‘Little Nellie of Holy God’, Cork’s unofficial patron saint, was four and a half years old when she died in 1908. Her short life was marked by severe pain and extreme religious devotion. Her knowledge of Catholic doctrine and her love of 'Holy God' greatly impressed Church authorities at the time. After her death, she attained a certain celebrity and her grave became, for a long time, a site of pilgrimage.
Ellen Organ was born in Waterford in 1903, the youngest of four. Her father, William, served in the British Army. William hailed from Dungarvan. His wife, Mary Ahern, was a native of Portlaw. When Nellie – as she was known – was a baby, she was dropped by a babysitter and she suffered severe spinal injuries which left her in constant pain.
When Nellie was two, her father was transferred to Spike Island in Cork Harbour, and he brought with him his family. It was there Nellie’s mother, Mary, fell fatally ill with tuberculosis. In her illness, Mary became fervently religious. She was, naturally, very close to her youngest child, telling Nellie many stories about ‘Holy God’.
When Mary died, William found it impossible to raise his children and they were placed in care. Nellie, then four, was sent with her sister to the Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well in Cork. Nellie was in the care of the nuns for eight months and she spent most of that time in the infirmary. As well as her chronic back-pain, she was also suffering from whooping cough and caries (a rotting disease of the mouth which eventually caused her jaw to disintegrate). Worse, though: when Nellie arrived in Sunday’s Well, she was already dying of TB. The nuns were astonished at Nellie’s religiosity and successfully petitioned the then-Bishop to grant her Holy Communion, then reserved for children over 12.
When Nellie died, stories of her holiness spread to Rome. Pope Pius X declared Nellie a sign from God and decreed the age of Communion be reduced to seven. A year after her death, the Good Shepherd nuns had Nellie’s body exhumed from St Joseph’s cemetery to be re-buried on their property. They claimed that when they opened her coffin, her body was perfectly preserved and all signs of decay had disappeared.
The cult of Little Nellie of Holy God was born.
For much of the Twentieth Century, Little Nellie’s grave in Sunday’s Well was a Cork pilgrimage site. I have a friend – in her thirties – who recalls being frogmarched as a child up Convent Avenue on Sundays to visit Little Nellie. To this day, Little Nellie’s grave –the centrepiece of the nuns’ graveyard to the north-east of the old convent building is well-maintained, even though the Good Shepherd site has been largely inaccessible for several years.
As noted here before, Little Nellie and the nuns are not the only women buried on the Sunday’s Well site. There is at least one mass grave there and there may be more. Away to the back of the derelict convent, up a sheer and dangerous hill, to the west and the north, behind ten-foot razor-wired walls, lie the pieces of a vandalised memorial stone cross. Beneath, a mass grave containing an uncertain number of women, slaves who died in the Magdalene Laundry. Thirty names are recorded on the memorial but – as reported by Conall Ó Fátharta in the Irish Examiner – four of those women are also recorded as being buried, in two separate mass graves, in St Joseph’s Cemetery. One of those graves was only discovered by Justice For Magdalenes Research in 2012, when they also found a grave in Kilcully Cemetery. That grave appears to contain later burials from both the Good Shepherd and Peacock Lane laundries.
At least 188 women were buried in the four graves, between 1875 and 2011. We don’t know for certain their exact burial sites or whether death certificates exist. When Ó Fátharta asked the Good Shepherd Sisters for clarification, they refused to comment. That Magdalene women did not merit humane treatment in life echoes in their being denied dignity in death.
The three-hectare former Good Shepherd site has been in the news since its current owners, the Dundalk-based Moneda Developments, announced plans to build 234 (recently reduced to 208) housing units there. The 2016 Census shows 699 people living in the Sunday’s Well electoral area (encompassing Wellington Bridge, Blair’s Hill, Sunday’s Well and the southern end of Blarney Street). If all the proposed new units were fully occupied, approximately 900 extra people would call the area home. Local residents say more than doubling the area’s population would place intolerable strain on the area’s infrastructure.
At a meeting last week, residents voiced concerns about security, privacy and that construction traffic for the proposed development will see roads rendered impassable. Bar a vague reference to “legacy issues”, the Magdalene women buried on the site merited scant mention. To be fair, residents can only fight the development on points of planning law, and there seems to be little appetite on the part of Cork City Council to make this a Magdalene issue, but in any humane society the fact that this is a site of tragic historical sensitivity would surely be the overwhelming concern.
An archaeological survey carried out on the site was only partial, working from information supplied by the hardly-reliable religious order and covering the area in front of the convent and to the east of it. The nuns would not likely have buried inconvenient bodies in the front lawn or in their own immaculately-maintained graveyard. The section of the site behind the convent and up toward the established mass grave remains unexamined.
Little Nellie became a cult of memory, with pilgrims weekly visiting her grave and praying to Nellie’s memory, even as knowledge and memory of the Magdalene women were deliberately, determinedly ignored. Little Nellie of Holy God – who lived a short and painful life and whose head was filled by her dying mother with religiosity – became essentially a fictional character, marketed by the Catholic Church as the embodiment of and role model for piety, remembered and revered by all, even as real women – whose complicated and desperately sad lives were blighted by cruelty and shame – went to forgotten graves unloved in death as they were in life.
The only decent thing that can be done with the Good Shepherd site is that it be made a Garden of Remembrance for all the girls and women enslaved in Ireland by Church and State. Anything less dishonours the memory of the dead and shows the world we have learned nothing at all from the sins of our shared past.
With Little Nellie and the Magdalene women, one story was enforced and all others erased. Wiping clean the past and burying it under an apartment block would show that our Ireland is no better than the Ireland of the Magdalene Laundries.
Magdalene women lie unmourned in the ground of Sunday’s Well. We cannot concrete over them and forget them again. We must honour their memory.
The deadline for planning objections to the development of the Good Shepherd site is 5pm Wednesday 22 November at Cork City Hall.