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Wednesday 23 July 2014

Emer O'Kelly: My sadness over aunt locked up for falling in love

Emer O'Kelly

Published 15/06/2014|02:30

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Emer O'Kelly was horrified to learn her own family was guilty of having a young mother incarcerated

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IT WAS the late Eighties and I was drinking coffee with two older women. They were sisters-in-law, my mother and my aunt, well-off widows who did not meet very often because my mother (unjustifiably) disliked my aunt intensely. I suspected that many years before, my aunt might have tried to prevent her brother marrying a woman 14 years older than he was.

But it was not the brother/husband, now dead, who was the topic of conversation. It was his other sister, whom I had always been led to believe was also dead.

I discovered that day that she was alive, living in the institution to which she had been committed as a young woman as an insane moral degenerate. She "became" pregnant when she was 18, by a young man with whom she was going out. Her father, a widower, had never paid very much attention to his three young children, and had largely consigned them to the care of a nanny and a housekeeper; but she had his tacit approval for the relationship.

In the custom of the time, there was a speedy, disapproving, hushed marriage; both middle-class families (as was deemed proper) deeply ashamed of the young trollop, although there seemed to have been little condemnation of the young man. When the baby, a little boy, was a toddler, the young husband disappeared to England, leaving no financial provision for his wife and child.

A couple of years later, the young woman met another young man. They fell in love, and an affair developed. Horrified, her husband's family, (her own father was now dead) made contact with the missing husband, entreating him to return so that the girl's soul could be suitably saved. His solution on his return was to incarcerate his wife in a convent "for reflection". Her penance while there included having her head shaved (her hair, apparently, had been beautiful). Shriving was considered symbolic of penitence for sexual depravity.

When she emerged cleansed and ready to take her place in society, she was subdued, and all concerned were satisfied that she "had learned her lesson". That was until she started to leave the house at night, wandering the streets in her nightgown, weeping bitterly, sometimes breaking into howls of anguish. Once again, a solution was found "for her benefit". Consultations took place, always, of course, in consultation with those who knew best how to deal with all situations: the religious authorities. Decisions were made, again after consultation, this time with medical authorities, who concurred with her husband and the religious authorities: she was a suitable case for incarceration.

So, like thousands of other women, she disappeared into an asylum, and was not spoken of again. Her husband, his duty done, returned to England. Occasionally, her brother and sister visited her, maybe once a year, always separately. Nobody else did. And her brother and sister never discussed the matter; nor did they make contact with their nephew. They got on with their lives, as did her brother's wife.

The day I heard about her, the two sisters-in-law had only mentioned her name in passing; but the story emerged as

I kept asking questions. How had they allowed this to happen to another woman? My mother shrugged: "She was better off; she'd only have gone on being a tramp." My aunt was less cruel, "Well, we had our own families to look after; we couldn't cope with her as well." But, I said, she was locked up for life simply because she had an affair and a nervous breakdown. They stared uncomprehendingly, these two well-off widows.

The aunt I never knew died a number of years ago, alone in the institution. I was told her body was being brought to Dublin for cremation. I went to the crematorium, to find the "service" had already taken place: it had been brought forward because there was another funeral waiting, and for the dead woman there were only four mourners, her sister (her sister-in-law was now dead as well), her sister's son, and another couple.

When I saw the man of the couple, aged by then about 60, it felt as though somebody had punched me in the chest: I was seeing the double of my late father. Not surprising, really; the man was the son of the dead woman, and she had been my father's sister. We shook hands, distant strangers, and a short conversation took place, before he and his wife said they had a journey in front of them and must go.

In the brief conversation, his wife had mentioned that it was their wedding anniversary. I had brought flowers to the crematorium, but having missed the service, I was still carrying them. Awkwardly, I asked my cousin's wife if in the circumstances, she would accept them? She took them in silence; her husband glanced at the card I had attached. Although overwhelmed by what all this represented, I had tried my best, and the card read: "From your niece, with regret for the pain of your life."

I saw the stranger who was my cousin and resembled my father as I remembered him, bend slightly to read it. Then they left. I hoped, and still hope, that he felt contempt for the family which had abandoned his mother, a young woman whose only sin was to love with too little circumspection in a time when sexual love was filthy, the terrain of what my mother had called "a tramp" over the coffee cups a few years earlier.

My aunt did not give birth in a mother-and-baby home. But her terrible fate was equally a part of Holy Ireland, where sexuality was denied, and the denial received the blessing of Rome, proving our allegiance to Faith and Fatherland: an inhuman, ghastly legacy.

Sunday Independent

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