The nursery at Seán Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home, Roscrea, County Tipperary in the 1960s (top) and as it is today. Two children left outside reportedly died from sunstroke.
Breeda Murphy writes:
This week we celebrate the birth of a child; a child born over two thousand years ago. A child who came from humble beginnings, born to a young mother in a stable surrounded by animals and shepherds who travelled to welcome new life.Also there, three wise men who looked above to follow a star which showed them the way bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This child is a child of hope, of renewal, of love welcomed each year in the Christian faith. In a country where in the 2016 census 78.3% of our population identified as Catholic – is it any wonder the Christmas celebration is the highlight of our calendar?
Almost sixty years ago another child was born in a Mother and Baby Home run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary known as Seán Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary. His mother, also called Mary, had travelled in the dark of night to reach the destination.
As the lights from the Hillman Minx lit the pathway, the ‘big’ house appeared to the right. There were few words spoken on the journey; she had wanted to wear her good coat, but it no longer closed around her middle, and so she borrowed one from her mother. It too didn’t close, but it was a better fit. As the car ground to a halt her father never spoke and mother’s last words were “ Good girl Mary, be strong, don’t look back.” She opened the car door and saw a figure waiting for her at the door of the big house.
She did as her mother told her, she didn’t look back. Her suitcase was small and light enough as she made her way up the steps. “We’ve been expecting you” was the greeting. She looked for warmth in the tone but it wasn’t there. Mary was led into the room where the paperwork awaited. Seated, she quietly answered the questions one by one until it came to ….. “The father?” . That one hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity and the Sister looked up. Mary replied “My boyfriend”. She felt tears well up in her eyes and hastily recalling her mother’s words “be strong Mary” she bit her lip and listened attentively to instructions.
“You won’t tell the other girls your name or where you’re from and your house name will be Martha. You’ll be called in the morning for Mass and then you’ll see the nurse.” She rang the bell and a girl of her own age entered and said “Yes sister.” Sister spoke: “Frances will you take Martha to the dormitory”. Frances smiled and said “I’ll help you with that” picking up the case and they went down the stairs. The corridor was long and a statue to Our Lady greeted them at the bottom before they took another turn; Frances said quietly “it’s okay, I had a baby too”. Mary wanted to ask where the baby was, but she couldn’t get the words out.
Mary hardly slept a wink and soon the noise of a bell at 6am. shrieked through the corridors. Everyone was getting ready. Chatter she couldn’t make out but she heard one say “the new girl” and thought that must be me. She met their gaze as they made their way to the chapel, Frances was on hand and said” they’re just curious that’s all”. Mass in the adjoining Chapel was followed by breakfast consisting of porridge and tea. She didn’t feel hungry, she hadn’t felt hungry for weeks but she knew she had to eat to give her growing child its best chance.
She’d always wanted a baby; she dreamed of being a mother especially after she fell in love with Matt. She didn’t know she was pregnant. She only ever heard whispers about how babies were born. Now her growing belly nurturing new life was the greatest sin ever and she just wished she had the chance to go back. The nurse was gentle, “You’re seven months Martha I’d say, is that right? “ “I don’t know” was the faint reply. And she didn’t.
She completed her chores in the laundry that day and glimpsed the little children in their cots at lunchtime. Their mothers spoke, some with excitement of feeding them; others didn’t want to – those girls were quieter and she saw her own pain mirrored in their eyes. They are scared just like me, she thought.
The labour pains started quickly in the morning and she was moved to the labour ward. It wasn’t a ward but a back to back space of two adjoining rooms with a high table and a sink and some tools. Those took her eye and the glimmer of the light overhead. Every noise was amplified. She heard a girl cry out followed by the sound of a new born baby cry. Memories of Matt flooded back as she lay there [on the table, the pain of contractions now more regular. She knew it was her turn; she tried not to scream but intense pain got the better of her and her baby came out in one of those deafening moments.
She screamed again then listened for his cry. It was weak and her baby looked so small. It’s a boy she’s told as exhausted she reaches out to him leaving the room for the ward next-door where there were another two beds with a watch station for the staff.
She held her son shortly afterwards and the overwhelming feeling of love enveloped her as she curled his little fingers around hers. She wanted to remember everything, the shock of black hair just like his dad’s, his button nose, his dainty lips; his little fingers and toes so perfectly formed; he is beautiful she thought and he’s mine.
She awoke to think she had wet herself even though she had padding; weakened she reached to check, it was blood. The nurse heard her and came over and said “you’ll need stitches”. She doesn’t remember that part so well; maybe the pain without any relief offered blocked it as the next memory she had was of being back in the room with the other two new mums anxiously looking at her.
Four days later she was up and back in the dormitory. There was no time for self-pity or even thinking of the next step. The girls, some of them had been there over a year; one named Pauline wants to keep her baby and Sister rolls her eyes every-time she says it. She has no one at home and has asked to stay longer until her sister in England can come over to help. “As long as you pay your way” Sister says “I will, thank you Sister” came the reply.
