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Tuesday 23 January 2018

Where searching questions are blowin' in wind

There was only patchy grass over bumpy earth when I visited on an overcast day. Children were playing hurling in the field beyond the chicken wire fence, beside the closed convent where the children, who were born here but not adopted, went to school. Stock photo: PA
There was only patchy grass over bumpy earth when I visited on an overcast day. Children were playing hurling in the field beyond the chicken wire fence, beside the closed convent where the children, who were born here but not adopted, went to school. Stock photo: PA

Fiona O'Connell

Both brutal wind and gentle breeze seem to blow over a meadow by the hospital in this country town. At times you could fill vases forever with its wild flowers.

Maybe there's even enough to finally put on all the graves that are marked by a single cross.

For no one knows where the burial records are for this former county home for unmarried mothers and their babies, which is now under investigation.

There was only patchy grass over bumpy earth when I visited on an overcast day. Children were playing hurling in the field beyond the chicken wire fence, beside the closed convent where the children, who were born here but not adopted, went to school.

The place looked lonely and neglected. But it will be full of visitors bearing flowers, teddy bears and song when Gillian Grattan leads a Mother's Day Walk to this sadly named Shankyard this afternoon.

"I think a lot of people want to do something about all the revelations but don't know where to begin," the playwright says. "Including me, as a mother. And as someone who lost my own mum to breast cancer when she was 32."

She says the response has been incredible, except for a few voices muttering about dwelling in the past.

"Which is easy to say if you're not a person who is looking for your child or your parent. These people are not dwelling. They are living with this every second of every day." Co-organiser Sue Nunn, the popular former radio presenter and now station editor with KCLR, counts herself lucky not to be among them. This one-time unmarried mother believes the tide was beginning to turn when she set up home outside this country town a couple of decades ago.

She remembers the wonderful welcome she received, especially from some older women. Including Minnie Meegan, who babysat when Sue's kids were small and used to talk about '''that terrible home'. She was so kind and humane."

So it made sense that Sue got involved when a young woman contacted her radio show two years ago, about her great aunt who ended up in the county home back in the late 1940s. When her baby was about nine months old, a staff member announced that he had died. The devastated woman eventually made it to England, where she was happily married but had no more children. Throughout her life, she would talk about her baby, who she called Patrick.

"By extraordinary coincidence, she ended her days in the same hospital, which by then had become a facility for the elderly. She died, still wondering what had happened to Patrick."

Sue found out that Patrick had indeed died at nine months old, "it is said of pneumonia". She visited the meadow where he may be buried and remembers that it was "at least very peaceful".

"You can feel the wind changing," Gillian loves a turn of phrase that Sue used. "That wind is behind us now." And wild flowers will soon be beckoning.

Sunday Independent

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