‘Literature cannot look away’: writing a novel about Bessborough mother and baby home

Mel O’Doherty explores the Church’s guilt and society’s complicity in his debut, Fallen

Mel O’Doherty: “When you write fiction about a place like Bessborough, about fictitious lives within its walls, you are ever conscious of the real ones; conscious that these are not your shoes, this is not your pain.”

Mel O’Doherty: “When you write fiction about a place like Bessborough, about fictitious lives within its walls, you are ever conscious of the real ones; conscious that these are not your shoes, this is not your pain.”

 

When my mother misbehaved as a child, sometimes my grandmother would tell her that she was sending her “to the nuns in Blackrock”. That was nothing new in the Cork of the 1950s. Many little girls were told that, or some version of it. It didn’t mean much. No more than a blithe, throwaway threat from parent to child.

My mother knew neither where Blackrock was, nor the place her mother spoke of, nor the nuns who lived there. But with the years, she came to know, came to know what most adults knew; a sort of Cork coming-of-age, coming-of-knowledge. The nuns of her mother’s misguided reprimands, the “nuns in Blackrock”, were the nuns of Bessborough mother and baby home. And I suppose, long a whispered word on the footpaths of Cork, a staple of the silent lexicon, Bessborough was passed to a new generation of girls; bound up in their fears, their whispers, in the household censures of their own motherhoods.

And then it was passed to mine. When I was in school in the 1980s, you’d hear of a fella who’d been “adopted off the nuns over in Blackrock.”. During one football match I played in, kids on the sideline chanted at one of the players, “So and so is illegitimate – he ain’t got no birth certificate!” I’ve never forgotten that chant. Never forgotten that kid. I didn’t know what “illegitimate” meant. But he did. I could see in his face he did. And it’s most likely he knew about Bessborough. Most likely he was born there.

My novel Fallen is about kids like him. Kids like my mother in the 1950s. People like my grandmother. The generational fingerprint of that convent in Blackrock.

Bessborough mother and baby home was opened in 1922 as an institution to house women and girls who became pregnant “out of wedlock”. It was owned and operated by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Once the child could be placed in foster care or adopted, the babies were taken from their mothers, weeks, months, sometimes years after birth. The cleaving of this bond between mother and “illegitimate” child was considered by the Catholic Church, by the State and yes, by society at large, as the best outcome; the separation of the sinner from the sin. As I’ve said, this was known, it was accepted, it was kept behind high convent walls and pushed down long, winding avenues.

Less known were the deaths of the babies in Bessborough. In 1943, the infant mortality rate in Ireland was 7 per cent. In Bessborough mother and baby home it was 75 per cent. Following a series of government inspections, the care of the children was found to be “criminally casual”. The deputy chief medical adviser, Dr Sterling Berry, concluded that, far from caring for the infants, “very little steps were taken to keep them alive”.

Were the people of 1940s Cork responsible for this? Were the people of Galway responsible for what happened in Tuam? In Letterfrack? Were the people of Dublin for Goldenbridge? For Artane? No. But the seed of one’s suffering is another’s averted eyes. And Bessborough was that too; it was our averted eyes; an intersection of guilt between the theocratic state, the family, the religious.

However, an attempt to equate that guilt is a deeply flawed enterprise. Where the recent report went fundamentally wrong was to draw equivalency between the crime and the looking away from the crime; between the orders of nuns who perpetrated the crimes on women and girls in these places, and most heinously, on their infant children, and those who allowed it, enabled it: the family, the local authority, the culture, the father who marched his daughter to the convent gates.

In spreading the blame, you lessen it. Averting one’s eyes can allow a crime, but it does not commit it. The malnutrition of Bessborough’s babies is incontestably the outrage of those who ran it; the religious managers who were charged and paid by the State to institute their care.

The central character in Fallen resided with her baby in Bessborough in the 1940s. Though a fictitious character, a fictitious life, it was not easy to write the story of Elaine Dillon; the descriptions of that place at that time troubled me even as I wrote them. But I needed to. Literature cannot look away. Where it does, it fails resoundingly. I needed to lay out her childhood, her life before she ended up there; and the post-Bessborough life as well, all the way into the 1980s.

While writing the book, I thought sometimes of a certain video, footage of an ageing Christy Ring playing hurling out in the Mardyke in Cork. It is for a documentary on his glory, his grace; the glory of hurling; its honesty; its beauty. Ireland’s beauty. In the background, way off, across the River Lee up on the hill, the top windows of another convent can be seen rising above the trees. They are the windows of the Good Shepherd Magdalene laundry and St Finbarr’s industrial school for girls and the orphanage alongside; edificial testimonies to a nation’s crimes against its own people.

Some girls went from one to the other, a conveyor belt of institutional confinement. I wanted to capture that discord in my novel; the lives of my characters, the role of the church in shaping their lives, all of our lives, but also our undoubted acquiescence in that role; our eager blindness; the odious symbolism of our national game beneath the steeple of a Magdalene laundry; the hidden Ireland and the hallowed.

There’s a reeling peace in Bessborough now. A kind of dazed tranquillity that is incredible. The lawns and the great ancient trees, and behind the grotto, the bunnies hopping amidst the wildflowers, and if you stay late in the evening and sit still you may catch a few badger cubs ambling down the mossy path to where the nuns are buried in a tidy little walled plot. But the silence, the silence is what takes you; it is visceral and dense and seems to breathe. And that too is symbolic.

In early 2014, I was walking with my wife in the grounds, as we sometimes did. We were discussing a novel I was writing, or struggling to write. Passing the steps, my wife stopped and looked up at the façade of the old convent. She said, “Why don’t you write a novel about this place?” I started the following morning; those first paragraphs. I thought of the kid on the football pitch back in the 1980s. My mother and grandmother too.

When you write fiction about a place like Bessborough, about fictitious lives within its walls, you are ever conscious of the real ones; conscious that these are not your shoes, this is not your pain. So, in inventing a life, a baby’s life, a family, a village, I wanted to tell a story of Bessborough mother and baby home, of Ireland, of the Irish, in the hope that, if it were a worthy novel, it might render a small flame in the dark, a truth.

Bessborough is ours; it is our shame, our trauma, the beating heart of our Christian hypocrisy. 923 infants died there, 859 of them are in a mass-grave, its whereabouts unknown, the graves unmarked. My novel is for them, it is about them. It is about the women who birthed them. At the steps, seven years ago, I chose to write a novel that would not veil, would not avert its eyes. To write someone like Elaine Dillon. She speaks to her husband in these last lines, but I think too she speaks to the past generations of this country, to the present, and even generations to come. Arguing over the placement of a Padraig Pearse portrait on the wall, she says to him:

“And what did we do with the freedom when we got it? Ask the penitents, the orphans, industrial school children. Ask the women whose babies were stolen. Ask the girls whose lives were stolen. Ask them. Ask them all. Go round to the asylums of Ireland and ask them all about their glorious freedom. They don’t have pictures of Pearse. They have cigarettes and rosary beads and slippers. They trudge around state hallways of piss and crucifix, replaying their lives, waiting out the end on a metal bed, chain-smoking among the schizophrenics. And no imperial Britain did it. We did it ourselves.”

Mel O’Doherty’s Fallen (Bluemoose Books) will be launched on June 24th as part of the West Cork Literary Festival; tickets available here.

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