Gordon Lewis grew up in a 1950s mother and child home…and loved it
by Michael McDonagh
Ireland today is a different country to what it once was. It has a gay Taoiseach, divorce, same sex marriage and was even represented at Eurovision by a gay ballad accompanied by two male interpretive dancers. All this is a far cry from the time countless unfortunate unmarried mothers were confined and incarcerated in cruel institutions of ‘shame’.
Most of these poor women had their lives ruined when their new born babies were taken from them for adoption. But there was one enlightened compassionate man, Frank Duff, who swam against the tide.
In 1930, with the assistance of his Legion of Mary, he established an alternative institution in an abandoned Black and Tans barracks in Dublin where a pregnant girl could seek anonymous sanctuary. When her baby was born, she would be allowed to live amongst the other mothers and keep her child naturally, as it grew up with her maternal love and the mutual support from the other women in the same predicament.
Gordon Lewis was one such child, who escaped adoption by being born into this Regina Coeli home. He grew up happily there until he was nine and then came to London to be raised here by his devoted mother and her Protestant first love. Now that his mother has died Gordon has gone back to visit the home 50 years later and has written his mother’s story, which has been published by Harper Collins as Secret Child. He has also made an award-winning short film.
Tell us about your life and how you came to write this book:
“During the period before we moved to London and I was almost nine I had been living in Dublin in quite an unusual place.
“It was the only place that existed in Ireland, they had these mother and babies homes for unmarried mothers but Irish society was not very keen on illegitimate children and the reality is that most of the babies were given up for adoption after they were born, as the mothers were living in those Magdalene Laundry type places.
“But there was one particular place on the north side of Dublin on Morning Star Avenue that came about because at the time just before Independence for Ireland the Black and Tans had their headquarters in this place, which was known as Regine Ceoli.
“It had changed its name when the barracks was closed down and the Black and Tans had left when Independence came but it had remained empty for years.
“Then this man called Frank Duff who believed passionately that mothers who had babies should really stay with the child came along and he thought that was the way forward – not to give the children away or to separate them but let the mother stay with the child and at the time that was really unusual.
“He somehow persuaded the Dublin authorities to allow him to take over this old derelict building of the barracks to set up a home there, where the mothers could bring up their children.
“You can imagine what is was like with it all laid out in long dormitories… but for kids like me it was paradise.
“It was nothing special by any means and I am not exaggerating when I say this place had rats running around.
“It was charity and there was an edge to it and all the women had to work. Some mothers would stay behind and look after between five and ten children and the mothers who went to work would contribute to pay them for doing that, so everybody is working but all the children could stay with their mothers.
“My mother had me quite late in life at the age of about 35 and I wanted to tell her story and how it happened.
“Mum always wanted to marry her man, who was a Dublin man but he was a Protestant and she was a Catholic so the bigoted society and their families would just not accept that. They went their separate ways thinking that they will meet up later in London but over time they drifted apart.
“She then met up with a really nice well-to-do Cork man called Sullivan, who was very nice but when she found she was pregnant he came clean and told her he was married with children.
“She wanted to keep the child so she did something very brave for those times – she found herself a Jewish solicitor, who took on the case on a ‘no-win, no-fee’ basis and just before they went to court they settled.
“It was not a lot of money but it gave her some help and she ended up in Regina Coeli, where she had me.
“We lived there for almost nine years and then she got in touch with Bill Lewis in London, who had been her first love.
“I was by then running around the streets and although not a bad kid I was keen to explore and do things and hang around. I lived in this institution with over a hundred women and their children and no men, a secretive place.
“You would only know about it if maybe a priest told a girl in trouble it was a place where she may get help.
“My mother decided not to tell anybody and for all those years she was a single woman living and working in Dublin and was, by now, 44.
“She had never married the man she wanted to marry, Bill, and was actually living a double life. She worked six and a half days a week until I was picked up by the police on two separate occasions – not for anything serious – and she knew it was time to change.
