‘You have to suffer for your sins’: Resident recalls treatment at Bessborough home

Woman tells commission of being locked alone in a room for 72 hours while in labour

There was a two-tier system in place in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork in the 1970s when girls whose families were paying for them to have their babies there received preferential treatment, a former resident has claimed.

The woman, identified only as Resident B, in the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report, told researchers about her experience in Bessborough as a 19-year-old when she went there in the early 1970s.

She was a student in Dublin when she got pregnant and after a period in London, she agreed to a suggestion from her parents that she go into Bessborough in Cork to have her baby.

“I was seven months pregnant when I arrived there and I was surprised because for me, anyway, it was bit like going to boarding school and I had all these girls around me who were pregnant,” she said.

“And I know that this flies in the face of everything you’ve read . . . but some of the time, we had a great time . . . we had midnight feasts and you know, we went out roaming around the grounds and getting up to mischief.”

But the woman acknowledged that not everyone had similar experiences in Bessborough and she noticed very different approaches being taken by the nuns depending whether a girl was a private patient or a public patient.

“So there were the nice middle class girls like myself, sitting around doing absolutely nothing – we had no occupations. We knitted. We went out for walks on the ground and we were bored,” she said.

“We knew that there were other girls in the kitchens and in the laundries and that there were babies somewhere but it was all very secretive and we didn’t know and the whole culture was that you didn’t ask questions.

"We were the privileged few and as soon as our babies were born, we left whenever we wanted. You know as long as the Adoption Society or whoever was organising it, had arrangements made, you could leave but we knew there were other girls that didn't leave."

Another woman, identified as Resident A, outlined a very different experience when she became pregnant at 18 and was sent to Bessborough in the 1960s where she was given “a house name” by the nuns and was made to work in the home.

“At Bessborough, we got up at 5am every morning and went to Mass. Afterwards we fed the babies in the nursery but never our own babies and for the rest of the day, we were assigned duties,” she said.

The woman told how she was made scrub stone floors on the long corridors being joining with others in the community room at around 7pm where they embroidered Christmas cards before put to bed at 9pm.

“We were never paid for the work we did. We were made to work even if we were very ill as I was. No excuses were ever accepted – it was as if the nuns had no hearts at all – there was no education and no recreation.”

According to the woman, the nuns supervised and censored their letters and coerced her to write positive things about Bessborough even while she and her baby were ill.

She recalled serving food to the nuns in the convent and the nuns received far better food than they did while any girl who stepped out of line was punished by being denied contact with their children.

The woman said that when she went into labour in Bessborough, she was locked alone in a room for 72 hours, terrified and in terrible pain.

“I was screaming with pain, three days screaming with pain and all you got was ‘Oh you should have thought about this nine months ago ‘ or ‘You have to suffer for your sins and you have got to put up with it’.”

The woman said that she wanted to give her son a specific name but the nuns refused to allow her to do so as the name she had chosen was “a Protestant name” and both she and the baby later became ill.

The baby was transferred to St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork, aged 19 days. Nineteen days later, he died of renal failure and septicaemia, the woman told the commission.

“She [one of the nuns] told me my baby had died and I asked her could I go to my baby’s burial and I was told I couldn’t go even though I was 100ft, 100ft away from the burial.

“I wasn’t allowed go with him, I don’t know was he buried in a coffin, I don’t know if he was buried in a gown or what he was buried in. I don’t know if there were prayers said over him. I have no information.”