A midwife remembers the banished lives behind `the light in the window'

 

It cannot be unfair to describe June Goulding as trenchant. Compassionate she may be, especially on the evidence of her recently-published book The Light in the Window, but somehow trenchant is the word that comes to mind as she refers, for example, to Pope Pius XII.

This is the pontiff who made it possible, in 1947, for nursing nuns to train as midwives. "In my honest opinion," she says, "that was one of the greatest mistakes he ever made. I just don't think nuns and midwifery mix at all."

At 70 years of age, June Goulding has produced a record of the year spent at Bessboro Convent in Blackrock, Co Cork, where, as a young midwife, she worked for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in their home for unmarried mothers and their children.

It is an account of her experiences in an Ireland which, in 1951, allowed the religious orders almost total freedom from accountability. An Ireland in which pregnant unmarried women could be "imprisoned" for as long as three years, could be forced to work behind the plough or in steaming laundries, could be set to trimming lawns with their fingers or hauling rollers over newly-tarred macadam on the convent driveway.

They were dressed in smocks and refused any underwear except open-gussetted knickers; their days began at 6 a.m. and were spent running the convent, home and hospital; the community was paid £1 a week for each inmate, two shillings and sixpence for each infant, although the institution was completely self-sufficient and the women provided it with unpaid and uncomplaining labour.

To read this book is to discover how labour camps could be established in the midst of an urban community. All the features are here: degrading uniforms, inadequate diet, humiliating restrictions on personal hygiene, forced hard labour, prohibited communications and the inevitable and almost certainly terminal separation from one's child.

As June Goulding tells it, things were even worse for those in the hospital where no assistance apart from that of the midwife was allowed - no pain-relief, no episiotomies, no sutures, no healing baths, a doctor who only came to take Wassermann tests or, once, to provide anaesthesia.

Permission to use analgesics was refused; tears were left unsutured, deliveries which should have been aided by forceps were allowed do what damage they might.

A still-birth was no tragedy, and breast-feeding was enforced so that mothers had to accept babies other than their own at the breast.

This was an Ireland in which such abuses involved the collusion of society itself. The most striking message from June Goulding's volume is one of absolutely no questions asked, ever.

"It was society's fault," she says now. "No one wanted to know, not clergy, politicians, families. It was the times that were in it: there was no crime worse than having an illegitimate child. I worked in the hospital, with the new mothers and their babies, but I went to Mass in the convent where they lived after their confinement, and I counted at least 300 women in the church.

"And, apart from the postman and the priest, no man ever came down that avenue."

She speaks of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid who permitted the nuns a kind of moral dispensation so they could falsify the details of birth certificates for children being adopted in the US who would thus be rendered untraceable for ever by their birth mothers.

Trenchant as she may be, it is a voice from the past. Why did she wait until now to write the book?

Her answer also covered why she did not continue to work as a midwife after her marriage.

"I had seven children! And as it was, writing it took me about six years in all, and only came about really because a friend visited me in hospital after an accident in which I should have been killed and said that if I had died there would have been no one to write that story."

In the book, that friend is the young woman called Molly, whose escape, with her little daughter, was organised by June. Once a girl was brought to the home she could not leave until her child left, whether to be adopted, fostered or sent to an orphanages; no children remained at the convent after three years of age - unless a mother could hand over £100 to the sisters.

That money - a very large sum in those days and far beyond the means of most of the inmates - would also ensure the use of anaesthetics or analgesics during labour and delivery.

"These are memories which will never leave me," says June, whose furtive assistance for her patients included the luxury of that postpartum swabbing and a cup of tea.

She must have had great nerve in the matter of forbidden telephone calls and hidden letters. "Yes", she says, "but I had such pity for them."

June's life was very different. She had a profession, she was engaged, the nuns liked to see her dressed up for dances. e called to take her out. She married and left; life moved on. Today Bessboro runs a completely child-centred system of creche, nursery school and counselling services, but June Goulding has not forgotten.

At last she has told the story of those banished lives behind the light in the window.

The Light in the Window by June Goulding (Poolbeg Press, £7.99)