This was quite an ‘enjoyable’ read and I found it fairly easy going although there are a few bits which are not particularly pleasant. From what I can tell, Phyllis Whitsell wrote a previous Book related to this one which was called ‘Finding Tipperary Mary’ and both are about her ‘real’ Mother (i.e. the lady who gave birth to her) who had to give her up for adoption.
I have not read her first Book but it seems to be the story about how Phyllis tracked down her birth Mother only to discover that she was a renowned drunken bag-lady in Liverpool and then Birmingham I think and there was also the twist that Phyllis actually met her 9 years earlier when working as a Nurse in A&E and ‘Tipperary Mary’ came in after getting damaged in a drunken pub brawl. Sadly the Author never told her Mother that she was her daughter but she did care personally for her for many years before she died and seems to be content that she did that much for her. The reasoning was that she did not want to subject her own children to meeting their true Grandmother because it would have been quite a shock and have opened up lots of further complications. I can see her reasons but I definitely felt sad at the end of the book that she had not told her Mother who she was.
Whilst caring for her Mother in the final years, Phyllis managed to piece together lots of the threads of her Mother’s life and the awful events she had been through although it sounds like it was a very difficult process because her Mother was often in a drunken and rambling state and she could be extremely hard work as you can imagine. Anyway, Phyllis did some further research and stuff and with a co-author she pieced everything together to create the book that is ‘Song for Bridget’. It is obvious that much of the detail has had to be fictionalised but I did not have a problem with this and the book certainly flows in a pleasant manner and I did find it something that was never a battle to read (if a book gets like that with me, I usually end up dropping it and giving up).
The story starts in Ireland in the 1930s where Bridget (Phyllis’s Mum) is the only girl in a family with several male siblings. Her Stepfather is a drunk and prone to ranting and raving although he is not violent but her Mother is very depressed following the death of Bridget’s real Father from sclerosis of the liver at a young age. What really comes across is just how awfully girls were treated both within families but perhaps in even more serious ways by the Catholic Church. In essence Bridget (or ‘Biddy’ as she was referred to) was a domestic slave and when she was not at School there was no time for play and she had to do all the chores like lighting the fire, cooking meals, washing clothes, shopping etc. etc. As her mum became more depressed and inevitably headed towards the booze, the drudgery of Biddy’s life increased and she in essence did everything. The Boys of the house could do whatever they liked but once they were old enough, they went to work on the farms. It got particularly bad for Biddy when she was told she could no longer go to school and this was a very heavy blow because she then lost touch with her friends.
What really comes across is how little control Biddy had over her own life – if it was not her Stepfather, Mother and Brothers bossing her about, then it was the strict moral codes of the Church and the pressure of the social tittle-tattle in the Town that kept her forced into conforming. And perhaps the worst part is that there was no end in sight to this and she had no obvious way to escape.
For a brief period Biddy gets some modicum of happiness from looking after a new younger Sister, Philomena, to whom she in effect becomes mother but sadly later on this all falls apart as well.
Things start to get even worse when Biddy’s stepfather hangs himself and it is Biddy who discovers him swinging in the outside toilet. This really messes up her mother and leads to more drinking and misery and makes her mother pretty much sofa or bed-bound. Somehow amongst all these challenges Biddy manages to attend a local fairground with a friend and she meets a young man, Bill, who becomes the love of her life and allows her to dream of a better future where she escapes as Bill’s wife but sadly that all goes badly wrong when her nasty elder brother scares him off.
And if all that wasn’t bad enough, she ends up getting raped by her nasty brother and gets pregnant. This leads to her being sent to a Church-run Home (actually ‘workhouse’ would be a better word) for wayward girls and her baby, who turns out to be the Author, Phyllis, is put up for adoption. Bridget cannot return to her original home but by this time her mother has died and her young sister has been adopted as well and there is no way she can go back with her brother. So she ends up taking a boat to England and ends up in Liverpool but somehow she gets put in a Mental Hospital and at that time they were doing terrible things to people and she goes through some very dubious treatments which must have messed her up mentally as well. In essence she was strong willed and disobedient rather than having mental issues.
As you might expect there are various attempts by her to take her own life and she manages to find lodgings and work but struggles to hold down a job as the booze becomes more of an escape from the grim reality of her life and presumably the psychological trauma inflicted on her by the Mental Hospital (what a misnomer that is !!). Her life then carries on in this vein but she is still young and actually by coincidence meets up with Bill again and has a glimpse of happiness but this is of course snatched from her because Bill has a wife and child and he cannot leave them for Bridget. She splits with Bill and becomes more out of control and her life just goes into a full-on meltdown of booze and chaotic lifestyle with various pregnancies and children who are then adopted and suchlike causing Bridget yet more pain.
The story sort of comes full circle then and it covers the bit where Bridget the filthy bag-lady meets up with her Daughter in the A&E and then goes on to the bit where Phyllis deliberately becomes her Carer and does what she can to learn about her mother and to make her final stage of life as good as it can be.
As I mentioned at the start this is not a difficult book to read although it can be a bit ‘disturbing’ at times but in truth it is not that bad and is very insightful as well as funny in parts. What it does bring home is how someone through no real fault of their own can get themselves into a very messy situation and chaotic lifestyle simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and by having a succession of ‘bad luck’ events which of course in this case came about due to the overpowering nature of the Society she lived in. This really is a very decent read and something ideal for a short break on holiday or something as it is a story that keeps your attention and certainly brings some perspective to our own lives and just how lucky we are (I am assuming you are not a bag-lady or bag-bloke !!!).
If you go to the ‘Non-Finance Books’ page there should be a link to Amazon where you can get a copy. At the time of writing it is on a very good price at Amazon - just 2 quid in either format.
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