June Considine on the real-life drama that inspired her new novel. I first saw her photograph in the newspapers in 1954. A little girl, four years old, held closely in her mother’s arms.
The woman was smiling with happiness and relief that a long, difficult search was finally over — but the child’s mouth was turned down and she appeared to be overwhelmed by a series of events that had changed her life. Her name was Elizabeth Browne — and she was a stolen child.
As my mother read out the newspaper feature accompanying the photograph, I wondered how I would feel if a policeman knocked on my front door and told me I did not belong to her. I imagined being taken from my house, meeting new parents, new brothers and sisters, settling into a new home with strangers who were my own flesh and blood.
Most children will experience that primal fear at some stage during their rocky, imaginative road through childhood — and I was no exception.
When I sat down to write my latest novel, Stolen Child, Elizabeth surfaced again. Although my recollections were sketchy, lost to the decades, I remembered how terrified I’d been by her story.
I'd always wondered at the thoughts that had gone through her mind as the cameras flashed and the journalists scribbled, and strange arms reached out to embrace this celebrity child back from the dead. Except that she was never dead, just safe and secure with a family in Belfast. The beloved ‘only daughter’ of Barbara and Ernest McGeehan.
’Elizabeth’s story was the catalyst that took me through those difficult opening chapters.
I wanted to explore the mind of a woman who would commit such an act and the consequences that could spring from it.
Soon, as with all works of fiction, the initial idea was buried under the momentum of my own story. Stolen Child is set in modern times and explores the lives of two women — the woman who commits the crime of abduction and the mother who never stops searching for her child.
Both women are motivated by love and longing, as was the woman who stole Elizabeth Browne.
On the day she was stolen in 1950, three-month-old Elizabeth was sleeping in her pram beside her mother, a newspaper vender on Henry Street, one of Dublin City’s busiest thoroughfares.
Elizabeth’s mother was a familiar figure on Henry Street and, on that particular day as she sold her newspapers and chatted to her regular customers, there was nothing to alert her suspicions.
But Barbara McGeehan, off the train from Belfast and longing for a baby, watched and waited, then seized her opportunity. She wheeled Elizabeth away, abandoned the pram and returned home.
From then on, Elizabeth was known as Bernadette McGeehan. Despite the efforts of the police and the publicity surrounding her disappearance, with no new leads the story eventually died away.
I’d finished my book when, to my astonishment, Elizabeth’s story featured on Stolen Babies, a series of documentaries shown on RTE last autumn.
The documentary (researched and presented by Garry MacDonncha and produced/directed by Niamh Ni Churnain) revealed the truth behind her abduction, but it also traced the wider story leading to her recovery.
It’s possible that if Barbara McGeehan had not yearned for another baby and returned to Dublin four years later to repeat her crime, Elizabeth’s identity might never have been discovered. She could have grown up in Belfast, secure in her imposed identity.
But in December 1954, Barbara did return to Henry Street. She walked among the festive crowd until she spotted a baby boy in a pram outside a toy shop.
Attracted by a teddy bear in the window, the boy’s mother had nipped inside to purchase it.
In those days mothers kept a light grip on the handle of their prams, never believing for an instant that harm could befall their children.
The shop was crowded and she decided not to wait to be served. But even in that short pulse of time, Barbara McGeehan had vanished with the pram and baby. Despite the crowds, or maybe because of them, she was able to make her escape without attracting attention.
But this time she was not so fortunate. She entered a carriage occupied by Louisa Doherty, her ten-year-old son Daniel, and her niece, Louise.
Barbara’s nervous behaviour was noticed, and Louisa was soon aware that the baby, nine month old Patrick Berrigan, was deeply upset.
As he continued crying, she got some milk from the dining car and the baby was fed.
The women talked together and eventually separated when the train reached Belfast.
Over the next few days the story was extensively covered by the media, including the pages of the Belfast Telegraph and even in the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia.
This was a heart-breaking Christmas story, begging for a happy ending.
It also had a terrifying familiarity, as a second baby, Pauline Ashmore, had been abducted in Camden Street, another busy street, only two months previously.
