In her late teens, terrified, friendless and five months’ pregnant , my mother Mary Cotter stood at the entrance of an imposing grey building that was to be her home for the next ten months . It was a dark miserable day in November 1955 and this was to be a defining day in the life of a young girl from Inchegella Co Cork.
The year was 1955 and this building was The Sacred Heart Convent in Bessborough Co. Cork, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. In a Catholic ridden Ireland where the Church ruled supreme, to get pregnant outside of marriage was a major scandal both for the girl involved and for her family.
The solution usually was for the girl to ‘disappear’ for a time, have the baby in a ‘mother and baby ‘home , have the baby adopted and hopefully forget this sorry episode in her life.
But life does’nt work that way !
My mother’s own mother died when she was 9 years old and she would have undertaken the task of a mother at this tender age in a household of two brothers and her father. Without a mother’s guiding hand and advice she would have grown up a vulnerable teenager and I can only assume an innocent in the ways of the world.
Her time spent in Bessborough was hard and relentless. Life was tough enough in the 50’s but in this prison of sorts life must have been unbearable. Each day of toil and despair and worry about the future. ‘What will become of my baby? Where will I go when I leave this place? Life will never be the same no matter where I go . You can’t escape from the memories of a small baby snatched from a mother’s arms and perhaps sent to the other side of the world to be adopted. Will I be able to find forgetfulness and make a new beginning , if such a thing exists’
The girls were expected to do all the manual work in the house and help on the farm despite being in advanced states of pregnancy. Compassion was in short supply in this place of ‘shelter’. The Sisters of Charity ran the place with an iron fist, you were here to pay for your sins . No concessions to backache or tiredness, each weary day followed another until the time arrived for your baby to be born.
Girls had to pull the grass on the front lawn tuft by tuft and place in a large pocket in an apron which she wore , lay paths with tar and stones , hammering the tar into potholes with the back of a shovel, work incessantly in a hot laundry, scrub floors even whilst suffering labour pains amongst other backbreaking tasks on the adjoining farm. Labour was usually long and hard and pain relief was non existant . ‘You’re paying for your 5 minutes of fun’ Sister would say . By placing a light in a window a midwife would be summoned to the home , this was her signal to attend a birth. Aftercare was scant , no sanitary care was provided , you coped the best way you could. I was born on the 3rd of April 1956 and my mother named me John Sylvester Cotter. My life had begun!
How it pains me to think how she must have suffered alone and friendless in this souless place .Did she lie awake at night pondering what the future would hold for her in an uncaring world , her baby taken away regardless of her wishes?
A payment of £100 was required to be paid by the family of the unfortunate girl for her upkeep and care and if this amount was’nt paid she would have to stay for 3 years in order to pay off this debt to the Order of Charity. This was a very considerable amount of money , the equivalent of a few thousand euros in todays currency so it must be assumed that most of the girls stayed for the 3 years.
However, in my particular case my Uncle Sylvester duly paid the £100 and so my mother left and immediately went to England where she met a man called Joe Moran from Galway and very shortly afterwards they got married.
I was by now 5 months old and ready to be adopted. An advertisement was placed in a National paper seeking a good home for a ‘beautiful baby boy’ . When I see ads in todays publications looking for good homes for dogs and cats I cant help but compare myself to them and feel such a sense of sadness tinged with a degree of anger . There were many replies to the ad and in the words of my uncle Sylvester ‘ My adoptive mother and father in Donegal was selected as they appeared to be the most suitable’
At this time , many babies were ‘exported ‘ to be adopted by families in America , leaving from Shannon Airport in the charge of a nurse. This could have so easily have been me. Would my life have been a lot different if I was sent to America I have often asked myself.
This was not to be and my destiny was to go to live in Churchill, in Donegal a small village about 9 miles from Letterkenny.
I arrived to Donegal in September 1956 and into the loving home of Dan and Sarah O’Donnell and their son Patrick who was 13 years old at this time. So often I have heard the tale from him of his arrival home from St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny on the day of my arrival and hearing the crying of a baby. There was great excitement in the house…my parents had a new little baby to care for and their son the novelty of a brother!
I was accompanied on the journey from Cork by my uncle Sylvester Cotter and an female whose identity so far I have been unable to discover, perhaps a relative or maybe a nurse. In later years when my mother was willing to talk about that day she described the man as very tall and his companion at one stage referred to him as ‘Syl’. He gave her £11 which was to be used for the purchase of a pram and all the paraphernalia that a small baby requires.
