Mothers and babies: ‘The day I arrived in Bessborough, I landed in the bowels of hell’

Terri Harrison was repatriated against her will when she was 18 from London to Bessborough where she had a baby boy

Award-winning BBC journalist and producer Deirdre Finnerty kept a picture beside her desk while writing her first book. It was a photograph of Bessborough House, the grand country mansion with a red door on the outskirts of Cork city which operated as one of Ireland’s first and largest mother and baby institutions.

“I’d lived outside of Ireland for many years, I associated those places with the past, with history,” the Mayo author says on a Zoom call from her London home. “But the more I spoke to women the more I realised they weren’t in the past at all. There are so many people, so many women, living with the effects of these stories still today.”

Bessborough, the book she wrote, tells the powerful, enraging story of three of those women. Referring to her mistaken belief that these experiences were historic and had no place in the new, more liberal modern Ireland, Finnerty quotes actor, playwright and activist Noelle Brown who was born at Bessborough. “I get upset when people say that,” she told Finnerty. “It’s not a new Ireland for me or 100,000 other people.” This is reference to the approximate number of adoptees who passed through the Irish system, some of whom are still trying to gain access to their files.

Ireland confined a higher number of pregnant women and girls in institutions than any other country in the world in the 20th century

Places such as Bessborough, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, were widely known as mother and baby “homes”, but they are referred to as institutions throughout the book. This, Finnerty explains, is because for the women she spoke to who took up temporary residence there, they were not homes in any true sense of the word.

The 10,000 women who walked up the stone steps and passed through the red door between 1922 and 1998 were given new names so their identities would remain hidden. Secrecy was paramount, they were told not to talk about their time there and were given jobs, such as cutting the lawn with a scissors or gruelling laundry work. The women in these so-called homes would eventually give birth to babies they were not allowed to keep – almost 9,000 children were born or admitted there.

For many women, places like Bessborough were institutions of incarceration and of punishment. A stay there, however brief, often led to lifelong grief, suffering and loss, all of which is explored in harrowing, illuminating detail in the book.

How did she come to write it? Finnerty, who grew up in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, had returned from a BBC assignment in Washington when she first began reflecting on these places. The mother and baby institutions kept cropping up in interviews when she came back to Ireland in 2018 to do a story about the abortion referendum. She was commissioned to write about Bessborough after a conversation with an editor who had been under the mistaken impression that Tuam mother and baby home – where remains of babies born there were found in 2017 – was the only such place in Ireland. In fact, as Finnerty points out, “Ireland confined a higher number of pregnant women and girls in institutions than any other country in the world in the 20th century.”

Bessborough House. Illustration: Brian Gallagher
Bessborough House. Illustration: Brian Gallagher

While researching that article on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, Finnerty came across a book written by a former midwife in Bessborough. The Light in the Window, published in 1998, is an account by June Goulding, who worked at Bessborough for a year in 1951. In it Goulding recalled asking what painkillers were given to the women in labour. “Nobody gets any here, nurse. They just have to suffer,” came the reply. When asked about accessing the key to the cabinet where she could find needles to stitch women who were torn during childbirth, she was told that cabinet was never opened. “They must suffer their pain . . . the nun says they should atone for their sin.”

Finnerty remembers being struck by the insights of the midwife and thinking how important it would be to get perspectives from the women who were sent to have babies there. “I thought it would make a great book but I never thought I’d be the one to write it. Then after the article was published and went viral I got an email from a publisher.” After making some inquiries, she had a positive reaction from survivors about the idea of her working on such a project.

“Eventually, I met the three amazing women who spoke to me for the book,” she says smiling. “They’ve been so generous and courageous, they’ve done us all an incredible service by speaking about their experiences. We can talk about what life was like in the institution but we don’t necessarily realise the devastating impact their experiences had on them over decades – that’s the part we don’t really talk about. And when people read the book that’s what they’ve said they found most interesting.”

Deirdre Finnerty on the three women who shared their stories for her book: ‘They’ve done us all an incredible service by speaking about their experiences.’ Photograph: Phil Coomes/BBC
Deirdre Finnerty. Photograph: Phil Coomes/BBC

The book offers a detailed portrait of three women – Joan, Terri and Deirdre – who were at Bessborough in three different decades: the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

 Joan McDermott entered Bessborough as a teenager and gave birth to her son in 1967 before being sent to England, where she worked in nursing. Joan told nobody for 46 years and eventually found her son after years of delays and difficulties. Dubliner Terri Harrison was 18 in 1973 when she was, without warning and against her will, repatriated to Bessborough from London, where she had a baby boy. Wexford woman Deirdre Wadding had her first baby in Bessborough in 1981 and another baby boy at the Dunboyne mother and baby institution in 1983.

