Lizzie’s Story

Lizzie with her niece Joan (RIP) and the O’ Connor family, three weeks before Joan’s passing.

I would like to introduce you to a very special lady, Elizabeth Sweeney, or more fondly known and remembered as Auntie Lizzie by my siblings and I.
My reason for wanting to share Auntie Lizzie’s story is because this past week has been a very emotional week for many people following the release of the Mother and Baby Homes report. I found myself with a range of emotions, from upset to anger to sadness for these women and children which included my grand aunt Lizzie.
While reading parts of the report and particularly the witness statements from a number of the women and children I felt compelled to tell Auntie Lizzie’s story. I wanted to give her a voice having never had a chance to tell her story and I didn’t want her to just be a statistic but to be remembered for the beautiful special lady that she was.
Lizzie was born in Knockbrack, Abbeyfeale in 1927. She was part of a large family and was a sister to my grandmother Hannah Sweeney and aunt to my Mam Joan Flynn.
While growing up in West Limerick my Mam would often talk to us about her mother’s family and about how a number of them had emigrated. Her own mother, Hannah, died when she was quite young.
Over the years we visited some of her aunts and uncles who lived in England and I remember my mother often asking about her aunt Lizzie. She was told that Lizzie had emigrated to Australia and had since died. We believed this to be the case for a number of years until we discovered in 1988/89 that she was alive and living in the Sisters of Charity Convent in Dublin.
Immediately my mother wanted to connect with her. I remember the journey to Dublin to visit her for the first time and the big uninviting front door of the convent. There was a coldness that was eerie. We met with the head nun who showed us to the garden where Lizzie was at the time. Before even being introduced to her I recognised her from her similarity in looks to some of her siblings.
Her lovely smile and her friendliness and innocence when introduced to her is very strong in my memory. We chatted for a while and then she brought us through the convent for some tea before giving us a tour of her work area ‘the laundry’. She introduced us to some of the women she worked with and they gathered around us all wanting to talk to us and the thing I noticed the most was they were almost zombie like and quite institutionalised. It was a bit scary and uncomfortable to be honest.
Lizzie then brought us to her room and on the way we passed a number of rooms where the women were bedridden and some of them appeared to be at least in their 80s. Her room resembled a prison cell. It was large enough for a single bed and a small dresser. It had a very high ceiling with a tiny window in the upper left corner of the room. The colour on the wall was a dark brown and the floor, bedding etc were all dull dark colours. We said our goodbyes and promised to visit again.
Within a short number of weeks, her brother Patsy took ill and was in hospital in Limerick. Family was always very important to my mother and Patsy was a big part of our lives growing up. As a child we spent most Sundays at the Home in Newcastle West visiting Uncle Patsy and Uncle John, my mother’s uncles. My mother asked the nuns if she could bring Lizzie to meet her brother. The nuns brought her on the train to Limerick where we collected her and brought her to the hospital to meet Patsy. Their reunion was such a poignant moment. He thought she was dead, she thought he was dead. They cried, they laughed and shared memories from when they were young. A week or so later Patsy passed away. Lizzie’s next visit was for his funeral. This time she stayed a little longer with us.
We were falling in love with this woman. She was very easy to chat with and was so bubbly and funny. She loved to sing and showed us some of her lovely old sean nós steps she had learned as a child. My mother decided to bring her home for Christmas that year and she never missed a Christmas with us again. She quickly became a big part of our family. Her visits increased from Christmas to include Easter and a week in the Summer which over the years grew from a week to maybe 6 or 7 weeks at a time. This was something that would annoy and frustrate the nuns who would request that she be returned to the convent.
Over time Lizzie started to tell us a little about her time there. She was initially in Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home in Roscrea where she had a baby boy, Michael. She told us that he was taken from her at 4 years of age and sent to the US or Canada. She told how she sobbed as he was taken away in a car. (She had only one photo of him which she kept with her always and when she passed, it was buried with her.) Shortly afterwards she was moved to The Laundry on Sean McDermott Street, Dublin.
She had lost all sense of time and would ask questions like “who’s older? You or me?” We’d ask her how old her son would be now, and she would raise her hand up and say, “I’d say he’d be this height now” or “ maybe he’d be 6 or 7 now”. Lizzie had already spent approx. 40 years of her life in that home before we found her, and another 18 years there before finally being free of the place. During that 18 years though she spent more and more time with us. I remember one Christmas Mam not sending her back until March. The nuns were furious. But Mam was adamant and said she’d bring her back and stay for the tea to make sure Lizzie wouldn’t be reprimanded for her long stay.
