I was a mother-of-eight in a past life -- and I tracked down the children
Jenny Cockell has vivid recollections of life -- only it's one lived by a woman who died 20 years before she was born, reports Lisa Jewell
Twenty years ago, Jenny Cockell travelled from her home in the UK to Malahide in Co Dublin. She was visiting for the weekend and she instantly started to recognise places in the local area.
"I noticed things that had changed -- like the builder's yard being replaced by a supermarket and the old jetty being updated to a nice new concrete jetty," she says.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Jenny but the strange thing is that she had never set foot in Malahide before that first visit in June 1989. Her vivid memories came from what she says is her past life as an Irishwoman called Mary Sutton, who actually died 21 years before Jenny was born.
One of the places that Jenny felt compelled to visit during her trip was the small house where Mary had lived with her husband and children up until the 1930s.
"I knew the house was grouped with a few other houses, opposite a boggy meadow. When I walked to where I thought the house was, there were just ruins there. I had got there just in time because the ruins were only there for a short time afterwards until a development was built on the land."
Jenny still didn't know what the family's surname was. It was only through writing to a local man who remembered them that she pieced together that the woman concerned was called Mary Sutton.
Jenny who is now in her 50s and has written about her experiences in a book called Journeys Through Time, first started to get flashes of past lives during her early childhood.
"I started talking about these memories before I turned four and I thought it was what everyone experienced," she says. "I had tiny fragments of dozens and dozens of memories but there were four past lives that came through the strongest and the memories of Mary were the strongest ones of all."
The most vivid of all the memories was Mary's death in 1932, at the age of 35. She had died in the Rotunda Hospital, soon after giving birth to her eighth child.
"I remembered feeling so upset and guilty at leaving the children," says Jenny. "There was this sense of wanting to see what had happened to them and make sure they were alright."
As a child, Jenny drew a map of the village where Mary lived. She had a strong sense that it was in Ireland but had no idea whereabouts it was.
"I got out my school atlas and looked at a map of Ireland," she recalls. "Again and again, I was drawn to this place called Malahide."
It was only when Jenny got married and had children that she began to think about tracking down Mary's family in Ireland.
"I wanted to make sure that if I traced the family, I had every detail right," she says. "I was afraid that I might find a family quite similar but that it mightn't turn out to be them."
In early 1988, Jenny was put in touch with a regressionist who agreed to put her under hypnosis.
"I didn't think hypnosis would work," she says, "because despite all expectations, I'm actually quite a sceptical person. It was a frustrating experience at times and I wasn't comfortable with it until it confirmed that some of the details were spot-on."
Eventually Jenny decided that her search couldn't progress any further unless she actually visited Ireland. Just after that trip, she made the connection to the Sutton name and further investigations revealed the first names of some of the children.
"I did worry for a long time about contacting Mary's children," she says. "I was concerned that by approaching them, it might do some harm. But ultimately I thought I would make contact and leave the decision to them on whether they wanted to talk to me."
Jenny put adverts in Irish newspapers and was contacted by John, one of Mary's sons.
"I did feel awkward talking to him -- what should I say?" says Jenny. "He gave me the details for his oldest brother Sonny in Leeds and I spoke to him on the phone."
At this time, a TV producer in the UK was interested in making a documentary about the story. Before Jenny met with Sonny, the producer interviewed them separately to get their recollections.
'There were nine pages of information that matched with Sonny," says Jenny.
"It was important that there was independent research by a third party but for me, this was less about proving reincarnation than it was about finding what had happened to the family."
It turned out that most of the older children had been placed in orphanages and that the youngest daughter had been adopted. Only five of the siblings were still living when they reunited in the 90s.
Not everyone was fully convinced that Jenny was the reincarnation of Mary Sutton.
"Sonny accepted me as Mary, mostly because there were things that I knew that he said, 'How can you know that?'
"Some of the girls couldn't quite see it as reincarnation and I said they didn't have to look at it that way. I think, instead, they saw it as their mother working through me."
Jenny remained in contact with Mary's children and was particularly close to Sonny up until his death in 2002.
There are sceptics who remain unconvinced by Jenny's past lives.
"I don't really need to respond to those criticisms," she says. "I can only explain what happened to me.
"I grew up with people telling me that what I was quite sure was real wasn't real and I wouldn't want to do that to other people. I understand sceptics are uncomfortable with the idea of reincarnation but they haven't experienced what I have.
"It feels lovely now that I have re-traced more about my past lives through writing the book. I've found out answers to things that seemed unresolved in my mind. While a lot of the memories are still there if I want to access them, I feel at last that I'm able to live my own life more fully."
Journeys Through Time: Uncovering My Past Lives by Jenny Cockell is published by Piatkus (stg £11.99).