“What you see, while Joan’s experience is very different to Terri’s which is different to Deirdre’s, ultimately the outcome was the same. The coercion was the same. The pressure was the same,” Finnerty reflects.

Two of the women –Terri Harrison, from her cottage in Dublin, and Deirdre Wadding, from her home in Wexford – are on a Zoom call to talk about their participation. Both women have been speaking out about their stories for years now.

Joan (67), with a dark bob and glasses, describes what women like her experienced as “a living bereavement”. She is a mother of four and grandmother to seven children. The book tells the devastating story of how after years tracking down her first-born son, who she had been forced to give up for adoption, he chose not to be reunited with her.

Terri Harrison was repatriated against her will when she was 18 from London to Bessborough where she had a baby boy: ‘So many thousands of babies and children were treated like commodities.’ Photograph: Fran Veale
Terri Harrison: ‘So many thousands of babies and children were treated like commodities.’ Photograph: Fran Veale

Even with all we know about the treatment of women and girls in this country, Terri’s story is shocking. When she became pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby in 1973, she left her home in Drimnagh to work and live with her aunt in London. Not long after her pregnancy was confirmed by a kindly London doctor, two nuns and a priest came to the door telling her she had to go back to Ireland.

“Terri, you do realise you cannot stay in this country,” she remembers the priest saying to her. “What do you mean I can’t stay? What did I do?” Terri replied. She thought she was being taken back to her home in Dublin, but on the flight the nun told her she was going to Cork, a place she had never visited before.

Terri is thought to be one of the last women known as PFIs, which stood for “pregnant from Ireland”. The scheme was initiated in 1931 with the Irish government pledging to cover 50 per cent of the repatriation costs of taking pregnant women from Britain back to Ireland. She still has questions about how her repatriation to Bessborough was arranged and remembers the pain of her time there. “The day I arrived in Bessborough, I landed in the bowels of hell. That’s the last time I was free.”

Terri, who was given the name Tracey, told the nun who came to tell her that her baby would be adopted that she thought she’d been sent to Bessborough by “mistake” and she wanted to keep her baby. In the book she describes her loneliness and isolation in Bessborough. She was shut away from everyone she knew, unsure if even her mother knew where she was. At one point she had a bleed and told a nun that she was worried. “Go out to the grotto and pray,” the nun told her. “Pray to God to forgive you for your filthy sins.”

Baby Niall was five weeks old when he was taken out of his cot by a nun
Baby Niall was five weeks old when he was taken out of his cot by a nun

Eventually she managed to sneak a letter to her boyfriend in Dublin through a caretaker and he came to visit her there. Desperate to escape, she left Bessborough with him and stayed in a relative’s home in Cork. That relative informed her mother and Terri was brought straight to another mother and baby institution, St Patrick’s on the Navan Road, where she had her baby.

Back then Terri did not understand what was happening but now she uses words like “abduction” and “incarceration”. “If we’re trying to inform and empower the public, we must speak properly, we must describe it properly,” she says. Terri rejects terms such as “former resident” and “birth mother” as she says it was not her choice not to be allowed to raise her son after his birth. The son she named Niall was five weeks old when he was taken out of his cot at St Patrick’s by a nun who travelled to Dublin from Cork. “It’s the best thing, it’s in your best interest,” she was told.

A few months later, in 1974, she travelled with friends to St Anne’s Adoption Society in Cork, desperate to get her son back from the family with whom he had been placed. She had not signed any adoption papers. She brought baby clothes in a bag, certain she would be bringing baby Niall home with her. “I just want my son. He’s mine,” she told the nun there. “You’re not getting him back. You have to get that idea out of your head,” the nun told her, threatening to call the guards.

Eventually Terri got married and had children, but she describes the years following “my abduction and incarceration” as living “in a cocoon”. “If I lived in reality, I don’t think I could have survived. I wouldn’t have been able to cope with the reality of being abducted and having my baby stolen.”

Deirdre Wadding had her first baby in Bessborough in 1981 and another baby boy at the Dunboyne mother and baby institution in 1983: ‘I was the golden girl and then I was worth nothing because I got pregnant.’ Photograph: Mordan Films
Deirdre Wadding: ‘I was the golden girl and then I was worth nothing because I got pregnant.’ Photograph: Mordan Films

Deirdre Wadding, who will be 60 in June, now lives back in Wexford. She was in Bessborough a decade after Terri, leaving teacher-training college when she became pregnant. Her mother organised the stay in Bessborough, where she was given the name Ciara. A few days after a difficult birth, during which she had an episiotomy, she signed adoption papers for the baby she named Paul and was driven home by her parents.

In her trauma, Deirdre says she believed getting pregnant again might somehow help her get over losing Paul. A year later, as a 20-year-old newly qualified teacher, Deirdre became pregnant again and gave birth to a baby she named Daniel in Dunboyne mother and baby institution. It was not uncommon, Deirdre says, for women to end up in such institutions a second time. She has suffered unspeakable regret about giving both babies up for adoption. “I didn’t think there was an alternative – I was brainwashed into thinking that was the best thing for them.”

I ask how these experiences affected the rest of her life. “My poor eldest daughter probably bore the brunt of a tonne of overcompensation,” Deirdre says with the self-awareness that comes from years of counselling. “She was the first child I could keep and hold and breastfeed and look after and be there for the sleepless nights, the first step, the first tooth, all of that. How she’s halfway sane I don’t know because I used to suffer hugely with anxiety. I used to wake in the night thinking she was going to die. I had stomach cramps. I’d be up half the night looking at her and making sure she was okay. I breastfed her until she was four.”

Her daughter is now a “feisty and independent” young woman. Deirdre’s second marriage, during which she had three children, lasted 15 years and she is still good friends with her ex. The break-up happened around the time of her search for her second son, Daniel – she had already made contact and established a relationship with her first son, Paul. Her marriage foundered, in part she believes, because she went through a period of “arrested development, a need to recapture lost youth”.

Baby Paul
Baby Paul

She wonders if she had had counselling at the time whether her marriage might have survived. After it ended, she had a brief relationship with “a narcissist”. She later learned in counselling that this relationship where she was put on a pedestal and then torn apart “was a replay of how my mother had dealt with me. I was the golden girl and then I was worth nothing because I got pregnant . . . I was not in a good space for quite a while after that relationship ended.” Ten years ago, happily, she met a “lovely” man and they are still together.

I’m curious about how Deirdre’s experiences shaped her emotionally and even spiritually. She describes the kind of “disassociation of the soul” from the trauma of being a resident at two of these institutions. “I had a different name in Bessborough, so it was like these things happened to Ciara. Did Ciara stay behind and Deirdre come home? Or was I both of these women, or did Ciara take over who I once was?”

Having been a devout Catholic as a young girl, she says Bessborough changed all of that. “I came to a point where there was no room in the Church for me. But I was still a deeply spiritual person. Now I am an Irish pagan priestess. I train women to become pagan priests and I ordain them. I teach people about Irish mythology and pre-Christian traditions.”

So many thousands of babies and children were treated like commodities. The people who were anxious to have a family never questioned where all these innocent babies were coming from

In the book, Joan, who was in Bessborough in the 1960s, describes how speaking out about her story helped to ease the pain. Terri’s lost son was 28 when she first “came out” about her story on national radio. “I didn’t use my name. I had packed everything so deeply in the recesses of my mind . . . I had frozen it and speaking cracked it right open. I had flashbacks. I had nightmares. I didn’t see that coming.”

Deirdre can relate. “When I began to tell my story it was like seeing myself in a mirror, seeing the enormity of the trauma,” says Deirdre. “Speaking out didn’t take away the pain, it magnified it for me because I was seeing it through other people’s eyes.”

Terri is scathing of the adoption system that processed the children born at these institutions. “I learned to live with the fact my son was stolen from me. I know his kidnappers [this is how she refers to the nuns and those involved in processing the adoptions]. I know now of the receivers [the adoptive family]. What I do not know is how this has affected my son as a person.

“So many thousands of babies and children were treated like commodities. The people who were anxious to have a family never questioned where all these innocent babies were coming from. Nor did anyone question how this could affect the children for the rest of their lives . . . to steal someone’s identity is wrong, no matter how much love there is. A child should be loved for who they are not for what someone wants them to be. I am grateful for the fact my genes and my son’s family of origin remain intact inside of him. A rose may be grown in a daffodil bed, but he will always be a rose.” It’s a source of deep sadness for her that she may have grandchildren she will never get a chance to know.

Terri in 1972
Terri in 1972

In contrast, Deirdre says she is “blessed” to know that “both of my sons had good lives and adoptive families who actually cared for them”. She has a good relationship with her first-born son, who is in America. She first got to know him without a mediator when he was 19. Now he is 40 and has been in her life longer than he has not, a fact which makes Deirdre happy. Communication from her other son in Australia has stopped in the last several years, which has been retraumatising. “I have tormented myself. Did I say something? Was I too much? What did I do to make him pull away again?”

“I want to say that there’s an awareness for me and I am sure for other mothers, that while we were really jealous of what the adoptive mothers had, it means the world to know your child had a happy life and was not in an abusive family. For those who don’t know how their children were raised, it’s a torment, a nightmare. But I do want to honour the families that gave love to the children we did not get to keep. I am sure there are some adoptive families feeling guilt, feeling maybe they were the bad people but no, the bad people were the Church, the State and the institutions.”

