Justine McCarthy‘Please forgive me if you are not the person who I think you are. But I think your sister is my mother.’

As heard on The Marian Finucane Show

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Notwithstanding the sheer volume of newspaper articles, television documentaries, investigative reporting and even big-screen movie adaptations documenting incidents where women were shamed and mistreated in Ireland, having committed the cardinal sin of getting pregnant outside of wedlock, it’s easy to see these episodes as long-lost relics of the past.

But each and every one of those episodes has left its own distinctly human legacy, its own emotional trail that can be traced through generations.

Saturday’s Marian Finucane show featured just one of those stories, brought to us by Sunday Times Columnist, Justine McCarthy, who reunited in recent years with her long lost nephew, the son of her sister, Berenice, who left the family home very suddenly in 1974, having fallen foul of the pitiless social mores of the time.

His name is Duncan Carr, and he appeared alongside his aunt, Justine, in a truly memorable and hugely affecting interview, during which Justine recalled how the first contact between the two was made.

I was on the 46A bus coming into work one morning and I was going through my e-mails. I opened this one e-mail and it said, ‘please forgive me if you are not the person who I think you are. But I think your sister is my mother.’ I wanted to jump and yell on the bus, ‘we have found him. He has found us!.


Justine grew up in Bandon, County Cork, one of four sisters, Berenice the eldest, then Adrienne, Justine and Gina. Their father, Billy McCarthy, died in 1966, when Justine was just four years old, her mother, Bride, left a widow aged 38 with four children between the ages of 10 and one. In order to cope, Bride McCarthy decided to send the oldest three girls to boarding school, at the Ursuline Convent in Cork City. Justine was just six years old.

Justine idolised her older sister, Berenice, who she described as ‘wild, beautiful and wilful, with the elocution of a diva.’

But in 1974, aged just 20, Berenice became pregnant, and their lives would never be the same. She travelled to England with her mother, where she waited out her pregnancy while privately arranging to have the child adopted. She never lived in Ireland again after that.

When her son was finally adopted, Berenice moved to South Africa, where she married and had two sons, eventually reconnecting with her family, and attending Justine’s wedding, 26 years ago. Berenice died on the 19th of December 2004, a few days after her 51st birthday. She had breast cancer then brain cancer. She never reconnected with her first son, Duncan.

Berenice did, however, leave a letter for Duncan, to be opened on his 18th birthday, letting him know how much she loved him and how “one day he would understand”.

Many years later, and Duncan started to dig, to research, to find out whether he still had family in Ireland. This led to his e-mail to Justine McCarthy, which she opened on that 46A bus, in 2011, on the way to work.

That week, Justine and one of her sisters drove to the nursing home where her mother was resident, having been suffering from Alzheimer’s for some time. They explained that Duncan, her grandson, had finally found his family.

‘She seemed to be leaning forward in the wheelchair as if she was concentrating. And when we stopped talking, Adrienne said, ’isn’t it wonderful, mum?”’ And she made this great effort and she said…. It is.’

The following Sunday, Duncan came to Dublin to visit his McCarthy family, and was met there by Justine.

‘I couldn’t see him, and then I heard a voice behind me, saying, ‘Justine’. And I turned around, and I looked straight into Berenice’s eyes. He has exactly my sister’s eyes. It was just one of the most stunning moments of my life.’

This interview was, without doubt, one of the highlights of the RTÉ Radio 1 week, and you can listen back in full by clicking here.

© The Listener 2017

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