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Thursday 21 November 2019

Woman who spent time in Bessborough mother and baby home credits her 'wonderful' father for helping to keep baby

Terry Healy and her son Justin, 2017
Terry Healy and her son Justin, 2017

David Fleming

A woman who spent time in a mother and baby home has paid tribute to her "wonderful" father for his support in keeping her child.

Dublin woman Terry Healy was 26 years old when she became pregnant in 1977.

The young expectant mother said she opted to travel to the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork "for privacy". She said she was determined to keep her baby. 

The home made headlines earlier this year when it emerged that children who died there as late as the 1990s were buried in unmarked graves in St Finbarr's Cemetery in Cork city.  

Young, unmarried, expectant mothers passed through the large wooden doors of Bessborough throughout the twentieth century and most left again without their babies - although not all were forced to give them up for adoption. 

Speaking to, Terry said the father of her child was a man on a sabbatical from a religious order, an American member of the St John of God Brother's. He was a teacher in the Celbridge school where Terry worked, and it was there that they met.   

According to Terry he “had no input whatsoever” in her son's life, as he continued with his religious life. 

“I wasn’t upset in anyway at all strangely enough, but I knew it would change my life,” Terry said of the moment she discovered she was pregnant. 

She credits her "wonderful, absolutely fabulous father" for his attitude at the time.  

"My mother died when I was 13 so he took over the family. He was a very honest, very straight man and we had a good chat the morning I told him, and he just said well ‘my goodness why didn’t you use something’ and I nearly died because that was 1977, 41 years ago.”

Unmarried expectant mothers were at the time, in Terry's words, considered to be "the worst sinners in the world." 

“It was dreadful. According to the Catholic church, you were damned for life. Everyone thought that if you had a baby outside of marriage that you were a really bad person.”

Initially, Terry decided not to go to Bessborough but “after a couple of months and I knew that I wasn’t getting married, I knew that it would be better for privacy to go down and that was the main reason.” 

She continued; “I absolutely hated it. That was a wrench, a huge, huge wrench altogether. But it was the way things were in those days and you just had to do it.

“When I walked in, I entered through this beautiful wooden door, the parlour as they called it down there, to meet the head nun. Everything was so beautiful and wooden and antique, gorgeous," she said of her initial impression of the place that she would call her home for the next seven months. 

Bessborough mother and baby home in Co Cork

“And then the nun came out and I met her, and she ticked me off a list like it was a grocery list. 

"You were given a name when you went in to remain anonymous, which was a very good idea if you didn’t want to share things with the other girls.

“[The place] was quite eerie, very eerie.

“I love Jesus, he’s my soulmate, he’s my heartbeat of everyday. I don’t believe fully in the Catholic church, but I do believe in some of it and I do believe in Christianity and that’s what saved me and gave me the strength to keep my son," Terry said. 

She said her experiences in Bessborough did nothing to change her mindset on religion.  

“I always felt the same as I do today," she continued. 

"There were some nuns who weren’t nice, very uncompassionate. There was a lovely nun there, but she had to go away to the missions and another nun took her place.

“She was a beautiful looking young nun, but she was a divil, an absolute divil. 

"She didn’t want to be there and didn’t want us there either. She never did anything on us as such, it was just her composure and her manner, she didn’t take care of us, she just didn’t want us there but that was her job to do.”

However, it wasn't just the nuns who could be intimidating. 

“I remember one time, which frightened the living daylights out of me. We were in the refectory, where you’d have a hundred girls each day having their meals. And one day these two girls pulled the head off one another and one of them threw a knife at the other, and we never saw that girl again.

“We don’t know... we never heard.” 

Terry had a good relationship with most of the other girls, some of whom became life-long friends. 

"There were a lot of tough girls there. But there were some lovely girls there too, it was a real motley crew altogether, a strange bunch but we are there for the same reason – we just wanted to have our babies and get out."

While waiting to give birth Terry had to get used to everyday life in the home. She was assigned daily chores which included caring for an infant and working in the laundry. 

"I got up in the morning and I was caring for 'Robert' (not his real name), he was blind, I loved him so much. I looked after him for four months, every morning. 

"And then I worked in the laundry. That was just filthy, bloody sheets and everything else, I had to wash them by hand before they went into the big washing machine and that was a bit messy altogether, but you got on with it you had to do it.

"After that I'd look forward to going back to 'Robert' to look after him in the afternoon." 

Terry gave birth to a baby boy, Justin, in St Finbarr's hospital in Cork in May, 1977. Usually, women in the home give birth there but by chance Terry was brought to the hospital instead. 

Terry and Justin 2.jpg

"That was it, no way was I giving him up," she said of the moment she first held her child in her arms. 

"Listen, your mother probably thinks that you're the best son in the world, but he was. He was beautiful and very, very alerted, beautiful brown eyes, he was gorgeous." 

"I called him Justin after Twiggy's manager, he was gorgeous too, a fine-looking man." 

Terry was steadfast in her decision to keep her baby. 

"When the priest in Dublin phoned me in Bessborough to congratulate me on the birth of Justin I told him to F… off and leave us alone. He had arranged for an adoption with an American couple. I was never going to let that happen.

"My father thought I was having him adopted so everything was hunky dory, but it set the cat among the pigeons when I announced that I was keeping him.

"I had a mantra that I was keeping him, but it took a few months, I had to bring him to a half-way house in Blackrock where babies went while people made decisions." 

Terry wasn't there with her baby, but she visited him "every single night" after a couple of months her father told her to bring Justin home. 

Terry said her son is now 41 years old and has "done very well for himself" 

She said he has made her a grandmother three times over and the pair are the "best of friends". She said they do talk about Terry's time in Bessborough. 

Terry married four years ago and "inherited two stepsons".

Terry also acts as a foster parent to a man with visual and intellectual disabilities. 

"It's a madhouse," she added, "but a very happy one and I couldn't be happier."

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