Quinn rounded the bend of the narrow road she saw the convent at the top
off the hill, the mist blurring its harsh grey outline. The big iron gate
gave a reluctant creak as she pushed it open. She stood in the gateway for
a few seconds to gain her composure, all the while her lips moved in silent
prayer. "Dear Lord, please let the child be born safely," she
whispered. Walking to the door she pulled the bell rope and waited. A young
pale faced nun peered out at her from the dark interior.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"I’m Sara Quinn. I’ve come to see my daughter Maura."
"Come in and I’ll see if Mother will see you,"
she said nervously.
"There is no need for me to see the Mother Superior.
Just take me to see my daughter. Has the baby been born?" Sara asked
"You will have to see Mother. You can wait for her
in here," she replied, opening a door along the corridor.
Inside the sparsely furnished room Sara paced the floor nervously. Walking
over to the small window overlooking the front gates, she watched a group
of brown clad children walk past the gates with heads bent. A few paces
behind them a young, somber looking nun stared straight ahead, Sara shuddered
as she watched. "The orphans, poor wee souls," she said aloud.
Just then the door opened behind her. Turning around, she was greeted by
an elderly nun.
"I am Mother General. Sister tells me that you are
the Quinn girl’s mother."
"Is she all right. Has the baby been born yet?"
"Yes, the child is born and your daughter is fine.
A girl was born this morning. Sit down Mrs. Quinn, we need to talk,"
she said showing her a chair in front of a big desk.
"Please," Sara asked anxiously, "can I
"You may see your daughter presently. But, before
you go up I need to talk to you," she said. Again she pointed to the
chair. Sitting down reluctantly, Sara met the cold gaze of the elderly individual
"Before you see your daughter, I have a few things
that I must tell you. As you are no doubt aware, your husband was adamant
that the child should be brought up by the Sisters in the orphanage. So,
I don’t want her to become attached to the infant. It will only make it
harder when the time comes for parting."
Cold eyes stared back at Sara as she spoke. Again she
felt a shudder run down her spine, at the mention of the orphanage. The
picture of the sad downcast, brown clad little bunch of humanity that she
had just seen came back before her eyes.
"I’m trying to change my husband’s mind about the
orphanage. I want her to bring the child up herself. With our help of course,"
"Children brought up in the orphanage are fed, clothed
and well instructed in their faith. And many of them enter the convent in
adult life. I feel in many ways that they have a better start than they
would otherwise have growing up...under these circumstances. Anyhow, I very
much doubt if your husband will change his mind."
"Well, we will see. Can I see them now?"
"You can see your daughter. But not the child. Your
husband made the arrangements, and he was most insistent that you should
not see the child."
Sara felt again the deep anger towards her husband, an
anger that was all consuming. Smiling across at the nun to hide her feelings,
she said, "he was angry then. But, he is coming to terms with it better
now. He just needs a little more time," she said gently as she looked
into the eyes of the woman opposite, hoping that her lies were convincing.
"Be that as it may. But until such times as I am
given further instruction from him, I must obey his order." Once more
their eyes met. The nun smiled a thin smile before she spoke again. "I
will get one of the Sisters to take you to your daughter. Just wait here,"
she said from the doorway.
Alone again Sara tried to control the deep anger inside
her. "Damn you anyway John Quinn. Why are you punishing us?" she
mouthed to the silent room. When Maura told her that Seamus, her cousin
and neighbour had repeatedly molested her, she thought that her anger had
reached its peak. Then when she tried to tell her husband John and he refused
to believe her that anger spilled over to breaking point. The memory of
his hateful words still rang in her ear. "Don’t lie to me. Seamus is
my own flesh and blood, he never laid a hand on her. She will never put
a foot inside this door again. She has brought disgrace on me and all belonging
to me," he had shouted repeatedly at her. But now she must control
her anger as she waited to see her daughter, somehow she must try to bring
comfort to her only child, whose whole world had been torn apart at the
tender age of sixteen. How could she tell her that her father refused to
allow her name to be mentioned as though she had never existed, and that
she had to lie about coming here today? She knew that she couldn’t tell
her this; she had suffered enough already.From her position on the bed Maura
Quinn watched the young nun as she bathed her new-
spent hours alone in an agonizingly painful labour, and now she felt drained
of all emotion. The baby’s cry seemed to come from a great distance while
she watched, as if she were somehow an observer looking on from a distant
place. Then suddenly the child was placed in her arms. She stared down at
the tiny perfect creature, then she saw her bottom lip tremble, and in that
instant a rush of unexpected love flooded through her. "I will call
you Mary Kate," she said gently. "She’s hungry,"
the nun said stiffly as she put her to her breast. "You can feed her
yourself for the first few days. It will give her a better chance of survival.