The kidnapping of Elizabeth Browne was also brought back into the public consciousness.
Mothers who would casually leave their babies in prams outside shops while they did their shopping, and allowed them to sleep peacefully in front gardens, or on the roads outside houses where there were no front gardens, were suddenly terrified to allow them out of their sight.
In Belfast, as Louisa read the reports and looked at Patrick’s photograph, her suspicions grew.
According to her son, Daniel, who spoke about his experience on the Stolen Babies documentary, his mother was an incisive, friendly woman and Barbara McGeehan had told her that she lived in White City.
As Louisa's suspicions deepened, she wrote to Patrick’s parents to check certain details.
She’d noticed that the baby was wearing only one sock and shoe. This was crucial information as a second shoe and sock had been found in the missing pram.
In these modern times when one well-aimed tweet travels almost with the speed of light, it's difficult to imagine the heart-stopping hours that passed as these letters were exchanged.
But, eventually, armed with her suspicions, Louisa contacted the RUC. Five days of frantic searching finally come to an end — and when the RUC knocked on her front door, Barbara McGeehan’s carefully constructed family life fell apart.
Daniel Doherty, along with his mother and cousin, were chief witnesses when it came to identifying Patrick Berrigan, and also Barbara McGeehan.
For a ten-year-old boy, this was a heady adventure. But for the main players in this tragedy it was a bewildering and heart-breaking time.
One family claimed what was rightfully theirs to claim. Another family grieved for the loss of what had never belonged to them.
The RUC then decided to investigate the legitimacy of the little girl known as Bernadette McGeehan. She had a baptismal certificate with that name and other documentation identifying her as a McGeehan.
While the investigation was going on, she was removed to a children's home for six weeks.
A birth mark on her face was a distinguishing feature in those pre-DNA days and, when the investigations were complete, her family travelled from Dublin to identify her from a line-up of seven little girls.
Barbara McGeehan was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, with one year suspended.
Her husband was deemed innocent of any knowledge of the abductions.
These days when fathers are literally hands-on during the delivery of their babies, it’s difficult to understand how he did not suspect the truth, especially the explanation Barbara gave him when she arrived home with Patrick.
She claimed that after giving birth some months previously, the baby had been kept in hospital to strengthen his health.
It seems incredible that he believed her — but, perhaps, the truth was even more incredible for him to comprehend, especially in an era when there was a level of ignorance among many men about ‘women’s matters’.
During her trial, Barbara claimed in her defence that she had had a stillborn baby six weeks prior to Patrick’s kidnapping, which she had kept secret from her husband.
But medical records proved this to be untrue. She also claimed that Elizabeth was her adopted daughter, an arrangement she had made with another woman, a street singer who found it difficult to work with a small baby.
The woman had since died — but this claim was also quickly discredited.
Pauline Ashmore's family had watched this unfolding drama, hoping against hope, that their baby was also in Belfast.
But her abduction had nothing to do with Barbara McGeehan. She had been taken by another woman who was actually pregnant at the time.
Ironically, on the day she gave birth, Pauline was reunited with her own parents. Unlike Barbara, this woman received only a suspended sentence.
Louisa Doherty was the heroine of the hour and letters of congratulation poured in from all over the world.
When Barbara finished her sentence and was released, the Browne family, showing extraordinary kindness and insight, allowed the McGeehans to visit Elizabeth in Dublin.
The love Elizabeth had for the people who had reared her during those formative stolen years was still strong and she ran straight into their arms.
Her family also allowed her, along with her sister, to visit the McGeehans in Belfast for summer holidays, thus helping her overcome her sense of separation from them.
Many of the participants in that drama have passed on, including Elizabeth, who, sadly, died at the young age of thirty-eight.
But she had married and had her own children, and also followed the family tradition, selling newspapers on the street where she had been abducted.
I've always wondered why her memory remained so embedded in my imagination.
I guess it marked a significant moment in my own childhood, and made me realise that in a world controlled by adults, life was not always as certain and secure as I'd once believed.
June Considine used the pen-name Laura Elliott for her new book, Stolen Child by Laura Elliot, Avon Harper Collins, £6.99