‘She picketed Mass with a sign that read: “They killed my baby in Bessborough”’
[ About the Book ]
When Michael Connolly was a child in the 1970s, his mother told him about all the things that happened to her in that place. All that the nuns had done. The doctors encouraged her to talk, and talk she did. She even tried to tell the public. She wrote letters to the newspapers. She made signs and picketed Mass. The good pious parishioners silenced her. The doctors told her she was delusional. Her husband didn’t post her letters. Her son didn’t believe her.
Three decades later, still caught in the guilt from that time, Michael sits watching the news about the mother and baby homes unfolding, and realises, with his mother long gone, that she had been telling the truth all those years ago.
[ My Review ]
Fallen by Irish writer Mel O’ Doherty will be published June 24th with Bluemoose Books and is described as ‘a stark and beautifully written account of the impact on one family of a shameful chapter in modern Irish history’
Bessborough House in Cork operated from 1922 until finally closing its doors in 1999. Almost 10,000 expectant mothers walked in through the doors of Bessborough House, placed there by the authorities, family or friends. These women were given house names to hide their true identity and the treatment they received while in the care of the state has been the subject of major reports. There are multiple horror stories of babies being taken from their young mothers without warning and given out for adoption. On the media we have heard about the barbaric regime that these girls endured and the pure pain and anguish suffered as they either lost their babies through death or adoption. My heart breaks every single time I hear a voice on the radio of someone searching for their records, searching for their mothers, wanting to know the truth of their arrival into the world. The trauma and injustice inflicted on these young girls is now well documented but every story of every baby born there is important and their voices need to be heard. Over 900 babies died in Bessborough but the records are only available for less than 100. The burial place of over 800 babies is still unknown and the controversy and fight for justice continues.
Although Mel O’ Doherty writes about fictional characters, the story of Elaine Connolly (nee Dillon) will seep into the soul of every reader as your mind will be cast back to those awful years when pregnant young girls were treated with such disdain, such contempt. Fallen is a very powerful novel, a stunning and impactful story about the life of a young girl that was dramatically changed on bonfire night in 1943.
Michael Connolly, now a teacher in Cork City, remembers his youth very clearly, in particular the last family holiday in the summer of 1977. His mother, Elaine, his father, Martin, and Michael himself went to Ventry in Kerry where they had rented a caravan for a couple of weeks. Half way through their break away, at Elaine’s insistence, they packed up and returned home. His father angered and frustrated drove the three hour journey back to Cork in a silent, seething atmosphere. Elaine went up the stairs, took to her bed and remained there…
The doctors said something must have sparked her spiralling depression. There surely must have been a trigger but, when Elaine eventually unravelled, her words shocked them all.
“Did he find the spark?
Oh – that’s good, isn’t it?
It is, it is…
Course…we didn’t know about all the tinder”
Fallen shifts between various different timelines of Elaine and Michael’s life. We see his world back then through the eyes of a child. His mother’s erratic behaviour frightened Michael and his father tried hard to find help, eventually placing her in to Our Lady’s Mental Hospital on the Lee Road in Cork. Our Lady’s was initially built in the 1840s and is a place synonymous with an era of our history where psychiatric patients were incarcerated and kept locked away under atrocious conditions. Located high up on a hill overlooking what was once the Lee Baths, the premises has always evoked a sense of darkness and torment. Lives were destroyed and forgotten about, abandoned to its cold, dank and grey surroundings. Elaine Connolly spent time there but, on returning home to Martin and a young Michael, her mind was never at rest as she despaired for her truth to be told.
Thirty years later and Michael witnesses the unfathomable truth of the awful horrors of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes as reports are finally and slowly revealed. The news is awash with stories that shock a nation. No longer swept under the carpet, these women’s voices will be heard. Michael realises too late that his mother’s search for the truth was never just a figment of a mind gone mad. It had been a fight for justice to uncover the heinous crime behind the death of a baby that nobody recognised.
Fallen is a remarkable and shocking tale about Ireland’s so-called ‘fallen women’, but, within the pages, Mel O’ Doherty also wonderfully captures Cork and all its idiosyncrasies. The descriptions of the city and its people are extraordinarily accurate and really grab the essence of Cork. Mel O’ Doherty is a teacher in Cork and when reading Fallen I was thinking how incredible it must be for his students to have such an impassioned and fascinating individual in the classroom, how inspiring to listen to someone at the top of the class who can write with such passion and interest.
Fallen is a story of courage and of resilience, of hope for a brighter future but also a story of a past that must never, ever be forgotten. There are some wonderful characters throughout the novel with a fantastic dialogue that really highlights the Cork humour and its sense of identity.
Fallen is an astonishing debut from an extremely talented writer. An intense reading experience, Mel O’ Doherty has written a superb and phenomenal piece of fiction, a masterpiece.