Deirdre (Dee) Kinahan
I think it was a Cousin was sent with the news.
I can’t conjure up his face, just the dripping of rain from off his coat.
And the cap in hand.
He mumbled his message.
It barely escaped from between his teeth but landed like a bomb all the same, reverberating through every corner of our house and shattering the lives within it.
Our house was a house of love.
Love of God. Love of Ireland. Love of each other.
We didn’t have much but we had enough.
Soft green fields stretched out from our back yard.
We had two whitewashed barns for cattle and one more, much larger, for hay.
We never went hungry.
My Daddy used to love to sing and books were considered a good thing. We were all encouraged to read. I never needed too much encouragement.
We had wood and turf for the cooker and fire.
Milk and butter and eggs were plentiful and Mammy sold some from the back door.
We had our own pigs and a few sheep, two dogs and cats and hens aplenty about the place.
Me and Josie shared a big double bed. It was soft in the middle and laden down with an eiderdown and two thick knitted blankets. Mammy was a wonderful knitter and Josie was a wonderful Sister, eight years older, whom Mammy always described as “pretty as a picture.” The three boys shared another room and the parents slept just off the kitchen.
Our house was always full of noise and you’d never know who you’d find sitting at the table in the morning what between Cousins and Aunts and Uncles and Neighbours. We all worked each other’s farms and travelled the same roads and tilled the same fields, shopped at the same shops and attended the same church and school. We were like those elastic bands you twist round each other and round your ankles for a jumping game. Totally intertwined and taut and strung and twisted round and round and round.
We were none of us individual. We were a tribe.
So, the rupture, when it came, was catastrophic.
It started, in so far as I can remember, with Josie crying in the kitchen.
Eyes red raw. Knuckles the colour of milk, scraping at a kerchief that she opened and folded and folded and opened over and over. Mammy’s face was stricken. Shock. Fear. Fear. Shock.
This event was followed by my Father’s absence in anger for a fortnight and heated exchanges between the boys, Mammy and Josie.
My Father had never been absent from our house for one night, let alone fourteen.
I will never forget that absence.
It was like a crater in the kitchen.
An abyss in the fields.
A cave dug out of our existence.
Until he returned.
And that was when I first heard mention of the “baby”.
Josie was having a baby.
The priest came to the door.
The same priest that said mass on a Sunday, gave out the first communion, took confession, tested catechism at school and cycled the roads giving comfort and instruction.
He wanted to take Josie away but Mammy and Daddy were having none of it.
The priest was followed by nuns and then another more important priest from the town but Daddy ran them all. Josie stayed safe and loved in the heart of our home, her long slim arms still curling round me in the dark of night in our big double bed. Her breath warm. Her smile like a half moon.
Josie’s body altered. Her gait, her walk, seemed to sink down further into the ground with the weight of her middle but she looked prettier than ever.
I never knew who her sweetheart was but she said she had one and I fancied I heard her whisper to him sometimes in her sleep.
When Josie came to term, Mammy had the midwife come to our house and we were all ushered out.
Little more than a child myself, I was excited to see the baby.
Might it be a boy or a girl?
Could I dress it up and place it in the cradle that was now taken back out of the attic and fitted with lovely new blankets that Mammy had knitted.
I could sense that Daddy was excited to see the baby too.
The midwife was at our house for two days.
There seemed to be a problem with Josie’s baby because no amount of walking and pushing and bending and sweating and screaming seemed to be able to persuade the baby to come into this world. Did he sense, I wonder, that there was little welcome for him outside our home? The midwife sent for the doctor who came in a car and said that Josie would need to go to hospital because the baby was upside down or back to front or some such carry-on. My brothers helped Josie into the car and Mammy put her head on her lap and the doctor and midwife sat in the front and they motored off to the hospital.
That was the last time I ever saw her.
The last time I ever kissed my sister.
Thank God I placed that quick kiss on her cheek and she laying down on the back seat and Mammy telling us all “not to worry,” while telling the doctor to “for God sake hurry.”
When Josie and Mammy and the doctor arrived at our nearest hospital, there was a nun standing at the door and she refused to let them in.
This was part of the parcel of knowledge my cousin revealed when he stood dripping in our kitchen.
The doctor and Mammy pleaded, he said, but the nun knew that Josie was fallen, Josie was unmarried and her child a bastard so the nun’s Catholic conscience told her to turn them away.
“You’re a disgrace to that habit,” was my Mother’s reply.
“There’s not a drop of Christianity in you … my child, my child, my beautiful child is far holier than you.”
And so they were forced to drive on another twenty mile to the Public Hospital.
But it was too late.
Too late for Josie.
Too late for the baby.
They were both dead on arrival.
Both dead in a pool of backseat blood in the arms of my traumatized Mother.
This was the news my Cousin brought.
This was the news that shook the walls, splintered the beams and destroyed our house of love.
My Mother never spoke when she came home.
She never spoke a word to me or to any of us after.
It was as if she folded her voice away in Josie’s ear when she whispered her final comfort, final prayer and undying love.
The priest returned to the door. Josie and her baby were not to rest in the church the night before her funeral. This, he claimed, would be an affront to Christ.
My Father cursed and my Father raged.
My Mother sat in stony broken silence.
Cousins, Aunts, Uncles, Neighbours must have begun to feel our rage.
It must have travelled like an underground current from our back door up the lane and through the fields, round the soles of their feet and into their veins because a crowd gathered that night at the gates of the church. And the crowd besieged the gates, pummelled the doors, rammed and demanded until the priest finally conceded, laying our Josie in the house of God, on her last night above ground. But nothing, no amount of anger would allow the two to be buried together.
Josie’s Bastard was not christened.
So he had to lie alone.
Outside the graveyard.
This casting-out chimed with the Catholic Caliphate in Ireland of that time.
With the fear and cruelty in Ireland of that time.
The shame and misogyny, injustice and hypocrisy.
When Ireland ceased to look beyond her borders, beyond her seas.
When Ireland turned only inward, succumbing to a brutal conservatism that destroyed the lives of countless citizens like my silent Mother and my Fallen Sister.
And so the years stole in.
My parents faded.
My brothers left.
I left myself.
Our house fell away to the fields.
But I kept the ghost of Josie with me.
And together we watched our country change.
We watched it join the European Union, then known as the EEC.
We watched it splutter and gasp into modernity
We watched the Magdalene Laundries close.
The Mother and Baby Homes.
The disgraced institutions, Asylums, Schools.
We watched the priests lose their power.
The Politicians get off their knees.
We watched Ireland turn to Europe.
We watched Irish women turn to her courts.
We watched Irish families open up to her customs, finally free to breathe and love and live in whatever way they please.
We watched the entire country grow in prosperity.
We watched all change.
As we lurch toward equality.
So now, an old woman, I lie in my bed,
With the voice of my Mother and warmth of my sister.
Let there be no more casting-out.
No more turning inward.
Let there be Love.
(In memory of Peggy McCarthy from Listowel who died in childbirth under similar circumstances in 1946, and all the forgotten women like her.)