I first met Terri Harrison when she was in her late 60s, but her memories of events that happened almost 50 years before were very vivid, as though frozen in time in her mind. Not quite five feet tall, with red-brown hair tied up in a high ponytail, she smiled nervously as she opened the door of her south Dublin cottage, ushering me into an outdoor space at the back.
Over cups of tea and custard creams, she told me about her experiences of Bessborough House, a once-grand Georgian mansion and one of Ireland’s largest mother and baby institutions.
Back then, in 1973, she was just 18, unmarried and unexpectedly pregnant.
Terri watched as a car zig-zagged down a tree-lined road on the outskirts of Cork city and the old house came into view at the top of a hill. That morning, she had been rounded up in her aunt’s house in London (where she had moved to for work), forced onto a plane in Heathrow Airport and repatriated to Ireland. When she knocked on Bessborough’s red-painted front door, she believed she had no choice but to enter.
“There’s no closure for what happened to me there,” she told me.
For most of the 20th century Ireland was marked by a culture of shame that separated thousands of unmarried women from their children and placed them for adoption, often without their consent. Terri was one of thousands of women who passed through a system of mother and baby institutions, in operation between 1922-1998.
I was interviewing Terri for a book I have written about the Bessborough institution, in operation between 1922-1998. Run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the women and girls who passed through its doors had their children taken from them and placed for adoption, often without their consent. The burial places of over 800 children who died there remain unknown and its legacy of shame and secrecy has been devastating for Ireland.
Nobody wants to admit the cruelty involved.
Unlike England & Wales – where abortion became legal under the 1967 Abortion Act – abortion was illegal in Ireland until 2019.
Once admitted to Bessborough, Terri was given a new name, Tracey, and was told never to reveal her true identity to anyone. Her days were spent scrubbing stairs, wringing sheets and scouring dregs of porridge from industrial sized pots.
Quickly, she began to withdraw into herself. She spoke little to the other women and girls she shared a dormitory with, enveloped in her own loneliness. Every week, she received a visit from a nun from an adoption agency who quizzed her about her health and family background; each time, Terri insisted that she wanted to return to London, to where she had emigrated to find work, and to keep her child.
“She said to me, no, no, that's out of the question…. she told me how selfish I was.”
Through her boyfriend’s intervention, Terri left Bessborough, but her mother discovered her whereabouts and sent her to another institution in Dublin. There, the visits from the adoption agency continued, and Terri said she refused to sign papers.
On a Friday evening in October 1973 she gave birth in the in-house delivery ward, pools of blood soaking the sheets. “You won’t be in such a hurry the next time, will you,” she remembers a nurse saying to her afterwards. She haemorrhaged so much she was rushed to hospital in an ambulance.
Her voice was filled with longing when she spoke about her baby Niall. “He was beautiful,” she said, recalling his dark hair and eyelashes, the golden tone of his skin. “I used to lie there staring at him… It was like nothing else mattered around me,” she said. She cared for him for weeks in the mother and baby institution, arranging for a photo to be taken of him in a yellow sleepsuit, a picture she has kept to this day.
On a Saturday morning in December, she went to the nursery to find Niall’s bed empty, the clothes she had dressed him in that morning rolled up at the end of the cot. He had been taken by the adoption agency and placed with another family.
“There’s no healing from certain things in life,” she told me as she reflected on what happened.
In the decades afterwards, Terri has struggled to come to terms with the loss. She felt as though she lived her life in a bubble, mourning the son she hadn’t been allowed to keep.
“I was lost in this horrible void that never went away,” she told me. Every year she bought gifts at Christmas which she later gave away to her nephews; she became transfixed on male children around the same age who had the same colouring as him.
But in a culture that did not allow for open conversations about mother and baby institutions she didn’t have the awareness to notice how her grief was affecting her mental health and her family relationships. “I tried my best to be the person that I should be, you know, the mother, the wife, the sister, the daughter. But it wasn’t Terri. I lost Terri in Bessborough,” she said. Her marriage broke down as a result of the unresolved trauma.
Almost 30 years after he was taken from her, and after a series of delays and obstructions that complicated her search, a social worker tracked Niall down. He refused to meet Terri, a situation that has not changed in the two decades since. “How do you grieve someone who is still alive?,” she explained. “It never stops.”
When an independent inquiry was called in Ireland in 2014 into Bessborough and 13 other institutions – the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation – Terri welcomed the opportunity to give evidence and put on record how her experiences had affected her. Seven years later, in January 2021, the Commission released its final report. It concluded that there was little evidence of forced adoptions in the institutions and no evidence that women and girls were forced to enter them. The findings were based on a small number of testimonies and sparked months of controversy in Ireland. Some survivors said they were retraumatised by the outcome.
With women's reproductive autonomy, once again, under threat, the story of Bessborough – and the enduring pain it has caused – has never been more poignant.
“Nobody wants to admit the cruelty involved,” Terri told me, her voice defeated.
Though the Irish government apologised for practices in the institutions, it meant little to her. And while new legislation is being introduced to make it easier to trace relatives, campaign groups say it still doesn’t grant unfettered access to information to adopted people. Other issues remain –the burial places of thousands of children who died in mother and baby institutions remain unknown. Some survivors have died without finding out the information they sought.
Despite her disappointment with the official inquiry, Terri remains committed to educating younger generations about mother and baby institutions. It’s her motivation for participating in my book – a detailed exploration of three women’s experiences of Bessborough in the '60s, '70s and '80s, and its long-term impact on their lives. She did so in the hope that what she had been through would never again happen to others. I am enormously grateful for the trust she has placed in me.
Before I left the cottage, Terri told me about the letters she still wrote for Niall and stored in a special box in her sitting room. She wondered if he would one day read the book and get in contact with her.
“I hope he’ll hear our truth. It’s always been my hope,” she said.
In recent weeks, the decision to roll back the landmark Roe versus Wade abortion ruling in the United States
, has once again put Ireland’s mother and baby institutions in the spotlight. The story of Bessborough – and the enduring pain it has caused – has never been more poignant.
Bessborough: Three Women, Three Decades, Three Stories of Courage by Deirdre Finnerty is published by Hachette Books Ireland.