Bessborough the secret penitentary

Bessborough mother

The mother and baby homes have cast another dark shadow over Irish life and who we are, Joan McDermott entered Bessborough at the age of 17 and a half. The moment she walked through that front door and it slammed behind her she was violated, stripped of all her human rights, including her identity. Joan told the “It was an era where you thought being nuns, that they were caring but they weren’t. They masqueraded behind this façade of flowing gowns. They were literally evil”. If she had run away the Nuns told her the guards would bring her back.
Breaking her silence after 46-years Joan told the “I was in a relationship for 18 months. The father of my child was a student at UCC and didn’t know I was pregnant. Unfortunately it wasn’t the right time for him to give me any support. When he eventually found out he just said get on with it and do what you want, so I had to tell my mother. “
Behind her back, her mother went to the local doctor to seek advice. He recommended that Joan should be sent to the Bessborough Mother and Babies home. “My mother said right you have got to go away, people will not know where you have gone. We will say you have gone to England, but you better not come back. She told me I was never to speak about it, and I didn’t.”
When Joan went into Bessborough she was 3 months pregnant and remained there for 8 months, she told the East Cork Journal of the horrors she experienced. “It was horrendous. They have this beautiful façade when you walk up the drive. Then once you got in you are so vulnerable you don’t realise they are stripping you. Your whole stay was conducted in 90% of silence you were not allowed speak at meals, you could only speak during recreation at a certain period of time.”
While inside the mother and baby home each woman was given chores, some worked in the laundry, Joan’s responsibility was to cut the grass with a scissors in the Summer, for the remainder of her stay it would be to scrub the floors.
Joan told the East Cork Journal while the women carried out their tasks “the nuns walked up and down and preached in your ear about repentance, sinning, evil, how bad you were, shame on your family. You actually begin to believe it, if you weren’t a strong woman like I was” she said.
On 26 December 1967 while washing the floor Joan started to go into labour. “I was scrubbing the parka flooring. I went back on my haunches, as the nun walked up the corridor she was preaching, as she did her rounds. While I was back on my haunches she tapped my leg to continue scrubbing. Later into the night I got out of my bed. I found her walking the corridor.”
That night Joan was transferred to a single cell room with a tiny window, close to the room where the women gave birth.
“I was locked in that room alone all night with a commode to go to the toilet, and the nun would just peer at the window and I was beside myself with pain. I never got anti-natal care from a doctor or even a nurse.”
On the morning of the 27 December when the door was unlocked Joan’s baby’s head was presenting. “The Nun said walk out, I said I can’t get up. She made me walk out to the labour ward which was nearby. I went to get up on the bed and I couldn’t lift my leg because the heads was presenting. I got clack clack clack you’ve done the devils work now you are suffering. I got no analgesia, nothing, so I gave birth to a whopper 10 lbs and you are forced to breast feed.
The day after you give birth it’s another woman who had given birth previously would help you in the bath. You don’t know who these people are because we all had fictitious names. I was never given any consultation in the 7 weeks after I gave birth or any options or informed or choices. Do you want to keep it? What do you want to do? I had no idea what was happening. They had total control over every aspect of your life.
You could only pick up the child from the nursery when they said you could pick it up. It was morning, lunch time and tea time. Outside of those times if you heard your baby crying you couldn’t go near it, you weren’t allowed.”
The Midleton woman added women who had developed maternal ties and affection had their child forcibly removed.
“In the nursery we had to breast feed facing the wall. You daren’t look at the woman next door in case you caught a glimpse of her breast it was immoral. But the door was behind, now I know why. The day my son was ripped from my breast they creep up behind you and they snatch the child that’s how they do it. I ran down this corridor shouting where are you taking my child?, she was running faster than I was. And then she went through these two doors and that was it you are not allowed go any further.”
Joan left Bessborough when her son would have been 7-weeks old, her whole body had changed she was a mother, but she had to suppress all that. Joan had to pretend it never happened to normalise herself and yet still carry the shame and not talk about it.
Check out next week’s East Cork Journal as we detail Joan’s struggle to find her son.