Meeting Sheila – A Good Enough Mother

 In Diary, Events, News

‘We’d meet the first train [at Euston Station] in the morning, the mail train. I used to know if they were pregnant just by looking at them. Even at six weeks, I could tell by the shape of the nose. Helping those young pregnant girls became my mission in life.’

Sheila Dillon (not her real name) in her 2000 interview for An Unconsidered People: The Irish in London. (Reissued by New Island in 2021) All quotations are from the 2021 edition.

When I met her, Sheila was a vigorous, humorous woman in her seventies. She was full of stories about her work as a nurse in Maida Vale Hospital, London, in the fifties and sixties. Her mission, she told me, had been to help girls who were ‘PFI’ – pregnant from Ireland – and she didn’t hold back about conditions in Ireland’s Mother and Baby homes.

My various conversations with Sheila were very much on my mind while I was writing A GOOD ENOUGH MOTHER: in particular the stories of Eileen and Betty and their time in Kilburn in the 1950s. It was great to be able to visualise the streets, the shops and the factories where I had spent so much time meeting Irish immigrants and recording their stories.

Thousands of single young Irish women fled this country to the anonymity of Britain in those years, once they realised they were pregnant. They needed to escape the harshness of a deeply conservative Ireland, where sex seemed to be the only sin – that is, if you were a woman.
We’ll never know the extent of that exodus, but Sheila helped me to feel the texture of those daily lives in the stories she shared with me. Stories about unmarried Irish girls who ‘just couldn’t keep them [their babies], so those births were never registered. The babies would simply be handed over very quietly to the adoptive parents, who would then register them as their own.’

When telling me this, she paused for a moment and said ‘Lord rest Father Francis; he and I did what we believed was best. Maybe we’ll have to account for it on the last day. Well, we did what we did.’
The adoptive parents had a happy ending to their search for a child, I remarked. But, how did the girls feel having to give up their babies?
Some were ‘devastated’, Sheila agreed. But going home with an ‘illegitimate’ child to Ireland simply wasn’t possible.
Another interviewee, Anne O’Neill, agreed. She told me: ‘Some of the mothers just couldn’t part with [their babies], but they couldn’t bring them home with them either…many young women had babies here that their families in Ireland knew nothing about.’ The secrecy was, above all, ‘to avoid disgrace’.
No matter how difficult it was, Sheila was of the view that London was a better bet than Ireland. ‘There were women [there] who had their babies in homes like Kinturk in Castlepollard, but they were doomed…It was a terribly harsh place. The girls had to go out and milk the cows and work on the farm. They were slaves, absolute slaves.’

My fictional characters, Eileen and Betty, offer friendship and comfort to each other when they meet in Kilburn in the 1950s. Eileen’s story is very like the ones shared with me by Sheila: a need to avoid family disgrace, a baby given up ‘quietly’ with no registration, no papers, no way of tracing his or her mother when they reached adulthood.

Betty’s story has a happier ending. But the two women’s experiences help to illustrate the lack of compassion – to put it at its mildest – of Irish society during that dismal decade. A society that heaped blame on its women, never its men.
Blame that became internalised as shame and had a lifelong effect on countless Irish women.

 

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