Saturday, 19 December 2015

Kathleen Wynne, a little angel

Had she not passed away at the devastatingly tender age of 'about' nine days, next week my Aunt Kathleen would have celebrated her 69th birthday. Kathleen was born prematurely on or about 23 December 1946, the fifth child of Kevin and Annie Wynne. She was named after her maternal aunt, Kathleen Byrne. However, she never made it home from the hospital, so she never got to meet her brother and sisters.

Virtually nothing remains today of Kathleen’s short life and the few official records of her existence contain numerous errors and conflicts, many probably unresolvable today.

Holles Street Hospital in Dublin registered her birth, incorrectly recording her birthdate as 26 December. But, Kathleen’s elder sister remembers her parents visiting the hospital that Christmas Day and knows Kathleen was born before Christmas.

Her date of death was registered as 31 December 1946, again by Holles Street Hospital. Here, she was said to have been seven days old, so born on 24th December.  The hospital omitted her Christian name on the register and incorrectly described her as ‘male’ - yet another error in the record of her life. She was said to have been the ‘son of a painter.’ My grandfather was indeed a painter, but it was his home address, 80 Leinster Avenue, which definitively confirmed the record related to our Aunt Kathleen. Her cause of death was certified as ‘internal obstruction’.

Kathleen’s family believed she was interred in the Old Angels Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, where a section of consecrated ground was set aside for still-born babies and other children who died shortly after birth. Up to fifty babies share each unmarked grave, and in a strange way, it was comforting to know she was with all these other little children.

When Glasnevin Trust released the cemetery’s records online, I searched for Kathleen Wynne, buried in 1946-47, but did not find her.  When I contacted the graveyard, they advised I should search using ‘Newborn’ instead of Kathleen, as the hospital may not have provided her given name when they organised her burial.

And there she was, my little Aunt Kathleen, interred on 4 January 1947, again sadly unnamed in the register. The cemetery’s records show she died of ‘prematurity’ on New Year’s Day, 1947, aged one week and two days. This suggests her birthday was 23 December, two days before Christmas.  

Kathleen was laid to rest in the section known as St. Patrick’s in Glasnevin Cemetery, at grave UM 190, and not in the better known Old Angels Plot. There are a number of smaller unmarked ‘angels plots’ situated throughout the cemetery.

As Kathleen was born prematurely, it was quite probable her mother never got to hold her. Although her parents visited the hospital every day of her short life, they may not have been allowed in to see her. Her father may never have laid eyes on his baby girl. The hospital organised her burial and denied them the chance to attend her funeral.

This sounds cruel today, but was considered ‘for the best’ in Ireland then. Any opportunity for attachment was thought to prolong the grieving process. Parents were told to forget their loss. They were advised to have another child and to move on as quickly as possible and not to look for sympathy.  There was no understanding of the need to grieve. 

And this is what Kathleen’s family tried to do. Her grave was not visited over the years. The family’s grief was a silent one, and yet she was never forgotten.  All my life, I’ve known about my Aunt Kathleen, the little angel who never made it home.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam / (R.I.P.)

Sources: Birth and death registers, General Register Office; Burial register, Glasnevin Cemetery. Image: courtesy of The Graphics Fairy.

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. That is an incredibly sad story. I can't help but think of the difference in the way things are handled today when a baby dies in the hospital and it seems like the old Irish ways would have made things so hard. Thank goodness you have the memories of a sibling because trying to piece things together solely on the records would be doubly confusing.

    1. Thanks Michelle, it was very sad. There is more to her story -I believe she was taken to another hospital for a 'procedure' and before she was buried, her father seemingly donated her body for research, but no one is alive today who really remembers these events.

  2. Kathleen Wynne is the current premier of Canada's province of Ontario.

    1. How interesting, Jackie, I wonder if she is related! We have a rumour of a Great-Granduncle who left for Canada in his sixties and married a girl young enough to have been his granddaughter - I can't find any record of this though.

  3. Dara, what a poignant remembrance of the aunt you never met. I think it is important to memorialize such family members, even if their life was so brief as to not include much significant interaction with the others.

    Still, how difficult to have to endure the loss without those customary kindnesses we consider necessary nowadays--to hold the baby, to say those last goodbyes as part of a funeral. That silent grieving is still grieving.

    I hope you had a pleasant Christmas. From the time we unpacked our Ireland Christmas memento (an ornament) and hung it on our tree, to the time on Christmas Eve when I knew the clocks in Ireland were striking midnight for the next day, our family had Ireland on our minds. I hope your Christmas was a lovely one.

  4. I believe it's especially important to remember those with no direct descendants. Thankfully, we're having a very pleasant Christmas this year - I too collect Christmas tree ornaments from our travels - makes for an interesting tree with lots of good memories.

  5. What a heartbreaking story, from the loss itself to the aftermath.

  6. Thanks Ellie, I guess the loss of an infant is always harrowing.


I look forward to reading your comments, even more especially if you're related to someone mentioned in this post.

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