’s preventorium in Montenotte, Cork city, which had opened four years earlier as a 50-bed tuberculosis hospital.

It had previously been St Raphael’s Asylum for the Blind and was later the base for the Cope Foundation.

It was regularly pointed out to me that I am the blonde two-year-old standing to the right of the Ceard Scoil blackboard, with what looks like a teddy bear in my right hand. It appears the students and staff of the Crawford Technical College, and the nurses were trying hard to make the children’s Christmas a happy one.

Bringing cheer to young lives at Yuletide was really important because, in this hospital, children were confined for long periods, in my case almost two years.

Why was I there? I am not sure. My oldest sister thinks I had some sort of lung trouble. So this group of nurses and young patients was my ‘family’ for Christmas 68 years go, and, strangely, I still don’t know who any of them were.

It is also noticeable that no members of my own family, or indeed of any family, are in the picture. Apparently, parents were only allowed a Sunday visit for one hour. There was no physical contact permitted and parents could only view their child through a window or from the gate at the top of the ward.

This unfeeling situation must have been hard for parents, especially at Christmas. It seems my mother, Mary, felt it keenly and the unknown nurse’s arm around me was my alternative to her festive caress; as a child, I probably never knew the difference.

I left Cork in 1971 and became a Church of England Canon and, in my hospital and parish ministries, I have seen how nurses and hospital staff step in to show extraordinary care in difficult situations.

In fact, the Covid-19 crisis, where nurses and hospital staff are often the only people present to care for patients as they recover or leave this world without members of their families present, has highlighted contemporary heroic care in such a pertinent way.

Although there may be little I will ever know of my stay in hospital and of this Christmas photo, I do know a little about what happened afterwards.

When I left St Raphael’s Hospital, I returned to the family home in Blarney Street. Soon after, I was taken again to hospital and, this time, not allowed out until the family got a damp-free home.

That resulted in us moving to a new Corporation house in Churchfield when I was about four, and the family home in which one of my sisters still lives is one happy consequence associated with my stay in hospital.

Rev Canon Derry Twomey and wife Lesley on their ruby wedding anniversary, with children, from left, David, Rebekah, and Dominic
Rev Canon Derry Twomey and wife Lesley on their ruby wedding anniversary, with children, from left, David, Rebekah, and Dominic

For a while after I left hospital, I had this habit of shaking my head and rocking myself to sleep. I also had a very active imagination that afforded me the luxury of recreating, in my head, stories I had heard in St Vincent’s or the Mon, or films I had seen in the Capital or Lee Cinema.

In this imaginative rocking state, I could easily become ‘the boy’: Audi Murphy or another hero who sorted out the world, before I dropped off to sleep.

In later years, in a sad documentary on Romanian orphanages, I saw lots of lonely kids spend hours rocking themselves in their cots to amuse themselves, and my habit made sense to me. It took me a few years to get the loneliness of a hospital situation out of my system.

When I was about ten, a brother of one of my friends used to work abroad and often returned with duty-free packs of Camel cigarettes. On occasion, my friend and I used to filch one and smoke it.

Like lots of misdemeanours in my life, my mother, with her unerring personal radar, found out and told me the doctor had said, on my discharge from St Raphael’s: “That child is never to smoke.”

So one evening, at our family prayers, I had to promise God I would never again let a cigarette touch my lips. It is, strangely, one of the few promises I have made in life that was never accompanied by backsliding or compromises. Nicotine ‘patches’ came in different forms in the 1950s!

So, when I show this Christmas photo to my grandchildren when they are older, they too will probably laugh, like their parents did, at me in a dress, holding a teddy bear.

But I will again emphasise that the situations connected with some photos and the people in them may be clouded in hazy hearsay, but the circumstances captured in one still moment can still affect our later lives in very tangible ways.

Rev Canon Derry Twomey became a priest in the Church of England. His ministry took him to parishes and chaplaincies across the north of England.

He retired in 2015 and now lives in Wylam in the Tyne Valley. His wife Lesley is Professor of Medieval Literature and Art at Northumbria University, Newcastle, and they have three children — David, who has followed in his father’s footsteps and is a vicar in Ashington, Northumberland, Rebekah, a medical doctor in Worcester; and Dominic, who works for Amnesty International in London.

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