‘Respectable’ woman’s opinion counted for more than poor family by local government official
Voice of the female subject to the committal to Bessborough was not heard at all
Ciara Gannon, Cobh, attaching her teddy bear to the gates of Bessborough during the Bessborough Mother and Baby Support Group memorial service in Cork.Pic: Provision
In 1933, the mother of a 19-year-old pregnant single woman from a remote rural region of south Kerry approached a neighbouring respectable and well-to-do woman “for help and advice” regarding her daughter’s circumstances.
The pregnant woman came from a poor and large family – with seven children – who lived on a small farm of five cows.
Acting as a conduit for the girl’s mother, the neighbour arranged with the Kerry board of health and public assistance – the local authority responsible for poor relief – to have the girl committed to the Bessborough home in Cork city, a mother and baby home which was run by the Order of the Sacred Heart, and was initially established in 1922 for “unmarried mothers” with one child as part of the reform of the poor law and workhouse system.
Within three months of the woman’s committal, her father wrote to the Kerry board of health who were paying for her maintenance stating: “I would like to let you know I want to bring home my daughter . . . and baby.”
However, the secretary of the Kerry County Council, Padraig O’Mahony, refused to sanction the father’s request.
O’Mahony joined the IRB in 1905 and was involved in republican politics during the Easter Rising, subsequently emerging as one of the leading Sinn Féin organisers during 1917-21 in the south of Ireland. After the establishment of the Free State, he was appointed to the leading local authority position in Kerry.
O’Mahony wrote to the neighbour who originally arranged for the woman’s committal asking if her removal from Bessborough was “in accordance with the desires of the persons who were responsible for incurring expense in her reclamation”.
In reply, the neighbour wrote that she “very strongly opposed the girl’s return” home, believing that her parents lacked the “character to control her” and she would “very likely fall again under the evil influences which were instrumental in her downfall”.
The neighbour was also of the belief that her presence would be harmful to the younger sisters and the “little girls of the neighbourhood” would be given the “impression that, having been placed under care . . . they could come and go as they please”. She also believed that the “family should moreover remember that the board was paying for the girl’s maintenance”.
At a wider level, the religious authorities, and government officials, preferred women to stay for a sustained period: the 1927 Commission of the Relief of the Destitute and Sick Poor recommended that women in mother and baby homes remain up to a year and in many cases women stayed much longer. In turn, the father’s wishes were not acceded to.