Saturday 10 December 2016

Memories of a stolen child

It was a story that created a national sensation in 1950 . . . a 3-month-old baby girl in her pram vanished while her mother sold newspapers on a crowded Henry Street in Dublin. The child was not found for four years -- and then only because another baby was taken, again on Henry Street, in the Christmas crowds in 1954. June Considine tells the remarkable true story behind her new novel.

Published 05/06/2010 | 05:00

Usually I begin a book with an idea or a theme I want to explore. But when I sat down to write Stolen Child (written under my pen name Laura Elliot), I was driven by the memory of a child's photograph in a newspaper. Her mother was holding her and smiling at the camera. But the child's mouth was turned down and she appeared overwhelmed by a series of events that had changed her life. Her name was Elizabeth Browne and she was a stolen child.

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Four years had passed since she had been abducted as a three-month-old baby. Four formative years when she had lived with another family, been loved as an only daughter, answered to another name. As I stared at her photograph, I wondered how I would feel if a policeman knocked on my door and told me I did not belong to my family. I imagined being taken from my house, meeting new parents, new brothers and sisters, settling into a new home with strangers who were my own flesh and blood.

In 1950, Elizabeth was sleeping in her pram beside her mother, a newspaper vender on Dublin's Henry Street. This was an innocent era when it was normal to leaves babies in prams outside shops and mothers kept a light grip on the handle of their prams, never believing that harm could befall their children.

And so, when Barbara McGeehan saw a woman busily selling newspapers, she seized her opportunity and wheeled Elizabeth away. She returned by train to her home in Belfast and, from then on, Elizabeth was known as Bernadette McGeehan.

The memory of that photograph took me through those first difficult weeks as I settled into writing my book. Soon, as with all works of fiction, the catalyst was buried under the creation of my own story.

Stolen Child is set in a modern era and explores the lives of two women -- the woman who commits the crime of abduction and the mother who never stops searching. Both are motivated by love and longing, as was the woman who stole Elizabeth Browne.

I'd finished my book when her story featured on Stolen Babies, one of the documentaries shown on RTE's CSÍ series. When Elizabeth's photograph flashed on the screen, she looked exactly as I remembered; that same solemn, perturbed little face. The documentary, researched and presented by Garry MacDonncha, also revealed the wider story that resulted in her recovery.

It's possible that if Barbara McGeehan had not yearned for another baby and returned to Dublin four years later to repeat her crime, Elizabeth's identity might never have been discovered. But in December 1954 she walked among the festive shoppers on Henry Street where she spotted nine-month-old Patrick Berrigan in his pram outside a toy shop. His mother had seen a toy in the window and gone inside to buy it. The shop was crowded and she changed her mind -- but even in that short pulse of time, her child was stolen.

Despite the crowds, or maybe because of them, Barbara McGeehan was able to make her escape. On this occasion, she was not so fortunate. During the train journey her nervousness was noticed by another woman, Louise Doherty, who struck up a conversation with her. When she returned home, Barbara told her husband she had collected Patrick from hospital where he had been kept to strengthen his health after she gave birth. An inconceivable story in this era where fathers are literally hands on throughout the delivery of their children. But in the 1950s there was a level of ignorance among many men about 'women's matters' and Ernest McGeehan believed her.

Patrick's abduction made instant headlines and added to a wave of fear that had swept the city when another baby girl was stolen from her pram in Camden Street two months previously.

Some days later, after doing her own investigations, Louise Doherty approached the RUC with her suspicions. Patrick was reunited with his parents and Barbara McGeehan's carefully constructed family life fell apart. The police decided to investigate her "daughter's" background and Elizabeth was identified by a birthmark on her face. Her family travelled from Dublin and recognised her from a line-up of little girls.

Shortly afterwards, the third abducted baby, Pauline Ashmore, was also recovered. Her disappearance had nothing to do with Elizabeth or Patrick, and the woman who took her received a suspended sentence. Barbara McGeehan was sentenced to three years' imprisonment, with one year suspended. Her husband was deemed innocent of any knowledge of the abductions.

When Barbara was released from jail, the Browne family showed extraordinary kindness and insight by allowing the couple to visit Elizabeth, who ran straight into their arms. They also allowed Elizabeth, with her sister, to spend holidays with the McGeehans in Belfast, thereby lessening the impact of being separated from them.

In time, Elizabeth followed the family tradition and sold newspapers on the street where she had been kidnapped. Sadly, she died young, aged 38, but she had married and given birth to three children.

Her recovery in 1954 was sensational news and it's not surprising that her memory stayed with me through the decades. Even as a child, I realised it was a cause for celebration and heartbreak in equal measure. One family claimed what was rightfully theirs to claim. Another family grieved over the loss of a child who never belonged to them. As for Elizabeth, who knows what thoughts were going through her mind as the cameras flashed and the journalists scribbled, and strange arms reached out to hold her. She made me realise for the first time that in a world controlled by adults, life was not always as sturdy and secure as I'd once believed.

Stolen Child by Laura Elliot is published by HarperCollins/Avon at €17.15

Irish Independent

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