Truth about my lost cousins made me ashamed of Ireland
Discovering the tragic background of my uncle's 'lovely nieces' was a grim reminder of our past
Published 13/07/2014 | 00:00
Arriving in London in 1975, I barely knew of the existence of my Uncle Kevin. He was deemed the black sheep of the McEntee family for two reasons: (a) he had allegedly drank into bankruptcy my grandfather's spirit grocery in Cavan town and (b) he had fled to England and married an older Cavan-born woman who had borne two daughters out of wedlock.
The second offence was deemed the greatest. When I discovered the truth about the background and upbringing of these two mystery cousins who didn't officially exist, I was truly ashamed of my native country.
The Ireland these two illegitimate girls were born into in the late 1940s and early 1950s was ugly, nasty, mean, vindictive and spiteful. And it wasn't the scenery that was toxic. It was the people of de Valera's Republic: Catholic but not Christian. With the backdrop of priest and nun abuse, Philomena and the Tuam babies, the story of my cousins - they would prefer not to be named - is a mere side show, a lesser human tragedy. But certainly a grim example of the dark side of lovely Eire.
The girl's mother, as a naive and gauche young housekeeper to a prosperous farming family, had been raped by the man of the house. She became pregnant. The shame was life-changing. She had the baby.
She left her in the care of her spinster sister in a remote farmhouse near Virginia, Co Cavan.
She became a ward maid at a local hospital where she met my alcoholic but charming Uncle Kevin.
He was in his 20s, she was in her 30s. They saw each other on and off. Kevin was more interested in Powers Gold Label than sex. But she had sexual intercourse with another man. Whether by consent or otherwise, I do not know.
She again was with child.This time her baby daughter fetched up at the notorious orphanage run by the Poor Clare nuns in Cavan town.
Their mother emigrated to London. On the collapse of the family business, Kevin bolted in shame to the British capital. He renewed his acquaintance with his old girlfriend and they subsequently married. Eventually, the girls were sent for and they boarded the Dun Laoghaire ferry and joined their mother and her new husband in a council flat in East London.
Kevin loved the girls. Until his dying day he always referred to them as 'my lovely nieces'.
It was to this scenario I arrived in Fleet Street as a young reporter. Shortly afterwards, my cousin Frankie - newly demobbed from the RAF - took me to visit Kevin and his wife. I had never met the mysterious Mrs McEntee. Our first meeting was commemorated with her tears and a tsunami of Holy Water sprinkled on Frankie and I.
She was to spend the rest of her life on her knees, not only as a cleaner but mainly begging God for forgiveness for her so-called youthful promiscuity.
But who were the two pretty women sitting demurely on the sofa sipping tea in the cramped front room of Kevin's high-rise apartment? The youngest - then aged about 25 - declared: "You don't know me. When I was in the orphanage, in Cavan, I used to look out through the gates on to the street and see you holding your mother's hand as she pushed the pram with your baby brother Aindreas inside."
She knew our names and background. We didn't know she existed. But my parents did know about the nieces. So did my uncles and aunts.Apart from my Aunt Anna, the older generation of my family - who have all now passed away - shunned Kevin. So much so that when he arrived in Cavan on holiday with his wife in the 1970s, his older brother and his spouse refused to open the door when they called.
The older girl also knew my history. She spoke of her ordeal as a pupil in the local primary school near Virginia.
She recalled: "Once the teacher set us an essay in class to write about our fathers. I didn't know who my father was, so I made it up.
"When we finished, she sat at her desk reading them. Then she summoned me to the front of the class. She said loudly: 'This girl is a liar. She hasn't got a father yet she has written this essay about him. A liar.'"
One of the girls married successfully and is now a grandmother. The other has been less fortunate and has dropped from view.
The older one contacted me recently to ask advice about exhuming the body of the farmer she believes to be her natural father. She would like a DNA test to prove his paternity. I advised her against it on the basis that it wouldn't just be a coffin that was opened.
Has Ireland changed? I hope so. But in modern Germany they like to think no one was a member of the Nazi Party. In modern France no one, apparently, collaborated with the Germans. In 21st-century Ireland, still top heavy with Catholics but few Christians, no one ostracised my Uncle Kevin and his penitent wife.
And in modern Ireland no one was unkind to my mystery cousins, Kevin's 'lovely nieces'.