But after that you leave her in our care," she added. "We don’t
want you getting attached to her, under the circumstances." She cleared
her throat nervously and walked from the room.
Alone Maura gazed at her new born daughter with a mixture
of wonder, love and pity. She was mystified as to how a perfect little being
like this could have come out of such a hateful union of fear and blackmail.
"I have nothing to offer you, nothing," she whispered. The door
suddenly burst open.
"You have a visitor downstairs. I will take the
child," the nun said breathlessly.
"Please don’t take her away."
"It’s orders, she is not allowed to stay. I will
take her back at feeding time." From the doorway she looked back at
Maura with a small tolerant smile.
"You are so young, please, do as I say and forget
about this wee one. To get attached will only cause you more grief. Just
pray that the good Lord will help you to forget."
Five minutes later the familiar face of her mother came
into focus as she bent over her. The familiar comfort of her mother’s arms
filled Maura with that special feeling of security that had so often soothed
her worst fears in childhood.
"The baby is so tiny and helpless, and so lovely."
Her muffled voice sounded in Sara’s ears.
"I want to go home with you, and take wee Mary Kate
with me. The nuns keep telling me not to get attached to her. They say she
will be taken to the orphanage." Her voice shook with sobs, and Sara
felt a sharp pain rush through her. "Will he let me come home yet?"
she asked. Freeing herself from her mother’s embrace she looked into her
eyes. "Will he?" she asked again.
"Not yet love. But I’m still working on it."
"He still doesn’t believe me then," she said
with a quiver in her voice. Sara shook her head slowly.
"I haven’t given up. He's a stubborn man, your father. But he’ll come
round." Sara’s words sounded hollow in her own ears, for in her heart
she knew that she could never persuade him to allow his daughter to come
home with her child. She hoped the encouraging smile she gave her, hid her
true feeling of sorrow and despair. All too soon it was time to say their
farewells. "I will be back soon, very soon," Sara said gently.
"Please beg him to let us come home." Her voice
broke. "He must believe it wasn’t my fault."
"I will try. Don’t worry, leave it to me. I will
think of something," Sara said with a smile of encouragement.
Outside, the mist was beginning to clear. Sara stood
looking back at the convent, but the weak sunlight failed to add warmth
to its grey walls. A fitful wind smelling of rain made the tall trees shiver
and whisper quietly, like cold old men. Sara shivered, then walked with
heavy steps down the bray towards the station.Three days after her mother’s
visit Maura was moved to a small room at the other side of the convent.
The nuns had stopped bringing the baby to her to be fed. As she stared at
the crucifix on the opposite wall, she felt sure that she could faintly
hear Mary Kate’s cry. The sudden loud voice of Sister Mary coming from the
other side of the door made her jump.
"Mother wants to see you now," she said poking
her head around the door. "Come, I’ll take you down to her. Maura stood
"What does she want me for?"
"Well I’m not.. er.. allowed to say," she said,
As she followed Sister Mary down the stairs she wondered
what lay behind the sudden summons to see The Mother General. More than
anything else she wanted to go home with her baby. Try as she might, she
could not remember how long it had been since her father left her here.
The nuns had for the most part treated her with cold indifference; it was
almost as if they were afraid to show her any affection. When they reached
the bottom of the stairs they both stood at the Mother's door. A thin smile
formed on the nun’s lips as she knocked.
"I’ve brought Maura Quinn, Mother. Will you be needing
me again?" she asked.
