Orlaith O’Sullivan ~ The Bottle

The Foundling Hospital
James’s Street, Dublin

“I’ll see to them, Brenda. You get the Surgeon his tea.”

The little voices grow fractious all of a sudden. I soon see the cause—a small dead lump in the seventh cot. It always sets a few off. I call John to undress it; the frock will do for another. He carries it out of the Infirmary to the Dead Hole, to the others. They’ll be buried Wednesday, after morning prayers. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

I have four of my own at home. I can’t be taking on the world’s troubles.

Years ago, learned men came. They asked about the Surgeon, his blurry eyes, the funny smell of him. They examined our record books and performed calculations: of the last thousand babes through our doors, four had survived. “Hospital indeed,” someone finely-dressed proclaimed. “More like a slaughterhouse.” But the learned men departed, and no more was heard.

It’s true, the babes fade quickly. The older ones, they have more fight in them. I go to the cabinet with my two pints of water, take down the two heavy glass jars. I mix four spoons of the gooey brown treacle-stuff with two spoons of the black. Just like the Apothecary showed me. My throat gags; I’ve never grown used to such foulness. A thick glob of the black stuff drops on my hand. I catch it quick with a wet rag, scrubbing at it until I’m sure it’s gone. Then I shake the mixture well, till the darkness has spread through the water. It’s ready. Time for the Bottle.

I limp heavily from cot to cot, turning a blind eye on the filth, the straw swarming with vermin, the raw sores…I pass the Bottle along from child to child, making sure that each downs a good slug. The last cot, I hurry them along: I can hear his echoing footsteps. The Surgeon likes all the medicine to be given out before he does his rounds.

Medicine. That’s what he calls it.


In the years 1791-1796, the Infirmary at the Dublin Foundling Hospital admitted 5216 infants. One child survived. In 1797, a Committee of the Irish House of Commons was appointed to investigate the Hospital. A graphic report followed, which detailed myriad abuse, including the use of the Bottle. Repeated attempts at reform failed.

The Dublin Foundling Hospital was not closed until 1835.


Orlaith (pronounced ‘Orla’) O’Sullivan is an award-winning Irish writer. Born in Dublin, she studied English at Trinity College, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature. Her short stories have been published in The Stinging Fly and The Fish Anthology. Her first story was shortlisted for the William Trevor short story prize. She was joint-winner of the Fish Knife Award (for crime fiction) and recently won The Stinging Fly Prize 2008 for her short story ‘A Tall Tale’. Having lived in Devon and Madeira, in 2010 Orlaith relocated to Baltimore, West Cork, Ireland (which in no way resembles the land of ‘The Wire’). For further information see www.orlaithosullivan.com.

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