When my mother behaved badly in her childhood, my grandmother sometimes told her that she would send her “to the nuns of Blackrock”. It wasn’t new in 1950s Cork. A lot of little girls were told about it, or some version of it. It didn’t mean much. Nothing more than a joyful throwaway threat from parent to child.
My mother didn’t know where Blackrock was, or where her mother was talking about, or the nuns who lived there. But over the years she has learned, learned what most adults know; a kind of coming of age, of getting to know Cork. The nuns of her mother’s misguided rebuke, the “Blackrock Nuns,” were the nuns of Bessborough’s mother and baby house. And I guess, long a word whispered on the Cork trails, a silent lexicon staple, Bessborough has been passed on to a new generation of girls; linked in their fears, their whispers, in the domestic censorship of their own maternity hospitals.
And then it went to mine. When I was in school in the 1980s you would hear about a guy who had been “adopted by the nuns in Blackrock”. During a football match I played, children on the sidelines chanted to one of the players: “So-and-so is illegitimate – he has no birth certificate!” I have never forgotten this song. Never forgot this kid. I didn’t know what “illegitimate” meant. But he did. I could see in his face that he had. And it is very likely that he knew Bessborough. Most likely, he was born there.
My novel Fallen is about children like him. Children like my mother in the 1950s. People like my grandmother. The generational imprint of this Blackrock convent.
The Bessborough Mother and Baby Home was opened in 1922 as an institution to house women and girls who became pregnant “out of wedlock”. It belonged and was managed by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Once the child could be placed in foster care or adopted, babies were taken away from their mothers, weeks, months, sometimes years after birth. The breaking of this bond between mother and “illegitimate” child was considered by the Catholic Church, by the State and yes, by society in general, as the best outcome; separation of the sinner from sin. As I said, it was known, it was accepted, it was kept behind high convent walls and pushed along long winding avenues.
Less well known were the infant deaths at Bessborough. In 1943, the infant mortality rate in Ireland was 7%. In the Bessborough mother-child home, it was 75 percent. Following a series of government inspections, the care of the children was found to be “criminally occasional”. Deputy Chief Medical Advisor Dr Sterling Berry concluded that, far from caring for infants, “very little has been done to keep them alive.”
Were the people of Cork in the 1940s 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 the suffering of one is the gaze of another. And Bessborough was too; it was our eyes turned away; an intersection of guilt between the theocratic state, the family, the religious.
However, trying to assimilate this guilt is a deeply flawed endeavor. Where the recent report has gone fundamentally wrong is in equating crime with looking away from crime; between the orders of the nuns who perpetrated the crimes on women and girls in these places, and the most odious, on their young children, and those who allowed it, allowed it: the family, the local authority, culture, the father who made his daughter walk to the doors of the convent.
By spreading the blame, you lessen it. Looking away may allow a crime, but he does not commit it. The malnutrition of Bessborough’s babies is unquestionably the indignation of those who have run it; religious leaders who have been charged and paid by the state to institute their care.
The central character of Fallen resided with her baby in Bessborough in the 1940s. Although a fictional character, a fictional life, it was not easy to write the story of Elaine Dillon; the descriptions of this place at that time troubled me even as I was writing them. But I needed it. Literature cannot look away. Where it does, it resoundingly fails. I needed to tell about her childhood, her life before she found herself there; and post-Bessborough life as well, until the 1980s.
While writing the book I sometimes thought of a certain video, footage of an aging Christy Ring playing screaming in the Mardyke in Cork. It’s for a documentary on his glory, his grace; the glory of howling; his honesty; It is beauty. The beauty of Ireland. In the background, far across the River Lee on the hill, the upper windows of another convent can be seen soaring above the trees. These are the windows of the Bon Pasteur Madeleine laundry and the St Finbarr industrial school for girls and the orphanage next door; edficial testimonies of the crimes of a nation against its own people.
Some girls have passed from one to the other, the conveyor belt of institutional confinement. I wanted to capture this 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 unquestionable acquiescence to this role; our greedy blindness; the odious symbolism of our national game under the bell tower of a Madeleine laundry; Ireland hidden and sacred.
There is a vacillating peace in Bessborough now. A kind of dazed tranquility that is incredible. Lawns and tall old trees, and behind the cave, rabbits hopping amidst the wildflowers, and if you stay late in the evening and just sit there you may catch a few badgers wandering the mossy path to the place where the nuns are buried a small tidy closed ground. But silence, 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 park, as we sometimes did. We were discussing a novel that I was writing or that I was having trouble writing. As I passed the steps, my wife stopped and looked up at the facade of the old convent. She said, “Why don’t you write a novel about this place? I started the next morning; these first paragraphs. I thought about the kid on the football field in the 1980s. My mom and my grandmother too.
When you write fiction about a place like Bessborough, about fictional lives within its walls, you are always aware of the real ones; aware that it is not your shoes, it is not your pain. So, by inventing a life, a baby’s life, a family, a village, I wanted to tell a story of the mother and baby house of Bessborough, of Ireland, of the Irish, in the hope that, if this ‘was a worthy novel, it could make a little 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, the fate of which is unknown, the graves unmarked. My novel is for them, it is about them. These are the women who brought them into the world. On the steps, seven years ago, I chose to write a novel that wouldn’t veil, wouldn’t look away. Write to someone like Elaine Dillon. She speaks to her husband in these last few lines, but I also think she speaks to the past generations of this country, to the present, and even to the generations to come. Disputing the placement of a portrait of Padraig Pearse on the wall, she said to him:
“And what did we do with freedom when we had it?” Ask penitents, orphans, industrial schoolchildren. Ask the women whose babies have been stolen. Ask the girls whose lives have been stolen. Ask them. Ask them all. Take a tour of the asylums of Ireland and ask them about their glorious freedom. They don’t have any pictures of Pearse. They have cigarettes, rosaries and slippers. They walk the state halls of piss and crucifix, replaying their lives, awaiting the end on a metal bed, chain-smoking among schizophrenics. And no Imperial Britain has done it. We did it ourselves.
Fallen (Bluemoose Books) by Mel O’Doherty launches June 24 as part of the West Cork Literary Festival; tickets available here.