Characters, — April 29, 2010 7:59 — 0 Comments

Baby Bernadette

On a beautiful summer’s day in June 1942 my mother and a few of her friends were sitting on the grassy bank by the side of the old fire station in Linenhall Square.

The young mother was abed in one of the five upper rooms above that face the canal

They were all young – in their late teens or early twenties – talking and laughing amongst themselves as most young people do at that age.  

Somewhere else in the world a life or death struggle was raging, but not here on this grassy bank facing the old canal that sunny June day in Newry of 1942.


A young soldier in a British Army uniform approached the friends; he came along Canal Quay from the direction of Sands Mill.  My mother who when telling me this story over sixty-seven years later says that she could not be positive of the young soldier’s rank.


‘I think he might perhaps have been a corporal,’ she said.


The soldier came up to Mum and her friends and asked them what at the time appeared to be a strange question.


‘I was wondering,’ he said,


 ‘Would any of you happen to be Roman Catholics?’


My Mother and her friends looked at each other wondering what this extraordinary question was about.


‘I think we all are,’ replied Harry McAteer, one of the group.  ‘Why do you ask?’


‘I was wondering that perhaps maybe you could help me out if you could,’  said the young soldier.


 ‘Let me clarify.’


The soldier went on to explain that he was stationed in Newry and that he and his wife were living in rooms in a house at Basin Walk, just across the canal from Sands Mill.


His wife, he said, had given birth to a baby girl just the day before.  As his wife and himself were both Catholics he had arranged to have the baby christened at Newry Cathedral the next day.


His dilemma was that his wife was still very weak and totally unable to take the baby to the Cathedral for the baptism. He was on duty that next day and couldn’t get off. Also they didn’t know anyone else who lived locally who was a Catholic; so he was wondering if perhaps two of them would do his wife and himself the honour of acting as godparents for his infant daughter and take her to the Cathedral for her baptism.


‘I know I am asking a lot but my wife and I would be eternally grateful if you could help us out with this act of kindness.’ 


‘I’ll do it,’ said Harry McAteer.  

‘What about you Sarah? 

Are you game to help out?’ Harry asked Mum.


My Mother also agreed to act as the baby’s godparent.


So it was arranged that the next day Harry and Mum were to collect the infant girl at the house in Basin Walk and take her to the Cathedral for her baptism.


That next day the two would-be godparents called at the house in Basin Walk to collect their charge.  As per their instructions they were to push open the front door and go upstairs to the room that faced out across the canal where they would collect the baby.


They knocked at the room door and a woman’s voice bid them to enter. On entering the room they beheld a young woman sitting up in bed with a baby in her arms. The infant child was wrapped in a shawl, all ready for her christening.


The young woman thanked them for their kind-heartedness and passed the baby over to my mum.


‘Bernadette is to be the baby’s name,’ said the woman.


Mum and her friend Harry walked, carrying the child down to Newry Cathedral for the baptism. (No taxi or stretched limousine in those wartime days!) 


The baptism was duly performed and the child was christened Bernadette.


Afterwards Mum and her friend Harry returned baby Bernadette to its mother at the house in Basin Walk – a job well done. 


My Mother recounted this unusual story to me sixty-seven years after the event. The mists of time had clouded the memory a little:  she wasn’t able to recall the soldier or his wife’s name remembering only that the baby was called Bernadette and the year was about 1942.


Harry McAteer (his sister Cathleen later married Wilbert Lundy) subsequently moved to England a few years after the events narrated here.  He married and settled down there with his new wife and family only returning to Newry intermittently over the years.  Sadly Harry died about four years ago.


I thought this story a bit unusual so a couple of weeks ago I checked the register at the parochial house for Newry Cathedral.  And sure enough there it is for all to see.



Baby:  Bernadette Doreen Desmond


Parents: John Francis Desmond (Father) and May Coulter (Mother)


Baptised:  27th June 1942 by Father Burke in Newry Cathedral


God Parents: Henry McAteer and Sarah McKevitt


Parents and Baby’s address: Basin Walk, Newry.


Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Bernadette Doreen Desmond were to Google her name and come to read this?


How times have changed from those days: in this day and age a Mother is not expected to walk the journey carrying her new born two-day old child to church for its baptism.


I imagine that a soldier these days, even during wartime is allowed a certain amount of compassionate leave!

30 years old now …

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