St Patrick’s is often a joyous celebration with parades and lots of beer, the wearing of the green and Irish blessings. Today’s blog is not about that side of being Irish. Caelainn Hogan explored the history and legacy of the mother and baby homes in her book, “Republic of Shame“. Today’s blog shares heavily from a review of her book.
Folktales are powerful because of their purpose: they teach moral through warning. This is what could befall you, they say, this is what happens to badly behaved girls. The S Thompson Motif-Index of Folk Literature itemizes the following categories: Girl carefully guarded from suitors; Girl carefully guarded by mother; Girl carefully guarded by father; Girl carefully guarded from suitors by hag. All four motifs are attributed to several mythologies including those that are Irish. But the last one, “Girl carefully guarded from suitors by hag” is specifically Irish.
The mother and baby homes of Ireland were run by nuns associated with the Catholic Church. These were the depositories for women pregnant out of wedlock. Some of the homes were laundries, some were repurposed workhouses from the famine, and a surprising number actually survived into the early 1990s. This sad history has enough gravesites, unnamed dead and persecuted women to honestly qualify as a most horrifying folktale.
Even in this modern time, women who gave birth in these homes continue trying to locate the children taken from them and some adults who survived the horrors are still searching for their birth mothers. And as recently as December 2020, the Irish government voted to keep the archives of the mother and baby homes locked for another 30 years, leaving hundreds of people without answers, which in some cases means never having a true answer to their identity.
Hogan wrote her book as a personal quest to investigate the homes and make an issue of two of the system’s most disturbing motifs: silence and female virtue. The author says – “My generation’s perspective is that the mother and baby homes are a thing of the past, but it has an ongoing impact. I was born in 1988, a year after illegitimacy was abolished in Ireland. I spoke to a friend’s mother who was sent to a mother and baby home, also in 1988. That alternative, that could have been my mother’s life. That had quite a deep impact on me.” I understand. In learning about my own family’s origins, I realized what was a miracle to me – that my unwed mother was not sent away to have and give me up for adoption.
The author says, “I wanted to show my experience of coming to terms with this alarmingly recent past and understanding how it continues to impact lives, to admit to my own ignorance even when it affected people I knew, to realize there were institutions around the corner from the house where I grew up that I never knew about, a system built on secrecy but all around us still.”
Adoption law in Ireland still protects the anonymity of the mother—which means many people don’t have access to their birth information – purely because they were born out of wedlock. Adoption rights are an equality issue. There is still a culture of silence around adoption in Ireland, especially when it comes to adoptees accessing their own information. Ireland’s adoption laws were always intended to keep adoption details as secret as possible. It’s hypocrisy that these laws are represented as protecting the privacy rights of the mothers. The author found that almost every woman she spoke to, who had her child taken from her for adoption, who was sent to these institutions, they have only ever wanted information and answers. These are women who have spent years searching for their children.
There is much more at the link to the review/interview, if you want to continue reading about this issue as your method of acknowledging all things Irish today.