The Rotunda: Behind the scenes at the world’s oldest maternity hospital

Joy, humour, agony – all human life is on show in RTÉ’s portrait of the Dublin hospital

Fiona meets baby Seb for the first time, shortly after giving birth via C-section, in new RTÉ documentary The Rotunda. Video: RTÉ

 

On a blackboard in the delivery ward of the Rotunda, a midwife appears to be keeping score. “Women: 17,” she writes in one column, and in the other, “Babies: 17”.

To judge from the screams that periodically echo around the world’s oldest maternity hospital, so individual and varied that even a midwife of 28 years experience still seems surprised to hear them, you would have thought the babies were way out in the lead.

The new documentary series The Rotunda (RTÉ Two, Thursday, 9.30pm) a belated answer to One Born Every Minute, promises access to “the most intimate moments” in the lives of others; more than that, the debut of life itself.

Inevitably some will be more comfortable with such exposure than others, and those who keep pictures of their newborns firmly off Facebook may be troubled that few babies featured here are likely to have signed release forms.

The more surprising and necessary access in the programme, however, is to those with infinitely sadder stories. In one heartrending scene a new mother, not long out of an elective C-section, waits as patiently as humanly possible to meet her baby, who’s entrance is tactfully delayed “out of respect to another patient”.

She understands – she herself had experienced a traumatising miscarriage – yet it’s stunning to hear her ask the person behind the camera, “You’ve seen him? Is he ok? Is he hungry?”

For a few minutes, the viewer has seen more of this boy than the woman who bore him.

The brisk editing, interviews and score all suggest a jauntier programme than the one we get. It is life affirming in its mingling of no-nonsense midwifery, a mother’s agonies of labour, the comic subplot of bewildered new fatherhood, and the smothering encouragement of overbearing families. It is beyond sombre in the case of a couple facing their baby’s fatal heart defect, valiantly sharing their experience, and treated with dignity by the documentary.

Is it voyeuristic, or deeply empathetic, to watch the emotional heights of others? It might be fairer to say that we like to see our own experiences represented and reflected. I’ll admit I laughed when a young father comforted his partner with the words, “You’re literally the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” then, in the same breath, transferred his compliments to a beverage: “This is going to be the nicest cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”

Then my wife reminded me, six months after our own experience at the Rotunda, that I had given similar praise to a can of beer. What can I say? As she puts it, I love meeting new people.

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