I cried a lot in those early days, according to my brother. After all I was 6 months by now and would have been able to recognize strange faces and places . Eventually I settled and spent my early years in a very happy and loving home. My father was blind for most of his life but this in no way hampered his daily life and his activities on the farm. My early years at school were on the most part happy except for a degree of bullying . I was referred to as a ‘basket case’ and other unpleasant names by some children on account of my adopted status . Many’s a time I got a beating as well but I was a feisty wee fellow and stood my ground as best I could.
My perfect little world was to change dramatically and tragically when I was 9 years old when I was sexually abused and raped by a male member of the local choir and another man who lived in his house. This abuse lasted until I was 15 years old and had most traumatic and devastating effect on my life. In fact it has haunted me for all of my life and has been responsible for the many twists and turns so far in my life.
I turned 13 and began attending St Eunan’s College as a boarder . I had to produce my Birth Cert to gain admittance and for the first time I discovered a lot more about my birth and subsequent adoption. My mother’s name was Mary Cotter from Inchageela in Co Cork .
For the first time I began taking a serious interest in my past and birth family.
I was older and wiser by now and I knew what had been done to me by my abusers was very wrong . Carrying around such a vile secret was beginning to take it’s toll on me . I felt violated ,angry …could’nt trust people. Not being able to carry this secret for any longer, when I reached 17 I decided to report the abuse at my local Garda Station. However, the reception I received there was far from encouraging and certainly not what I expected from a guardian of the law. When I tried to explain what had happened to me , I was slapped across the face by a guard and kicked out the door. ‘How dare you tarnish the reputation of an upstanding member of the community’ I was told in no uncertain terms and thrown out the door. Hurt , humiliated and angry I left . This appalling treatment meted out to me by an upholder of the Law only made me more determined to find justice ,however this was to be a long way in the future and a story for another day
Another devastating event in my life occurred a year later when I was in involved in a serious car accident in which a 17mths toddler war killed. To this day I am haunted by the memory of this
Eventually, I left Donegal and headed for Dublin where I was employed in various jobs .
I married and settled down and began rearing my family. When my father died in octomber 1979, I made a decision to return to Donegal and help my mother with the farm as she was living on her own by now . I would occasionally ask my mother for details about my adoption but answers were vague and the subject was taboo . For now and not wanting to hurt my mother’s feelings ,I put it to the back of my mind, Life intervened , I was busy raising a family and providing for them. But the question of my birth and my blood family was never far from my mind . I tried to push it to the back of my mind but questions kept going round and round in my head. I desperately needed to find out about my birth family ,if my mother was still alive and where she was . Maybe I had siblings and who might my father be? So many questions and so few answers.
Finally, in 1996, I set the ball rolling and commenced searching. On the 29th May 1996 I contacted Barnados in Dublin who in turn referred me to The Sacred Heart Adoption Society in Cork. They advised me to contact a Sr Sarto. as matter of interest, it has been alleged in recent times that Sr Sarto has withheld files on adoptees from the authorities. I contacted her by phone and her immediate reaction was for me to forward £20 to enable her to conduct a search. I was surprised and somewhat annoyed by this request on a matter of principle but I complied with her request. After a time a letter arrived from Sr Sarto stating that she had visited a family in Co cork who supplied her with the address of my mother who was now living in England. She did not say who this family might be but I suspect it was my mother’s homeplace. This was great news and I awaited with trepidation what the outcome of this might be. Three months later a letter arrived from Sr. Sarto . It contained a single sheet of notepaper….Basildon Bond lined blue notepaper….and written on were the eight words which caused my heart to drop
‘Please do not contact again. Signed Mary Moran’ Hurt , bewildered and feeling rejected I stared at those eight words for hours and tried to see some other meaning behind these stark words. Did she really mean them, was she protecting her own family from a secret that lay hidden for years ? Perhaps her husband knew nothing of this traumatic episode in her life I could only guess at their true meaning! But there was also a degree of comfort there , however strange this may sound…this was written by my mother’s hand and was my first tangible contact with her. Initially, this was a dreadful blow but on reflection after the pangs of disappointment had subsided I realized this was the very first acknowledgment that my mother was alive and for whatever reason did not wish to meet me . But it gave me hope although it was not the response I had hoped for.