"Yes, Sister, I’ll call you when its time"
she added, nodding at her. "Sit down here, I have something important
to tell you, about your future." She pointed to the chair in front
of the big desk. Maura walked over and sat down apprehensively. Across the
desk the elderly nun looked at her for a few moments, then clearing her
throat she broke the silence. "Your father came here a few days ago
to discuss your future" she began. "A decision was made, which
I am now going to tell you about." Maura waited without taking her
eyes from her face. "I have a boat ticket that your father bought for
you. A single ticket to New York. The passenger ship leaves on this afternoon’s
tide, so you see there is no time to lose in getting your belongings together,"
she looked Maura straight in the face, showing no emotion.
"But my baby! I can’t go without her, and I must
see my mother first. Why did you wait until now to tell me this?" her
voice shook with emotion as she struggled to keep back her tears.
"We decided it was best to wait until now to tell
you, as I rightly guessed your hysterical reaction. You are very lucky that
the good Lord has seen fit to give you a new beginning my girl, and as for
the baby, you know that it is out of the question to even, think about taking
the baby with you." She began pacing up and down behind the desk as
she spoke. "Thank God the baby will be looked after, and you can began
a new life, and maybe, in time the good Lord will forgive you...for all
this." She stopped pacing and accusingly waved her finger in Maura’s
direction.Seated between two of the middle aged Sisters, Maura was driven
to the quayside where the steamer was docked. With one Sister at each side
of her, she was escorted towards the gang-
went on ahead with the ticket in her hand. When they started to climb on
board, she heard a familiar voice. Her heart leapt for joy, and within seconds
she was in her mother’s arms, laughing and crying all at the one time.
"The receipt for your ticket fell out of his pocket.
Only for that, I wouldn’t have known where you had gone." The nun became
flustered and agitated, as she clung on to Maura’s arm.
"Come on, it’s time you were on board. We have to
see you to your cabin as we were instructed," she called above the
"It’s all right. I will look after your baby until
you get home again. Please love. Don’t cry. Write to me as soon as you arrive.
Send the letters to Ballyneely care of Molly," her mother whispered
in her ear, in her familiar soothing voice.
"I don’t want to leave my baby. I don’t want to
go" she sobbed. Then she was tugged away from her mother’s arms with
the assistance of the second nun who had suddenly reappeared. When they
reached the top of the gangplank, she looked down at the busy dock for her
mother, but she had lost sight of her.
"Come on child, we have to find your cabin yet,"
one of the nuns said crossly. When on board the gentler of the two nuns,
asked one of the Stewards for directions to the cabin, and Maura was led
stumbling along narrow corridors, and down staircase, after staircase to
the bowel of the ship. They reached the cabin at last, and one of the nuns
opened the door. The interior was small and poky, two bunk beds and a wash
basin summed up the furnishings. A battered trunk sat on the floor.
"It looks like your cabin companion has already
been here. Sister and I will leave you now, we will wait at the bottom of
and kissed her on the cheek.
"God bless you child," she said before closing
the cabin door.
Left alone Maura sat stiffly on the edge of the bunk,
her thoughts running wildly around in her head. Suddenly she ran for the
door, in panic she scurried along corridors and up flights of stairs. ‘Please
God let her still be there’ she panted as she at last reached the deck.
A huddled mass of passengers pressed against the rails of the middle deck,
it was impossible for her to see beyond the backs of their heads. In desperation
she ran towards the stairway leading to the upper deck. As she began climbing
the stairs a steward blocked her way.
"Sorry Miss, first class passengers only,"
Back on the middle deck, she pushed her way to the front.
She looked down desperately trying to catch a glimpse of her mother. The
ship was already moving away from the quay, making it harder to distinguish
one face from another. On the quayside she could see handkerchiefs fluttering
like moths in the yellow evening light. Tears blinded her eyes, as she made
her way back down to the cabin. When she opened the door, a young dark haired
girl sat on the top bunk, her eyes red and swollen from crying.
"Hello, I’m Hannah Mc Laughlin. We will be seeing
a lot of one another for the next three weeks or so. I hope you don’t snore,"
she said with a grin. "I know your name already, I saw it on the label
of your trunk. Your Maura Quinn," she added.
