The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary stand to make untold millions from the sale of the former mother and baby home at Bessborough. Over 800 babies are missing and they may be buried on those lands.

I wrote here last month about Bridget, (not her real name,) the woman who told me five years ago what had happened to her in the Bessborough mother and baby home.

“I had a beautiful baby boy, born in Bessborough in 1960 (who) died at six weeks, (and I was) myself lucky to have survived with the same infection; was told a dirty needle. I hadn’t known where my son was buried until 15 year ago when I plucked up enough courage to confront the nuns at Bessborough. 
“I now know.
“Although I was a so-called inmate in Bessborough at the time of his burial, I was not allowed to be at his burial. It breaks my heart not knowing if he was dressed in a gown, or even if he was laid in a coffin.
“To this day, 54 years later, (I am) still trying to come to terms with the horror of it all. 
“May God forgive them.
“Bridget. (2014)

Bridget was 17 when she became pregnant. She had been born out of wedlock, and was reared by her grandmother. Bridget remembers her grandmother as a wonderful woman who reared Bridget as her own, and she describes herself as the second-youngest of her grandmother’s children.

Wishing to spare her family the shame of further ‘illegitimacy’, Bridget kept her pregnancy a secret. She took the boat to London, because that’s what Irish girls did when they ‘got in trouble’ in 1960, but a visit to confession put her into the clutches of a Catholic group called ‘The Crusade of Rescue’. They placed Bridget on a boat back to Ireland, where she was sent to the mother and baby home run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Bessborough in Cork. Her possessions were taken from her, and she was denied even her own name. Bridget’s family was not told where she was.

To preserve the illusion that Bridget was in London, letters to her grandmother were posted from Bessborough to the Crusade of Rescue in London, and then posted back to her grandmother in Ireland.

While Bridget was in labour, the nuns gave her an injection. She was not told what the injection was for, but when her thriving baby William was three days old, he became suddenly poorly and he was taken from his mother, who also became ill. Bridget begged the nuns to bring William to a doctor or to take him to hospital, but they refused.

Bridget developed a huge abscess where she had received the injection, and she overheard the nuns squabbling, with one accusing the other of not sterilising the needle. William was taken, eventually, to St Finbarr’s Hospital when he was 19 days old, and he lived another 19 days.

William was six weeks old when he died. Bridget was informed coldly of his death and told he had already been buried.

(Three decades later, in the 1990s, Bridget accessed William’s death certificate and found he had died of septicaemia.)

Without a living baby which might provide the nuns with a revenue stream, Bridget was turned out of Bessborough and sent back to the UK, still physically very ill. Distraught from the loss of her beloved baby William, she tried three times to take her own life. She was hospitalised, and put into psychiatric care, where she tried to put her life back together, struggling all the while with unimaginable grief.

The years passed, and by the sort of coincidence which might suggest to some a guiding hand, Bridget’s daughter Carmel met and married a Cork man. Carmel moved to Rochestown, close to Bessborough. On a visit to Carmel, Bridget – as she said – “plucked up enough courage to confront the nuns at Bessborough”.

The nuns brought her to the nuns’ graveyard, and directed her toward the south-eastern corner of the little plot. Three-quarters of the little cemetery is taken up by little black crosses marking the final resting places of some of the Bessborough Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The markers start in the middle of the 20th century and they end with Sister Joan Madden, who died 23 March 2010, aged 88 years. It was in the final, empty quadrant, the nuns told Bridget, that little William had been buried.   

Bridget asked to be allowed to put a plaque there, and the nuns refused her. A few years later, in the wake of the Tuam Babies story, she and Carmel placed a marker on the spot anyway. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful, and it reads:

“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 xxx”

Bridget is 77 now, and she told me recently she had lived with her secret for nearly forty years, revealing it ‘only because of Carmel marrying a Cork man and getting a house overlooking the Angels’ plot near Bessborough’.

“I had always thought that she had a sixth sense, and that for me confirmed it. Over the years she had passed Bessborough taking the children to school not knowing that William was in there, but now it’s as if she has known and loved William all of her life, bless her.”

The fifth interim report of the commission on mother and baby homes landed like a bombshell last week. It shows that thousands of children died in Irish mother and baby homes, and precious few of them received proper burials. In Bessborough alone, over 800 children are missing. More than 900 babies died there, and the commission was only able to find graves for 64 of them.

The commission is scathing in its criticism of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, describing the information the nuns gave the commission as ‘speculative, inaccurate, and misleading’.

For Bridget, and her family, the report reveals a bitter cruelty, a further unkindness added to all the suffering inflicted upon her. Page 36 mentions a woman who asked the congregation in 1994 about the burial of her child who had died 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.”  

Carmel says the woman mentioned is almost certainly her mother, as the family understands William was the only baby to die in Bessborough in December 1960.

For Bridget, and for Carmel, the thought that William is not laid to rest where they believed, where they visited, and where they prayed, but is likely buried instead in a pauper’s grave on overgrown Famine ground, is one final heartbreak more than they can bear.

The headline on last Thursday’s Irish Examiner said it all: “Where are all the babies buried?” The front page was littered with Examiner clippings dating back as far as 2011, illustrating just how long Conall Ó Fátharta and his colleagues have been chipping away at this story.

Five years ago, Alison O’Reilly broke in the Irish Mail on Sunday the Tuam Babies story, and those of us with hearts and souls reeled at the thought of 796 babies so cruelly abandoned. Others, their intentions perhaps less benign, tried hard to denigrate the news. Now, of course, we all know that Tuam was just the tip of the iceberg.

“The loss of William I shall never come to terms with,” Bridget told me. “I am unable to control the tears, and there must be thousands of mothers in Ireland – and spread around the world – who are similarly the casualties of Irish mother and baby homes, who have lived with their terrible secret all of their lives.”

The former Bessborough site is currently for sale, and the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary stand to make untold millions from that sale. Part of the site for sale is marked on a 1930s map as “Children’s burial ground”, and it has not been subjected to a geo-physical examination. That is the large section to disused waste-ground to the east of the nuns’ graveyard. 

Are Bessborough’s missing babies there, abandoned and alone? Surely the least we can do is to find out, and to try to find those children’s remains, and to reunite them with their families. 

Right now, the question for the people of Cork is simple:

Are we happy to let the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary sell Bessborough and profit in the multiples of millions?

Or do we say – far too little and far too late – that we stand with survivors and their families?

Do we care enough to do right by William, and all the other missing babies of Bessborough?

Do we care at all?