However since leaving my home and moving to my present place of residence this precious piece of paper has been mislaid or cannot be found. This breaks my heart as it is was the first positive piece of proof that my mother was still alive.I have requested, pleaded and even demanded for this to be given to me but so far all to no avail. In 2009 I again contacted Sr Sarto requesting her to write to my mother again hoping she might have changed her mind. In time I received a reply from Sister who said that she had not received any reply to her letter. I was to discover at a later stage that by this time my mother had passed away.
Disillusioned but not beaten I continued searching . During an Internet trawl I accidently discovered the Cotter Family Tree of Inchageela Co Cork, This immediately caught my attention and having perused the hundreds of family photos on the site and observing the resemblances to my own children and having noticed the names John and Sylvester appearing in each generation on a regular basis I was convinced I was on the right track and the jigsaw was closing I also found the name Mary Cotter by now Mary Moran and discovered she had three children two sons and a daughter. Following my hunch on the 31st March 2011 I contacted the Administrator , a Michael Cotter who lived in Dublin. I did not identify myself but said I was interested in the name d person Mary Cotter . It was then that I was informed that my mother had died and that she had three children and another daughter Bernadette who had died at 7 months.
How can I explain my feelings at this news? Such a conflict of emotions …my beloved mother who I had desperately wished to meet had passed away but to discover I had two brothers and a sister …sadness and joy tinged with a terrible sense of loss.
Early the next morning I had a call from Michael who was curious as to my enquiry and it was at this stage I informed him my mother did not have four children , in fact she had five and I was her firstborn. To say he was shocked at this news was an understatement as he was completely unaware of my existence . He said he would get in touch with my sister and break the news to her and would report back to me on her reaction.
Two days later Michael called again to say he had contacted my sister in England and although initially shocked beyond belief she would be delighted to hear from me . This was the 3rd April and my 55th Birthday and I had just received the best birthday present ever! I had a sister Josephine who wanted to make contact , I had two brothers as well, I was so happy I wanted to tell the world. Mixed with these emotions was a terrible sadness that I would never meet my birth mother. The bond between a mother and child is so strong and transcends all obstacles but this was not to be in my case.
Nervous, excited and apprehensive were some of the emotions racing round my head as I dialled the number Michael had given me but I need’nt have worried. She was as nervous as me but so easy to talk to and within minutes we were exchanging news and catching up. She told me she had just returned from the airport having seen off her son on a year’s world tour and was feeling downhearted but this was just the boost she needed . She had temporarily lost her son but gained a brother all in one day. We talked for ages , trying to catch up on 55 years and more . She was most anxious to meet me as I was her . She would be coming to Dublin in the near future and we arranged to meet on the 15th May . However due to her work commitments this was postponed ‘til the 29th May so the venue for this meeting was arranged for Wynne’s Hotel in Dublin city centre. What a coincidence…this was exactly 15 years to the day when I first contacted Sr. Sarto. So many coincidences , could my mother be looking out for me , her firstborn child , from
wherever she was ?
The day dawned, a lovely sunny day in late May and as I made my way to the arranged meeting place, so many emotions crowded my mind. My brother Patrick accompanied me for a bit of moral support but after the initial emotional welcomes were out of the way we all settled down to a long long chat comparing notes about our families and how our lives had panned out. Accompanying my sister Josephine was her husband and her uncle John [my adopted mother’s brother] who had travelled from Cork for the reunion. My sister informed me she had no idea of my existence as my mother never talked or referred to that time in her life. That secret that would have got harder to divulge as time went on . She filled me in on the many details of my mother’s life who had unfortunately passed away in early2007 from cancer. However , my Uncle John would certainly have known about me but he said his recollection of what
Happened was vague as he was only 15 at the time and the family secret was never talked about . Perhaps the thinking was ‘Out of sight out of mind’ but the past has a way of catching up with us all and the truth will out eventually! When my brother queried the name on my original birth cert…John Sylvester…..my uncle’s reply was that this was possibly a name given to me by the nuns. I was not convinced by this answer as I was well aware these two names were ‘family’ names which kept cropping up in each branch and generation of the family and given to the first born son. My mother had named me John Sylvester Cotter, her firstborn son and she was carrying on the longheld tradition.
