Bridget Walsh’s baby William was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home, in 1960. He died at six weeks, and Bridget nearly died too. She talks to Donal O’Keeffe.
“It never leaves you, you know, the fear. It’s always there in the back of your mind.
The fear that people will find out, that they will judge you, that they will despise you for your shameful secret.
I’ve been dogged by that fear ever since I lost my beautiful baby William, but these past few years, since I first got up the courage to talk to a journalist, in 2014, I feel I’ve been set free.
Now that my daughters know about their brother William, now I know they love me all the more, now I know the shame is not mine.
We did nothing wrong. The shame wasn’t ours.
My William was born a beautiful, blond, healthy little baby, seven pounds, 11 ounces, in Bessborough in 1960. I still see his perfect little blue eyes, looking around all inquisitive.
I called him William because I wanted to keep him, because I thought it would be easier to trace a William if he was adopted. The nuns said Gerard was a more Catholic name and his birth certificate said Gerard William.
William died at six weeks, needlessly, from cruelty and neglect. The nuns left him to die.
I was lucky myself to survive. A dirty needle killed William, and nearly killed me, too. When I was in labour, they gave me an injection. I still don’t know what for. I developed a massive abscess where they had injected me. Later, when I was ill, I heard two nuns squabbling, one accusing the other of not properly sterilising the needle.
I believe the infection passed to poor William through my breastmilk.
I begged the nuns to save my baby. They left him in what was known as ‘the dying room’ for 16 days. I begged them to call a doctor. I begged them to give him an antibiotic. I begged them to take him to hospital.
They ignored me until it was too late, when they sent him to St Finbarr’s Hospital.
I was born out of wedlock, in Tipperary, and raised by my grandmother as her own child. Even when I was little, I knew that what she did for me, that her extraordinary love was remarkable.
My boyfriend was a man from Tipperary. He was ten years older than me, and at the weekends I would cycle five or six miles to the nearest dance so I could see him. He was my first love, and I thought he was lovely.
When I realised that I was pregnant, at 17, I wanted to spare my grandmother the shame of what Irish society said was shameful.
I went to London, because that’s what Irish girls did in 1960 when they ‘got into trouble’. I thought my boyfriend would follow me over, but I never heard from him again. That was my first big lesson in life!
In London, I worked for a family in Golders Green, but I was horribly anxious. I went to confession, because that’s what good Catholics do. The priest sent me to a group called ‘The Crusade of Rescue’, and they put me on the boat back to Ireland, to Bessborough in Cork.
The day I entered the gates of Bessborough, I felt overwhelmed with fear. Up the long driveway, I knew, instinctively, this was not a good place.
The nuns stripped me of my clothes, my possessions, and my name.
And then they took my baby.
“Your baby died,” they told me, “and he’s already buried.”
They turned me out of Bessborough, though I was still very ill. I went back to London, distraught at the loss of William. I tried three times to take my own life, and I was put into care. The NHS saved my life.
The years passed, and life went on, but I never got over losing William. My daughter Carmel married a Cork man, and moved to Rochestown, which is near Bessborough. On a visit to Carmel, in the 1990s, I plucked up enough courage to confront the nuns at Bessborough, on my own. I asked them “Where is my William?”
They brought me to the nuns’ graveyard, and made me stand outside the gate. One nun went to an empty spot of ground and tapped her foot on the grass. “Your baby is buried there.”
I asked if I could put a marker there, a gravestone, and they said “no”.
I went back to Carmel’s house, and collapsed in her kitchen. The dam burst open.
Years later, after I had told my daughters about William, in 2014, we learned of the Tuam Babies, and when we heard that 796 babies had been placed in a sewerage system, we thought “To hell with the nuns”. Maybe we used stronger words.
We put a marker on the spot they had said was William’s grave, and that gave us peace for a few years.
“Beautiful Angel William Gerald Walsh 26-10-1960 – 02-12-1960 My heart burns with my love for you and my soul cries out in sorrow having lost you – Mam xxxx”
Other people placed markers there too, to remember their lost babies. It became known as ‘the angels’ plot’, and we visited and left flowers and toys to them, to remember them, and to let them know we remembered them.
This April we discovered it was all a lie.
Carmel saw the (fifth interim) Mother and Baby Home Commission report, and recognised my story on page 36, which mentions a woman asking the nuns about the burial of her child who had died in December 1960. William was the only baby to die in Bessborough in December 1960.
“In 1994, a member of the congregation told the mother of this infant that her child was buried in the congregation burial ground in Bessborough. However, records held by the administrator of St Finbarr’s Hospital at that time recorded the child’s place of burial as Cork District Cemetery, Carr’s Hill.”
That just broke my heart all over again, to think that my poor little William is buried up there somewhere in a pauper’s grave, unmarked in an overgrown field. I walked that field this year, and there’s no sign at all to mark William’s grave.
The nuns lied to me when I lay there so ill, and they said William was buried. I passed St Finbarr’s, on my way to the boat back to England. If I had known William was lying there, unclaimed, I would have stopped. I had money. I could have paid for his burial.
I could have held my beautiful little baby William just once more. I was his Mam. I should have been able to hold him.
After everything, though, I still love Ireland so much. It’s such a beautiful country, and Irish people are so lovely. I think – I really hope – it’s a kinder country now the Irish people are no longer so much under the control of the Catholic Church. Maybe we’re a little more Christian.
I hope so.
I can never forgive the Church for what they did to us.
I’m sure my poor grandmother would be horrified that I don’t go to Mass anymore.
But they told us ‘illegitimate’ children were a black cloud, that babies would bring shame and bad fortune on a family. God forgive them. What shame or bad fortune is there ever in a small baby?
The burial records are missing for over 800 Bessborough babies, and the Commission of Investigation said it was “likely” some of those babies are buried on the grounds of Bessborough.
The grounds of Bessborough are up for sale, and the nuns stand to make millions. They can’t be allowed to profit any further on those poor little children. We need to find them, and we need to name them. They had so little in life, but the least anyone deserves is a name.
Maybe if people knew their names, maybe the babies might seem more like real people to them, and maybe somehow too the babies might know that they were loved, the way my William was loved.
I wish I could have saved William.
I go over and over it, and I think, “You should have tried harder, you should have run”, but what could I do? I was so sick, and William was so sick too. And even if we had escaped, I would have been caught.
And then I think, “If only I hadn’t gone to confession, if only I hadn’t gone to that priest, if only…”
If only the nuns had cared.
If only my beautiful baby William hadn’t died.
(Bridget Walsh – not her real name – in conversation with Donal O’Keeffe, the first journalist to whom she spoke.)