The weeks turned into months; summer came and the babies were placed outdoors for fresh warm air. The nursery was down the same corridor past the labour station where she often heard the women cry out. She saw Frances leave. Two weeks before Frances had told her “it’s my time to go and said you’re okay now Martha, you know what to do”. She didn’t want to cry but when she saw the car appear on the driveway for Frances , she sobbed. Sister heard her and in a kind voice, said “ your turn will come Martha.” She hadn’t expected kindness, it wasn’t offered often and that made her cry all the more.
Her little boy was christened in the adjoining chapel and was now big and strong; he was feeding well, burping as soon as he was fed and looked healthier than the others. They thought he was premature when born because he was so small but he caught up. Naturally curious he seemed to know when she was coming. His little blue eyes fixed on the doorway. For those moments when she held him, even when he had the dirtiest of nappies, she was overwhelmed with love. Pauline told her off for it, saying “don’t look at him like that it will make it harder when the time comes” But she couldn’t help it.
And that time did come; she was to leave him behind. Even if she could find words to say to him she wouldn’t be able to. She pinned the Miraculous Medal she kept in her mum’s borrowed coat onto his top – it was all she had in the entire world. He was her son, her precious son and she had to leave him. They told her where to sign; she innocently asked “Can I come back to see him?” …. Sister looked cross and said in a firm voice ‘no one ever comes back’.
She saw Dad’s unmistakeable green Hillman with the ivory trim coming up the drive; Mum was in the front seat. Sister said “Goodbye Martha, we hope we don’t see you again”. She found her voice to whisper “please take care of him for me Sister”. Sister Hildegarde heard that many times; too many times. And sometimes, like now, she felt sorry for them. Even if she remarked often enough they brought it on themselves.
Her mum got out of the car as Mary came down the steps. Looking gaunt thought mum, I’ll make you well again – but she didn’t say it. Instead she said “we told you we would come for you Mary”. Mary tried to smile but found it impossible. The coat, at least three sizes too big now hung on her shoulders and made her look younger than her nineteen years. Her dad didn’t speak all the way home, stopping only once to light a cigarette. Coming into the village she kept her head down and heard Mum say “We said you’d gone to Aunt Bridget in England. They’ll be welcoming you home”
Her room was the same as she had left it; all her clothes were there. She learnt two days later from her friend Catherine that Matt had emigrated, his dad told him to go. Many lives affected, dislocated because of love and shame. Everyone felt sorry for her, Catherine said, but they wouldn’t say anything.
Mary never had any more children. When her parents died she remained in the house. She had given her name and address to the Sisters in Sean Ross and wanted to go back many times but couldn’t find the courage. Besides she had given him up. What else could she do? Her son is now almost sixty years old and she wondered if he would ever look for her. She heard Philomena’s story and it gave her some hope. But it was dashed with fear.
Fear of a little boy, now a man of almost sixty who would not want her; fear that perhaps his life was cut short and he was one of the 1,024 children that perished in Sean Ross Abbey; fear that his remains are in that plot where the sewage system redesigned in the 1990s cuts through; fears that he was one of those included in the notorious vaccine trials or worst still, has the initials AS after his name denoting ‘anatomical subject’.
Fears that she will never be able to face him, even if he does come; fears on how to ask for forgiveness; fears of trying to explain her powerlessness at age 18 and ten months. Fears of forgetting; forgetting his perfectly formed features that flash regularly before her.
She looks out to the steeple of the Chapel where she was baptised almost seventy-nine years ago and the cemetery where her mum and dad are buried and where she will spend eternity. She is alone, with her thoughts as the bells chime for Christmas and the snow falls softly. White haired and softly spoken she has kept her secret, all those years. Matt was the only one she thought she would ever love – she was wrong, she loved his son more. Matt Junior – yes, she called him after his dad.
Unto us a child is born and in circumstances worlds apart – neither ideal, one in a manger and the other in a dedicated mother and baby home. The homes that Alice Lister in her 1939 “Report on Unmarried Mothers in Ireland” stated had abnormally high death rates. The homes where …
“…the chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers”
With further explanation as,..
“ …in theory, the advantage should lie on the side of the child institutionally born. Pre-natal care, proper diet, fresh air, sufficient exercise, no arduous work, proper and comfortable clothing, freedom from worry, the services of a skilled doctor, the supervision and attention of a qualified nurse, all should be available and should make for the health of the expectant mother and the birth and survival of a healthy infant”.
Mary is not a real name and the character is based on the experiences of women I’ve spoken to. In the year Mary entered the home 94.9% of Irish citizens identified as Catholic. Records reveal that 1,024 children perished in Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home or in the District Hospital, Roscrea, County Tipperary to which they were sent when they became more seriously ill. The Sisters revealed only 269 children had died there. To date, as of Christmas Eve December 2020, we do not know where their remains are located.
Breeda Murphy is PRO of Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance. Breeda has supported survivors and family members of the Tuam Home since 2014. The Tuam home, although run by a different Order of nuns, is inextricably linked to Seán Ross Abbey. When Tuam closed, the residents, both mothers and children, were relocated to Seán Ross Abbey.
Second pic by Breeda (Thanks to Tony Donlan, the new owner, for allowing survivors and families access to the property).