In January last year, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes released its 5,000-page report, the result of a five-year inquiry chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy. Terri had given evidence to the investigative committee, swearing an oath before a judge, and was robustly questioned. She welcomed this process. Meanwhile, Deirdre made a submission to the confidential committee.

‘You keep thinking someone will knock on the door and say, ‘A terrible injustice has been done. Here’s your son back.’’

The report’s findings were controversial. It found “no evidence” that women were forced to enter institutions or forced into adoption, but did recognise that the women in places such as Bessborough would have had no choice but to give up their children. It found “no evidence” that women were denied pain relief during birth. “The Commission is satisfied that, at least from the 1970s and 1980s, there were adequate procedures in place for ensuring that a mother’s consent was ‘full, free and informed’,” the report stated. It blamed “society” for much of what went on at the time. It said the women were “free to leave” at any time.

The three women featured in Finnerty’s book unequivocally reject the report’s findings. “Everybody I’ve spoken to has been very upset by the commission,” says Finnerty. “They felt they were not believed and that their testimony was a bit pointless. So I think that’s a damning indictment.

“The State has a long history when it comes to believing women and their stories. I’d love to think that this will change. The commission is perhaps yet another example of silencing women and not being quite ready to believe what they say, not taking them seriously.”

“As far as I am concerned the whole thing was a whitewash,” says Terri. “How could you listen to the women and come away and say there is no coercion? It is outrageous to say there was no forced adoption when there are women who tell how their children were taken out of their arms . . . what was the point in us all pouring our hearts out, sharing our personal grief and details? What an absolute slap in the face.”

‘Ireland confined a higher number of pregnant women and girls in institutions than any other country in the world in the 20th century’
‘There’s a deep trauma there. The story should be taught in the curriculum of schools.’ Photograph: Eoin O'Conaill

Terri had told them in detail about her experience of being repatriated from the UK and found it strange that the committee found no evidence that women were forced to enter these institutions. “I just feel really strongly that it was a damage-limitation exercise.”

Regarding the blame being put on “society” both by the report authors and various politicians over the years, Deirdre believes that is a cop-out, mentioning “the conditioning and brainwashing of people like my mother, who were told it would be the end of the world if I kept my child”.

Terri has little faith that there is any political will to properly address what the survivors were put through. “We should never have been made a political issue, we belong in the human rights arena. It’s like we’re a little toy, a poisoned chalice that civil servants and the government pass on to each other over the years. It’s like they just want us to go away. I hear some of the older women say, ‘they’re just waiting for us to die’.”

Terri runs support groups for some of these women. “I don’t ask anyone to try and heal from their trauma, because they cannot. It’s ongoing. There is no closure, only death. So you have to learn to live with it. Family gatherings were the worst time of my life, and Mother’s Day. I’d look at family photographs and see my shadow son in the picture. You never let it go. You keep thinking someone will knock on the door and say, ‘A terrible injustice has been done. Here’s your son back.’”

The book poignantly describes how every year on October 15th, her son’s birthday, Terri lit a candle for him. She has not given up hope of meeting him one day. “I do nothing on the 15th of October. I die on the 15th of October. And then when midnight comes, it’s over.”

‘There are so many people, so many women, living with the effects of these stories still today’
‘There are so many people, so many women, living with the effects of these stories still today.’ Photograph: Eoin O'Conaill

In terms of its scale, Deirdre equates what happened to women and girls and their babies with the Irish Famine, and says the abuses of the Catholic Church and State against women and children are buried in the national psyche. “There’s a deep trauma there,” she says. “The story should be taught in the curriculum of schools.”

The women’s endurance in the face of such trauma is deeply admirable.

“It was only through studies and learning new skills I discovered my inner strength,” says Terri of her activism and work with other survivors. “I examined all my own prejudices, my learned behaviours, my belief systems, I questioned my very Irishness . . . that is when I reached out to help and support other people to connect with people affected by this horrific episode in our culture and history. I am very content in knowing that over 20 years I have done my best to bring our truth out into the light.”

Finnerty is pleased that her book will bring these women’s stories to a wider audience and is heartened by all the survivors, activists, artists and campaigners who continue to speak up. She says it’s crucial that women such as Joan, Terri and Deirdre are “managing the narrative on their own terms”.

And there are still more books coming, including one by Marguerite Penrose, a mixed-race woman who was born in a mother and baby home in Dublin. These first-person accounts are arguably the ones that deserve the most attention, telling as they do the truest story of Ireland’s shameful treatment of women and girls and the babies they were forced to give up.

“We need to be ready to listen to these stories and feel uncomfortable,” Finnerty says.

Bessborough: Three Women, Three Decades, Three Stories of Courage, by Deirdre Finnerty, is published by Hachette Ireland