One women’s nightmare at Bessborough and her search for her son

Bessborough mother

At the age of 17 and a half Joan McDermott entered Bessborough 3 months pregnant, in last week’s paper I detailed the horrors she experienced during her 8 month stay. Today I feature Joan’s struggle to find her son 46 years later.
When Joan McDermott left Bessborough she went to England to stay with her aunt and uncle in Portsmouth. Prior to leaving the mother and baby home she said “I was told you will never be anything, you will never come to anything, people like you never get married.”
While in England she was accepted for nursing in London and never looked backed. Joan went on to get married and had two children, when they were old enough they were told they had an older brother. The impact of what Joan was told in Bessborough resonated in her head, which resulted in her marriage breaking down after 16 years.
At 40 Joan went back to college and graduated as a social worker. Working for the homeless and those on the margins of society she became a voice for injustice yet she couldn’t talk about her own story.
Throughout her time in England, Joan’s son who was cruelly taken from her was never far from her thoughts. In 2000 when the Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools scandals were coming to the fore she took early retirement and returned to Ireland in search of her son.
“Still carrying the shame I rang the Redress Board as I knew they were dealing with homes that were on the Governments list. I was informed that Bessborough was run by the HSE (back then the Southern Health Board) and it wasn’t on their list. However they did say they were inundated with phone calls from women like me wanting to know who was going to believe their story and the abuse that went on. The government at the time didn’t want to know.
They also told me that they found evidence that my son was born in 1967, that my search in this country was fruitless because there was evidence that a lot of babies born in that era were what I will now call trafficked to America. Some of them were put on catalogues. Parents in America would pick from the catalogue, not actually coming to Ireland. ”
Joan and her daughter Jane became very active on the internet concentrating their search in the United States. They were soon contacted by a number of other Bessborough mothers and babies also encountering the same difficulty getting access to records.
Joan’s daughter Jane kept that hunt ongoing from 2005 – 2013. In 2013 Joan got frustrated with the fruitless searches and decided to contact Sinn Fein TD Sandra McLellan for help. Through a parliamentary question the then Minister for Children Francis Fitzgerald revealed records from 3 mother and baby homes Bessborough, St. Peters Castlepollard and Sean Ross Abbey Roscrea Co. Tipperary were held in St Stephens hospital in Glanmire.
Joan then made contact with St Stephens to register her wish to find her son, to be told it would be at least 6 years before anyone could look at her file.
Unknown to Joan her son was also searching for her for over 6 years, but because of current legislation whereby an adoptee is only provided with non-identifying information, he was met by a brick wall. Non-identifying information is usually very basic information that adoptees can access once they register for that part of their adoption records. It’s usually any information that does not give away a birth parent’s identity.
Joan and her son never gave up their search for each other, from February 2013 to April 2014 Joan called St. Stephens daily. Joan and her sons adoption match happened by pure coincidence. Joan was dealing with social worker A and her son with social worker B, when Joan’s sons file fell off his social workers desk, she passed a comment to Joan’s social worker as she picked it up off the floor, “it’s so sad that this young man is looking for his mother, it’s ongoing now 6 or 7 years she said. ” Joan’s social worker enquired to the name on the file and that’s how the match was made.
There was an emotional reunion when mother and son met each other for the first time. The meeting took place in St Stephens in Glanmire on the 7 May, and both keep in regular contact.
The Midleton woman told the East Cork Journal ” I feel I am very blessed and through my own tenacity and I suppose the desire to find your child, which is a natural thing for any mother, and knowing if my son has my genes in him he will equally be determined to find me as I was him. As it so happened it all turned out well and he’s come into our lives and he is so humble. My son is fully aware and of the time and the era he was born into. He is absolutely appalled the way I was treated. He holds no resentment he just wants to pick up and move on, and he’s embraced by his brother and sister.”
Currently there are approximately 17,000 files housed in St Stephen’s Hospital, Glanmire. These comprise of 10,000 Bessborough/Catholic Women’s Aid Society,4,000 St. Anne’s Adoption Society and 3,000 HSE. The current average waiting time for information/search is approximately 2 years. There are 665 presently on the waiting list (416 enquiries in September) There were 45 matches since 2005 (only 3 for Bessborough). Files from Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea Co. Tipperary and Castlepollard have subsequently been transferred from St. Stephens Glanmire to Waterford and Donegal.
At the July sitting of Cork County Council, Sinn Fein Councillor June Murphy tabled a motion which was unanimously passed calling on the government to ensure that the commission of investigation into the mother and baby homes takes into account forced adoption and vaccine trials, as well as the Magdalene Laundries and protestant mother and baby homes. The motion also called for consultation with, and support for, survivors and appropriate memorials to the dead buried in unmarked graves.
In September Joan McDermott was part of a mother and baby delegation who travelled to Brussels invited by Sinn Fein MEPs Liadh Ni Riada and Martina Anderson. The women told the commission of their personal stories, the illegal adoption carried out, the forced separation of mother and child and forced labour in an effort to mobilise the EU to put pressure on the Irish government to accept their demands for justice.

Earlier this month the Minister for Children James Reilly promised progress on an inquiry into the Mother and Baby homes. The inquiry expected imminently is understood to span over 80 years. Draft terms of reference are currently with officials at the Departments of Health, Justice, Foreign Affairs, Education, Social Protection, Environment and the Office of the Taoiseach.
Anyone affected by the issues raised in this article can contact Tusla the Child and Family Agency, Block D, Park Gate Business Centre, Parkgate Street, Dublin 8.
Telephone: 01 6352854 or alternatively E-mail:

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