‘There was no Hollywood ending for me and my mother' – one woman's story of Sean Ross Abbey and Sister Hildegarde McNulty


In the end, there was nothing.

o unfurled arms or lingering embrace. No choked-back tears or joyous smiles. No soothing whisperings or long-lost stares.

They were finally together, but somewhere, in the dark abyss of the 40 years that had passed, the shame that had taken root all those years ago had strangled all sense of hope.

“I thought it would be like it is in the movies,” says Colleen Anderson of her reunion with her birth mother in 1999.

“The big moment when the mother and daughter meet each other for the first time – but it was nothing like that. My mother just stared at the ground. She was so quiet and timid. She would look at me from the corner of her eye the odd time and I could see the shame in her eyes. It was still there and that’s because it never left her. Ever.”


Colleen Anderson was born on August 4, 1965, at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea.

Her birth mother, Josephine O’Brien, was 14 when she found herself pregnant as a result of rape. Punishment for such a crime, as was the norm at the time, saw Josephine, the child victim, bundled off to the local mother and baby home.

It was there, under the watchful eye of Sister Hildegarde McNulty, a nun brought to international notoriety in the movie Philomena that the first die was cast on a life filled with sadness ever since. Sister Hildegarde, who arranged the US adoption of Philomena Lee’s birth son as depicted in the 2013 film, also arranged Colleen’s adoption to a couple living in Chicago. Margaret McNulty Anderson, the adoptive mother, was Hildegarde’s niece.

“I lived in Niles (near Chicago) when I was younger, then we moved to as suburb called Park Ridge,” recalls Colleen.

“My adoptive parents had a natural daughter, my older sister, and it was just the four of us.”

While many children fared much better in the US than in 1960s Ireland at the time, Colleen was one of the unlucky ones. For her, the notion of a “better life” on the other side of the pond couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Her adoptive mother – who died in 2003 – had a long history of mental illness, and Colleen says she was often a target of her rage.

“It was just constant verbal and physical abuse,” she says.

“Hitting, slapping, beatings. I was in and out of hospital with head injuries. My adoptive mother told me I was adopted when I was about five, a fact that she used to taunt me. She would say, ‘You’ll end up like your mother’ or ‘I’ll send you back to the orphanage’ as she called it.”

Ironically, Colleen hankered for just that.


Colleen Anderson was reunited with her birth mother in 1999

Colleen Anderson was reunited with her birth mother in 1999

Colleen Anderson was reunited with her birth mother in 1999

Colleen Anderson was reunited with her birth mother in 1999

“Anything was better than where I was,” she says.

“I hoped she would send me back because I absolutely had no idea what it was like and the life I was living was just so sad. I was in and out of group homes, running away, even living on the street for a time. I dropped out of school and at 17 I left Chicago for Wisconsin and never saw my family again.”

Did she ever experience love?

“Honestly? No,” she says, wistfully.

“The only one who ever showed me any kindness was my aunt on my father’s side. We would go to her house for Christmas – me and my older sister – and my mum wouldn’t come. Those are the only happy memories of childhood I have. Other than that, I just remember the beatings and verbal demoralisation.”

Years after leaving her life in Chicago behind, Colleen was in her 30s when she began to probe into her past.

“I didn’t have a relationship with my mother, but I thought I had a chance of one with my real mother,”


Sister Hildegarde McNulty

Sister Hildegarde McNulty

Sister Hildegarde McNulty

Sister Hildegarde McNulty

“So I reached to Sister Hildegarde for information. I know she kept a lot of things from a lot of people but she told me who my mother was. I think that because I was adopted by her niece I had the luxury of getting information. She told me that my mum’s sister used to come to Sean Ross to visit me and my mum. I was able to contact one of them (the sisters) and we started to write to each other.”

The letters went back and forth between Colleen and her aunt for two years.

“She decided to tell my mum that I wanted to meet her,” she says.

In the meantime, I had been in touch with the children’s charity Barnardos, who arranged the meeting in Dublin. I was told that I couldn’t go to meet her where she was living because I looked so much like her and I was still a secret.”

In 1999 Colleen flew to Dublin, but the meeting did not go well.

“I had this anticipation of a happy reunion but my mum was totally shut down,” she says.

“She was stoic, so quiet. The woman from Barnardos was asking the questions, just to break the ice, but it was very formal and there was no emotion.”

Her birth mother had subsequently had four other children and had buried this piece of her past, Colleen recalls.

“My mother said she was raped in a cemetery,” she says.

“She said the worst thing about it wasn’t the rape, it was the way the nuns treated her. The woman asked her if she would tell the children, my siblings, and she said no, that she would rather die than tell them. That left me heartbroken. We went for lunch and it was more informal, but she was very shy. The last thing she said to me when we parted ways was ‘maybe someday’. And that was the last I saw of her. She died in 2009.”


Colleen Anderson was raised near Chicago and now lives in Ireland

Colleen Anderson was raised near Chicago and now lives in Ireland

Colleen Anderson was raised near Chicago and now lives in Ireland

Colleen Anderson was raised near Chicago and now lives in Ireland

Colleen has since moved to Ireland, a place she feels a connection to, even in the midst of so much rejection and pain.

“I knew if I didn’t come I would have regretted it,” she says.

“It’s like the meeting with my mother, I don’t regret it, even though she was too traumatised to continue contact, because I know there are a lot of people who didn’t get that chance. The first week I came back to Ireland in 2018, I met with the Commission and I told them my story.”

Since then, life in Ireland, for one of the many that became known as the banished babies, has not been easy. Colleen is currently housed in emergency accommodation, living in a small room in a hostel that she is grateful for.

“I stay in my room on my own,” she says.

“I don’t use the kitchen because of the pandemic and the risk of being infected. I have always been on my own and I know how to survive. I still feel more at home here in Ireland than I have ever felt, and maybe someday I will be truly settled.”

Source: Irish News