"Hello Hannah, I’m glad to meet you," Maura
said in a low strained voice. Taking a long look at her cabin companion,
Hannah noted the brown eyes that seemed too large for her pale face, and
the brown frock that hung over her skinny frame. ‘My mother would never
have allowed me to go to America if I looked as pale and skinny as she does.
But, she could be pretty, even beautiful if she wasn’t so pale and delicate,’
she thought to herself. Then she asked.
"I’m going back out on the deck. Do you want to
"No, but thanks, I’ll just lie down for a wee while,
I have a headache," Maura answered.
"See you later then. I want to see the last sight
of the land. My brothers and sisters said they would watch the ship, from
When the door closed, she lay alone and bewildered, the throb of the engine
reminding her that she was moving unwillingly further away from all that
she knew and loved.Maura lay on her bunk staring at the small porthole in
the stuffy cabin. The ship lurched and tossed on the restless sea.
Hannah’s head hung down over the top bunk clutching her rosary beads tightly
and praying loudly above the noise of the storm. She had not anticipated
the fury of an Atlantic storm, when she decided to emigrate, to America.
"There is a good demand for dressmakers in New York," Aunt Mary
had assured her in her letter. As the ship heaved and tossed, she thought
she would not survive to see either New York or Aunt Mary. In her terror,
she was sure that the ship would sink.Maura lying in the bunk below felt
no such panic. Her only prayers were for Mary Kate. She longed to hug her
once more, and to feel her tiny hand clasp her finger. These were precious
memories of the stolen moments she had spent with her in the convent nursery.
"I didn’t expect to love you Mary Kate," she whispered to herself,
making no attempt to wipe away her tears.
"Thank God we are still alive, the storm is over," Hannah’s shouts
woke Maura from a heavy doze. Her head hung over the top bunk, her rosary
beads dangling a few inches from Maura’s face. "I must get my clothes
on quick, and go and see if there is any damage." She jumped down from
her bunk in one leap.Maura smiled to herself at her new found friend’s energy
and optimistic approach to life. Meeting Hannah had made life worth living
again for Maura. She shuddered at the memory of her second night on board
when she almost ended it all. Looking into the dark waters, it seemed the
only answer to her pain. She had stood gazing into the dark water for what
seemed like an eternity, her mind had become calm, almost a hypnotic state,
when Hannah voice came from behind her.
"What are you doing? God it’s freezing out here,
you will catch your death." When she made no reply, and she caught
sight of one foot on the middle rail, the horror of what Maura was contemplating
dawned on Hannah. She grabbed her by the shoulders, then forced her back
until her two feet were firmly on the deck. She struggled but Hannah’s physical
strength overcame her resistance.
"For God sake Maura! Tell me I’ve got it wrong,
you weren’t thinking of ...." Hannah’s voice trailed off.
"What if I was? Just leave me alone and mind your
own business. Why did you stop me?" She broke into hysterical sobs,
while Hannah continued to hold her in a tight grip.
"Sure, it broke my heart leaving my home and my
family too, but I had to go. I will be able to help them at home, when I
get a job and can send some money, and so will you. It will be alright,
you’ll see, and into the bargain, there is your immortal soul to think about,"
Hannah’s voice went on relentlessly, rocking Maura back and fourth, still
holding her in a vice like grip. Hannah’s voice, firm and kind slowly penetrated
Maura’s troubled mind, gradually her sobbing ceased. Hannah loosened her
tight grip "Do you want to tell me about it? Come on down to the cabin
and we’ll talk, that’s if you want to tell me." Not waiting for a reply
she slowly guided Maura down the steps to the cabin. Hannah wondered again
why fate had decided that she should have been chosen to share a cabin with
this strange unhappy girl. She remembered seeing her for the first time
the day they sailed. At first she noticed the grim faced nun holding the
arm of the pale faced girl as they began climbing on board. Then she saw
an older woman run towards them, they threw their arms around one another.
The nun looked angry and tried to prise them apart, looking around her wildly
as if, she was trying to summons help. Hannah had viewed this scene from
the deck only now understanding its significance as Maura’s sad tale unraveled