My sister had brought with her numerous photos of my mother at various stages of her life…her wedding photo ,how pretty and happy she looked …. more photos of her at other stages of her life…photos of her children and again the family resemblances to my own family was evident.
Amongst the photos was a small black and white photo of a baby about 6 months old sitting propped up in a crib and in the background was a large grey building . It was obviously an old photo and had a crease in it ,.Josephine said she found it at the bottom of a wardrobe whilst clearing out my mother’s house after her death and had no idea who the baby might be but felt it was important and decided to bring it along with her. I immediately recognized it as being a photo of myself because when I had been brought to Donegal my adoptive mother had a photo taken of me and it was clear both these photos were of the same baby. How many times had she looked at this photo and wondered what had become of me and how had I fared in life? The 3rd of April each year must have had such bitter sweet memories for her .
My sister also had brought with her a small doll which she had fashioned from a polka-dot dress of my mothers after she had passed away . She had made four , one for each brother and one for herself. She had made an extra one but was unaware what prompted her to make that extra doll. Now she knew why , it was meant for me! Today and forever, this little doll is my most precious possession and travels with me everywhere I go , even under my pillow at night. It is the closest I will ever get to my mother in this life.
The following day we all met up again for lunch and a photo session and that evening we returned to our respective homes with all the memories of this life changing meeting.
Today my life continues much as before but it has changed in so many ways. I now have an identity …I no longer feel a burning need to uncover my past . The jigsaw is almost complete…the last piece being the identity of my father. But I am making progress on that one and hope to have an answer soon. My adoptive Mother is now nearing mid 90s seriously ill in a nursing home. I visit here most days and return the love and devotion she has lavished on me for so long. I owe her so much …for providing me with a kind and loving home and welcoming me into her life and home as if I was her natural child.
In the meantime I continue to write my lifestory and I enjoy song writing and playing my guitar. I hope to publish a book of poems shortly which is a passion of mine. Some of my poetry is shortlisted for publication in the Boston Review.
Unfortunately, I suffer from a debilitating genetic illness, Haemochromatosis , a blood disorder where my body produces too much iron. This lifelong illness means a weekly visit to my local hospital where approx two pints of blood are taken from me each week. As of yet there is no cure …..it’s effects are chronic fatigue and tiredness and takes a profound toll on my health.
But My Journey of Hope is not over yet….this year I intend to visit my mother’s grave in Middlesex , England. I will spend some time at her resting place and open my heart to her. I hope she will hear me from her everlasting home where I finally hope to meet her one day. I hope she understands I had to undertake this journey …a journey that has taken many years and many tears and which has not the happy ending I hoped for. I will also visit my sister Mary Bernadettes grave in Cork she was sadly taken away from this world at the tender age of 7 months,
But I am content now ,
My journey is almost over,
Rest easy in your Heavenly home
‘Til we meet , Slán
.(a few words from the heart for mum mary cotter )
ME AND MY MOTHER.
Me and my Mother were parted at birth,
Wrenched from each other on this terrible earth,
With no place to go Mum walks through the night,
Looking for somewhere till the morning light.
Lonely and sad and with no family or friend,
Shunned and broken hearted – too delicate to mend,
Mum searched for a room to lay down her poor head,
Suffering her punishment for being unwed.
She spotted an ad. offering “bed and full board”,
For someone to clean; this could not be ignored,
She located the house and knocked on the door,
Praying that no one had been there before.
A kindly old lady answered her call,
Inviting her in to the fashionable hall,
She said she’d come about the job advertised,
And could start immediately, if so desired.
A few questions asked and she was given the job,
But emotions overcame her, she broke down and sobbed.
The kindly old lady put her hand on her arm,
Said, “there’s no need for tears, here you’ll come to no harm.
And so for my mother a new life begins,
Toiling each day but remembering her sins,
Her little child gone, would she see him again?
Could she go through her life with this terrible pain?
I came to Donegal at an early date,
And in my brother Patrick I found a great mate,
To a home where life was abundant with love,
And God watched over from his place up above.
But the day finally came I had to leave this behind,
And enter a school where little love did I find,
Beatings and bullying were ‘the order of the day’,
I had no one to turn to, so its here I must stay.
But some boys from the school were different to others,
Not only because of the absence of mothers,
It was survival of the fittest, you couldn’t be weak,
You kept your mouth shut and not be a sneak.
© John O Donnell (cotter)