A mother’s love.
It’s not new for readers to be confronted by tales of young Irish women enslaved and raped by their drunken and misogynistic fathers or brothers. Neither is it a revelation to hear about a young woman fleeing across the Irish Sea to England. And there are many books where ‘Sunday mass is the ‘moral censor and the emotional comforter for all of us’. Phyllis Whitsell’s books are different because they are based on herself and her mother: a history painfully lived and then painstakingly researched both around Birmingham and in Tipperary.
Community nurse, Whitsell, knowing that she was adopted, decided, aged 23, to find her mother, Bridget Mary. When she found the woman known as Tipperary Mary she nursed and supported the ‘bag lady’ over the course of many years. Wearing her uniform, and seeming to be an outreach worker, Whitsell was able to give informal succour to her mother without revealing what their true relationship was. That’s quite an extraordinary story and is told in Whitsell’s memoirs, My Secret Mother and Finding Tipperary Mary.
In the epilogue to her latest book, A Song for Bridget, Whitsell summarises her years caring for her mother and explains that Bridget Mary never fully understood that her nurse was Phyllis, herself a mother to three children. Bridget was befuddled by alcohol and onsetting dementia so was unable to take her place in the family. But at least this meant that she could not compute the death of her own son, Billy, from a heroin overdose.
Whitsell is at pains to counsel the reader about prejudicial attitudes towards addicts, explaining that behind every case ‘there is emotional and psychological pain and trauma’. Her compassion is unstinting towards the birth mother who handed her over to an orphanage at nine months. There is no shadow of blame or resentment in her attitude and this might be because her adoptive mother Mary Bridget was able to fill the void left by the loss of Bridget Mary.
Whitsell opens A Song for Bridget with a letter from herself, ‘Little Phyllis’, written, on February 22nd 2018, to her late mother. In it Whitsell explains to her ‘dear Mum’ how over nine years, as she ministered to cuts and bruises, she also listened to ‘snippets and anecdotes’ which were ‘the fragments of your story’.
Welding them together with, ghostwriter Cathryn Kemp, Whitsell presents an organised account of Bridget’s chaotic life. It is endearing that the co-authors adopt the first person for their account as if they are offering understanding even in the way they structure the narrative.
It is hard to believe that the ‘roaring drunk’, pub-brawler was once a nine-year-old child racing down the streets of Templemore on her way back from school. Facing Bridget at home was a cold range and no smell of bubbling vegetable stew. Upstairs her mother had just given birth to a fifth child, Philomena. Soon after that Bridget was removed from school to look after her baby half-sister. She loved Philomena and many years later named her own daughter, Phyllis, after her.
The story that Bridget Larkin told Phyllis Whitsell is one of cruelty and treachery. Every family member either willingly or unwillingly deserted the young woman. The Catholic Church and other institutions removed child after child: Kieran, Phyllis, Angela, Billy and Jimmie. All the babes were taken from Bridget’s protesting arms. But one returned to her and offered the love and care that she needed. That was Phyllis Whitsell and this account is the final chapter chronicling the life of Tipperary Mary.
Whitsell, P. with Cathryn Kemp. A Song for Bridget. 2018. Mirror Books.
A version of this review was first published in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 5th May 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.