She told us how frightened they were of the nuns and of the punishments they would receive. Not minimising any of her treatment but one story in particular has stayed etched in my memory and that is when she caught her finger in the mangle while doing the laundry and almost severed it. She was taken to Jervis Street Hospital and was left sitting there for hours bleeding and in agony without being given painkillers or being seen by a doctor. She said the staff referred to her as “one of them girls” and said she deserved to be in agony. She ended up losing the finger.
Not long after meeting Lizzie first, I moved to Dublin and would visit her almost every week for the cup of tea. I got to know a lot of the women in the convent and they would look forward to my visit. It was the only visit most of them would have. Auntie Lizzie would proudly tell them that her niece was here to visit. I then moved to Co. Meath and would bring Lizzie out for weekends to stay with me to give her a break from the convent.
In time I asked if I could re-decorate her room and the nuns agreed. I painted her walls and dresser put some lovely bright bedding on her bed and a lovely warm rug on the floor and I filled her bedroom walls with family photos so that she would always know she had family.
My mother would be up to visit a few times a year and we would pay surprise visits to Lizzie. Her face would light up when she would see us. On one particular visit we were sitting in the kitchen with Lizzie and some of the other women when one of those women, Mary, who appeared to be much younger that the others started chatting to us. Though she would have been in her early 50s at the time she was quite childlike. My mother asked her when she had her baby. She answered by saying that she’d never had a baby and my mother’s response was “then why are you here?” Mary replied that her mother died when she was very young and her father remarried and that her step mother didn’t like her and said she needed to have some manners put on her. Her father put her in the convent with the nuns when she was 11 years old and said she would be there for a little while but never returned for her. This broke our hearts. I know sometime after this her brother found her and made contact and would bring her to visit his family. I was so pleased to know that she too got a chance to reconnect with some family.
When we found Lizzie first, she was quite institutionalised, very innocent with no knowledge really of the world outside those high walls. On her earlier visits the nuns would accompany her on the train to Limerick and we would collect her from the train. When I moved to Dublin, I would collect her from the Convent and bring her on the train home with me and then onto the bus to Devon Road Cross, Templeglantine and I would bring her back to the convent on our return to Dublin. I recall how the nuns would reprimand her both when she was leaving and returning reminding her to behave herself for her family as if she was a naughty child. On her return they would turn to me saying “I hope she behaved herself when she was with you”.
On occasions, when I wasn’t going home, I would put her on the train and Mam would collect her in Limerick. The more time she spent with us the more she learned to be independent. She was eventually able to, having been put on the train in Dublin by myself, get off the train in Limerick and board the bus and get her ticket home.
One time my mother called me in a panic saying Lizzie hadn’t arrived at Devon Road Cross, her stop, on the bus. I contacted Limerick and was informed that she had indeed made it onto the bus. I called my Mam back to say she did get on the bus. My mother received a phone call as soon as she was off the phone from me from a friend in Abbeyfeale, Eileen McMahon, to say that Auntie Lizzie was in her kitchen having a cup of tea with her. I still laugh when I think of my mother’s call back to me to tell me that because it was raining when the bus reached Lizzie’s stop and she couldn’t see my mother’s car she decided to go instead to Abbeyfeale and go to Eileen’s house to wait for my Mam. This, to us, was fantastic as it showed just how independent Lizzie had grown over her years of coming to us.
It was always my mother’s wish that Lizzie would end her days in freedom but my mother, herself still young, died after a very short illness in 2003 never having had a chance to see this happen. I remember Lizzie being very fearful at the time and feeling very insecure and asking what would happen her now that my Mam had passed away. We reassured her that we couldn’t live life without her and that she was very much loved.
Lizzie spent her last three to four years in freedom. She lived mostly with my sister Deirdre, brothers Donal and James and spent a lot of time with my sister Martha who lived beside them and with myself who only lived a couple of miles away. During these last few years, she turned 80 and had never had a birthday party so we had a surprise party for her and my brother Peter came home from Essex and brought a van load of sound gear with him and provided a lot of the entertainment for the night. As d’Unbelieveables would say “’twas one hell of a do”!
She lived a lot with me in her last year of life and really enjoyed spending time with my two children who adored her. She would have been a great mother if given the chance and an even better granny but it was all taken from her.
As a family we have the most wonderful memories of our time with Auntie Lizzie and we will be forever grateful to have had her in our lives. She truly was a special lady who brought joy to anyone she met. She enjoyed the simple things and was happiest having a cup of tea, singing a song and just being surrounded by family. She never did find her son which saddens us but hopefully someday they’ll be reunited again.