“She wrote to Bill and he came over and met her on O’Connell Bridge for the first time in all those years and that is the scene we have made into the short film.”
“She kisses this man and it is quite incredible but that’s what we reflect in the film, as it was what really happened and within six weeks I thought I was going on holiday but we were really leaving and coming to live in London.
“Mum was told that she would never have to work and that Bill would take care of us in his home but when we arrived we found ourselves living in one room with a curtain, in Finsbury Park, near Arsenal Football ground.
“It is not very nice but what did I know about nice, as I had grown up in an institution. I was used to lice and rats and God knows what, so it did not matter to me but I could see around me and I could see the way people lived.
“Up until then I had never even seen the inside of a house.
“We moved to Tottenham and from doing my paper round I was getting streetwise, then eventually we were given a council place which seemed good but I knew it wasn’t.
“It was actually on Broadwater Farm, where they killed the policeman. My mother died in 1989 and then Bill passed away and that’s when I started to think about telling her story. My mum never wanted to talk about the Dublin past so we had an understanding that I stop talking about it.
“I used to say to her I don’t like London and wanted to go back to Ireland and she would say I had to stay in London and one day would understand why.
“She’d tell me something like ‘You have Beatles tickets at the Astoria in Finsbury Park, that’s a good thing, you can only do that in London, so stop talking about the past, the past is over’.”
“When I was 16 I went to Dublin and stayed with my aunts who by that time knew about me but not much about where we lived as we had been very secretive.
“I got the country bus to Dublin and tried to find Regina Coeli but I just could not find it. I gave up in the end.
“I even asked some priests and nuns and it was quite interesting how they responded to me at that time, as they told me nothing. After that I closed down and did not think about it again and I did not want to go there.
“Now I am confident enough as an individual in who I am so I am not at all embarrassed about where I grew up or where I came from and, anyway, nowadays we all want to know more about our roots.
“My mother is no longer alive so I felt it was time to write the book although I never intended for it to be published but a friend, Andrew Crofts read it, said it was good, and needed tightening up and editing, which he did, then he asked could he send it to somebody.
“I was in Russia and was bombarded with calls from a guy called Andrew Lownie, one of the world’s top literary agents and next thing I was offered a deal by Harper Collins with a big advance, even though I was not looking for money.
“I then made the film, which is just a short sequence from the first book. Frankly, I think there is enough material in there to make a TV series. The Oniros Film Awards in Italy has just announced that Secret Child is the monthly winner and will automatically be entered for the Best of Year completion in Aosta, Italy in August, whilst the young 23-year-old cameraman Darius Shu has been nominated as finalist for ‘Best Cinematography’.
The 17-minute long short film Secret Child won the Best Short Film at the Gold Movie Awards in London and an Oniros Film Award in Italy.
“I am being choosey about the festivals where we show the film, it is important that we do the right ones because it is an Irish story and is essentially about my mother so we will do the Irish Festivals and we will do the one in Galway.
Bill Lewis, who adopted Gordon, was a film carpenter and worked on the sets of films like Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Because of Bill’s film and theatre connections Gordon got to see lots of shows so from the age of 14 Gordon was determined to work in TV. When he left school he got a job as a messenger at London Weekend TV (LWT).
When he was twenty he joined director Mike Mansfield making music shows for TV and pop promos. Gordon then set up his own successful production company with offices in Los Angeles. He went on to more or less create ‘gay’ Soho as we know it when he opened the first overtly gay bars and clubs in the district.
Gordon Lewis would like to hear from anybody who remembers him or his mother, Cathleen Crea (or McCrea) when they lived in Regina Coeli on Morning Star Avenue, on the north side of Dublin, next to Grangegorman. He, and his mother, left Ireland in 1962 with his mother to live in north London. His mother was also known as ‘Lady’ and his adoptive father Gordon Lewis had originally been known as Francis. If you have any memories of them or of this time please contact The Irish World or Gordon at secretchild.com
You may also be interested in: