"My Bessborough nightmare"

Terri Harrison talks to CHRIS DUNNE about her time in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, recalling how her baby boy was taken from her, never to be reunited
"My Bessborough nightmare"

President Michael D Higgins talking to Terri Harrison and other survivors, during an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Ryan Report, in 2019. Picture: Tony Maxwell / Maxwell’s

IN 1973, Ireland was no country for unmarried pregnant women. So when Terri Harrison realised she might be pregnant, she moved to England.

“I had a lovely job in Sainsburys,” says Teri, whose infant son Niall was taken from her weeks after his birth 47 years ago. Mother and son have never been reunited.

“My colleagues at work were very kind to me and it was a very happy time in my life. I felt very respected in England,” says Terri.

“When I was pregnant, nobody asked me about a husband. I remember I had a bottom drawer for baby clothes in preparation for the baby.”

Terri’s life and that of her unborn son was thrown into turmoil when she was effectively ‘abducted’ and forced back to Ireland under a State- supported scheme and sent to Bessborough House in Cork.

“I was 18 and living in Dublin,” says Terri, who is now married to Michael and has four children, Niall, and Elaine, Patrick and Laura.

“I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant and I persuaded my parents to let me go to England to stay with my aunt,” says Terri.

“I was a bit scared, but I was full of happiness and joy.”

Then she got the knock on the door.

“A priest and two nuns from the Catholic Crusade and Rescue arrived at the front door,” says Terri.

“They told me I had to return to Ireland because the English Government wasn’t going to look after me. They said I had no right to stay.”

What was that like for the vulnerable pregnant teenager so far from home?

“They horrified me and scared me to a point I could do nothing,” says Terri.

“I was forced into a car and driven to Heathrow Airport and put aboard a plane bound for Cork.”

Her identity on board the plane was listed as P.F.I, Pregnant From Ireland, which she found out in 2021.

Her name would be changed again to Tracy, her ‘house’ name, when she reached her destination in Bessborough.

The State paid for half the cost of pregnant girls to be ‘repatriated’ when they were placed in mother and baby institutions.

“It was effectively the abduction of females who were mostly in their teens and twenties,” says Terri.

“It was effectively human trafficking and the selling of babies of unmarried mothers was human trafficking.”

“There were two nuns waiting for me,” says Terri, speaking of her arrival in Cork.

“I was tired, dehydrated and felt really sick. At Bessborough the nuns left me in a hallway, shut the door and that was it. I had no way of letting anyone know where I was.”

Terri effectively ceased to exist.

“I vanished off the face of the earth,” she says.

“I was given a number, 1725, used to identify myself. My ‘house’ name was Tracy, making it hard for anyone trying to find me. I can’t use the word ‘home’ for Bessborough because the treatment of young girls in institutions like Bessborough was inhumane,” says Terri.

“I was imprisoned there.”

Conditions were harsh.

Terri Harrison’
Terri Harrison’

“We spent every day working from 5.30am, cleaning, cooking, gardening, doing laundry; all for the church to profit.”

It was akin to slave labour, she says.

“I was on hall duty doing parquet floors and there were three of us; one washed, one polished, one buffed. I was on polish and I used to vomit with the smell of polish.”

Were any words spoken to the wretched girls?

“We were told we were worthless,” says Terri. “And that the wrath of an unforgiving God would visit us. The idea was to keep us in a constant state of fear.

“We were never allowed to forget our ‘sin’. We were brain-washed into thinking we were worthless. In later life I struggled with the legacy of a shame that was not mine.”

With the help of the father of her baby, Terri managed to escape. “He helped me escape and we went back to Dublin, where we hoped to set up a life for ourselves.”

Instead, Terri was taken to another institution, St Patrick’s on the Navan Road.

“The nuns ruled with fear,” says Terri. “Punishments were physical and mental. They ran from slaps to withholding any extra food for some girls who were deemed to have misbehaved, who were hungrier than others depending on the stage of their pregnancy. There was no love or kindness shown; just indifference.”

Terri never experienced love until her son was born, on October 15, 1973.

“I had been really ill suffering from placenta previa so I was allowed to have Niall beside me in the ward, an annex of out building at St Pat’s. One day after giving birth you went back to the main hospital. Normally, mothers would only see their babies at feeding times when a bell rang and the nursery was then locked when time was up. Having the opportunity of Niall beside me for two weeks was wonderful. Then he was back in a locked nursery. I delayed feeding him as best I could.”

And then he was gone.

“One Saturday morning when Niall was around five weeks old, the nun ‘assigned’ to look after my case came to the cot and she took my baby back to Cork. I knew I fed him that Saturday morning and that was the last I ever saw of him.”

Terri had to get Niall back.

“I was sent back to London and returned three months later, immediately heading to Cork to try and find Niall.”

Under law, Terri should have been able to get Niall back up until the age of six months under the 1952 Adoption Act.

“At St Anne’s Adoption Agency in Cork, a parish priest in a room with two nuns told me my baby had been adopted and it had all been rubber-stamped,” says Terri.

Four decades on, she has never stopped searching for Niall.

“In 1992, I heard an item about adoption on the Gerry Ryan Show. I wrote to the Adoption agency trying to contact Niall.”

She was fobbed off.

“Again, when Niall was 22, I wrote back; they told me it was better to wait until he was 25. A social worker reached out to me when Niall was 29 or 30 after a meeting with him.”

Niall decided to leave things be.

“I will always send him unconditional love,” says Terri, who finds solace these days in music, arts and theatre.

“I love my volunteer work, now 27 years and playing and singing a song I hummed to Niall, Remember Me. If he ever heard it, then maybe something inside of him would awaken.”

Terri says Niall’s adoption was a complete shock and she retreated into a bubble, not registering her brilliant achievements, going back to school, back to college, marrying her husband, and having her three subsequent lovely children.

“I remember when Elaine was born and I was afraid to leave her alone on the ward to go and have a shower,” says Terri.

“The lady in the next bed said she would keep an eye on her. When I came back, Elaine was gone. I went hysterical, re-living the horror of Niall being taken from me. A nurse arrived with Elaine in her arms and I almost collapsed with relief.”

Terri’s life was in pieces after her dreadful experience in Mother and Baby Homes and after being robbed of her son.

“My life was smashed to pieces and never joined together again,” says Terri, who helped set up Society of Survivors Support lines for people who want to be listened to.

A picture that Terri has of baby Niall, who she was forced to give up for adoption.
A picture that Terri has of baby Niall, who she was forced to give up for adoption.

Terri would like the Government to ask forgiveness of the women who were done so much wrong in Irish Mother and Baby homes.

“The one thing I wanted was for one of them to break ranks and ask for our forgiveness, and to ask what they can do to help us. That has never happened.”

What else does Terri want?

“I want to give Niall a hug just once so that we can actually touch one another,” she says.

“Then I can wake up and be free.”

To contact the Society of Survivors, call 085-8069925/26.

"I still recall your little hand grasped my finger": Terri’s letter to Niall

I HAVE written you many letters since I first found out you were alive. It took nearly 22 years for them to give me any information about you. I hope this letter finds you healthy and happy.

I know you have no concept of how we shared my body for nine months, how I hummed tunes to you, how when I played the piano you would move so much inside of me. It felt so real, it felt so strange, just to know I was one day going to give life to a tiny new person, “You”.

My first encounter with motherhood was harsh, cold, and cruel too. You struggled to live after a birth so very terrifying, and when they eventually decided to call an ambulance, they passed seven hospitals en route. Their priority was that we both would be held in Kevin’s hospital. They owned this hospital; all paperwork would be fabricated. Despite everything we both survived, you being a true little warrior.

I know now, you have no real knowledge of your true beginnings. How much you were loved, wanted, adored. I named you “cuddles” while you grew inside of me. I tried to picture you in my mind’s eye. But nothing could prepare me for when I first saw your tiny little face.

You gave me the most precious gift I have ever received, the meaning of unconditional love. I was 18 with no real insight into what motherhood entailed. I learned through you, I felt as though I was floating above myself, in the warmest glow of pure love.

I could not take my eyes away from you, and still recall your little hand, how it grasped my tiny finger like you knew my smell, my touch, my voice.

Sadly, I was not able to stand up to the people who had already decided your fate and mine. My State declared me an unfit mother; not permitted to mother you in your journey of life. To be the one you ran to, who would pick you up and hug you, stroke your face when you felt unwell. Rock you in my arms when you needed my warmth.

We were denied it all, even all the arguments we so could have had, our different perspectives, our own interpretation of life itself.

Your first encounter with love, your first cognitions, your true uniqueness. I so encourage people to be themselves, not to succumb to wants or directions of others. I hope you learned to explore your own world; find your own view, your own path, what I would have given to have crossed your path with your permission even once.

In the short few weeks, they allowed me access to you at feeding times, I delayed this every time, as every second with you was all I had; to keep our memories alive for both of us. I hope my genes flow within you. I hope my love of music flows inside of you; above all, I hope you are the man you were born to be. A man of integrity, love, with a free will to truly make your own real choices.

Never allow anyone or anything else steal your real self. I know your beauty, your inner core, I am a stranger to you, but you are not to me. Nor will you ever be, I am your mother and will be till my last breath is taken. They stole you away, but not from me, they could not take my love, my memory of you my first born, nor the piece of my heart that belongs to only you.

My wonderful boy, now a man.

My love from a distance, I can wrap my arms around you, in the hope one day you will feel my energy embrace and mind you, as I did for the very first year of our precious life together.

All my love, Your mother, Terri.

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