How Ireland Used Shame to Silence Unwed Mothers

In "Republic of Shame," Caelainn Hogan explores the history and legacy of the mother and baby homes

Saint Mary Magdalene by Guido Reni, The National Gallery, London.

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 Irish. Except for the last one. The origin of “Girl carefully guarded from suitors by hag” is specifically Irish.

In Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s Institutions for ‘Fallen Women’, Caelainn Hogan brings together the history and the personal stories of the mother and baby homes of Ireland. The homes were run by the nuns of the Catholic Church and served as depositories for women pregnant out of wedlock. Some of the homes were laundries, some were repurposed workhouses from the famine, and a surprising number survived into the early 90s. As Hogan notes, however, the system sounds centuries older to 21st-century ears. Medieval, practically. The history has enough gravesites, unnamed dead, and persecuted women that it sounds like a horrifying folktale.

With Republic of Shame, Hogan’s task was to bring the history of the mother and baby homes into the realm of the present. To this day, women from the homes are trying to locate the children taken from them, and adults are still searching for their birth mothers. The legacy of the homes could be as invidious as the system was if it remains hidden by the same force—shame. Just this week, 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 an identity.

Hogan spoke to me about the personal quest of her investigation of the homes, and two of the system’s most disturbing motifs: silence and female virtue. 

Lucie Shelly: Given the volume of material and history, and how much is still unknown, how did the process of writing this book differ from your usual reporting and journalistic writing process?

Caelainn Hogan: I became, in some ways, a guide within the narrative to take people through what was a large scope of history—from the Magdalene Laundries back in the 1700s to the present day. That includes the ongoing legacy and the continued search for answers and investigations, so it was both a lot of research, and a moving news story.

I was encouraged to put myself within the narrative—to bring a level of transparency which connected disparate issues. It’s quite personal from the beginning. Across the road from my house was the provincial house of the Daughters of Charity, which is the religious order that ran the biggest mother and baby home in Ireland. Growing up in Ireland, being from Ireland, the laundries were something I knew about but I hadn’t realized this issue was so close to home literally. When I started to talk to people, I realized how many people I knew were directly affected. Using myself and my experience of discovery as a guide was a way for me to bring an immediacy to the narrative. 

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. 

LS: The process of consciously trying to narrativize a tragedy is often a moral complication for journalists. Janet Malcolm put it more starkly and said—I’m paraphrasing—that good journalists know what they do is morally indefensible. But I wonder if drawing on your personal experience and using yourself as a guide mitigated that issue? 

CH: From the outset, I wanted to include my own experience, for the sake of transparency as well as narrative. I wanted to write this as an Irish woman from a generation that was sort of straddling a time: when we were born, the institutions were still operating. But most of us grew up thinking of them as something of the past. We grew up in an Ireland where divorce was just being legalized, contraception was just being legalized. So, we were conscious of that and I think still living with the impact of the homes, but we’re also the generation that saw Ireland change very rapidly and we feel part of that. I wanted to capture the cultural context which includes my own experience. 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 realise 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. So, in terms of narrative, it took the shape of a quest. I wanted to find out more about these institutions that impacted the lives of people I know. 

As for journalism being “morally indefensible”… Without a news story reported by Alison O’Reilly breaking around the world about the deaths of children in Tuam and the pressure this put on the Irish government, an investigation into this system of institutions might never have happened. Reports I read while researching the book quoted religious sisters admitting that records were falsified. As journalists, as writers, I think the burden is on us to do the work necessary to interrogate our motivations and approach, to realise our own preconceptions, to do better in the ways we create space and document.

I remember speaking with a sex worker rights activist who ran a community organisation in New York about the media guide they developed. She emphasised that journalists should be more aware during interviews of whether a question is crucial to the story or if they are asking out of personal curiosity or a sense of exoticism. Some people might expect speaking about trauma to automatically be cathartic or empowering. In reality it is usually exhausting for the person reliving that experience and can be retraumatizing. I write at the end of the book that I don’t believe anyone can give another person a voice. If you believe you are giving someone a voice, you might actually be silencing them in ways you don’t understand. 

LS: I’d like to talk about the generational perspectives of the topics you write about. There’s a section in which you mention a woman from Tuam, Teresa, who really captures the generational spectrum. “There were vast differences from her mother’s generation, when nothing was spoken about, to Teresa’s generation trying to put together lists of names of the dead, to her daughters’ generation now growing up in a town marked by the discovery. ‘My own girls ask, how did ye let this happen?’” The daughters’ question suggests a lot has changed, but as recently as 2018 in Ireland, the life of a foetus was more protected than the life of a mother. Adoption law 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. Do you think the revelations about the mother and baby homes have really led to great change? 

I don’t believe anyone can give another person a voice. If you believe you are giving someone a voice, you might actually be silencing them in ways you don’t understand.

CH: Another woman mentioned in the book is Noelle Brown, an adoption rights activist. She speaks about adoption rights as an equality issue. I think that’s a really powerful way to think about it because, it’s true, we have people in Ireland who were adopted and don’t have equal rights to their birth information or even their original birth certificate. There are so many ongoing barriers to information for people who were born in these institutions, and for the mothers who were essentially incarcerated and want access to the records held on them. I think the breaking of silences around what happened in the mother and baby homes has been a catalyst for the sort of movements for equality that we’ve seen over the last few years, but I think there is still a lack of awareness of the ongoing inequalities that people face, this culture of silence and shame. 

There’s still a culture of silence around adoption in Ireland, especially when it comes to adoptees accessing their own information. Our adoption laws were always intended to keep it as secret as possible. It’s surprising that they’re presented as protecting the privacy rights of the mothers—almost every woman I’ve ever spoken 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. 

And yes, there are those who haven’t, who still keep it a secret from their husbands and other children. But that’s not because they stopped thinking about their child. It’s often that there’s still this shame. That’s the biggest reason for the ongoing silence. There’s still a culture of silence that needs to be broken. Putting the rights of the mother and child in competition with each other only serves the culture of silence—much more than it serves the mother. 

The decision to search and trace is very complicated. That was very important to the book. But in the experience of the women I spoke to, at least, the reality is that so many of these mothers spent their entire lives thinking about what happened to their child.

LS: The book really interrogates this “shame-industrial complex.” I’m interested in the role silence played in that complex—in the many kinds of silences, really. For instance, there’s the silence of the ashamed, and the silence of the oppressor. Did you perceive a difference in how these silences are perpetuated?

CH: Funnily enough, when it came to speaking with religious sisters who worked in the institutions, I was surprised by how eager many were to talk. On an institutional level, there’s a very pervasive silence. And the minute lawyers got involved, conversations shut down. 

But on a personal level it was different. I spoke to a woman who worked as a midwife in St. Patrick’s which was the largest mother and baby home in Ireland. She was a religious sister with the Daughters of Charity. She spoke to me about her memories of the women, very detailed memories. One woman coming in with two corsets on to hide her pregnancy, another woman who brought in a map so she could pretend she was off in Norway when really she was in an institution in Dublin giving birth in secret. This midwife remembered so much and shared these memories and stories, and yet I remember getting a call from a nun high up in the order to say, oh that you know that woman’s memory isn’t very good. 

I was constantly told by people within the church that I was only hearing one side, and that the media was representing this history in a very one-sided way. And yet when I went and tried to get the other side, I faced silence on an institutional level. Some nuns were eager to give their experiences but there was too much of a hierarchy. So, that was a real insight, I think. Even within these congregations, silence is imposed.

LS: I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about the idea of female virtue. There’s an idea that in post-colonial nation building, the new national identity is often staked on female virtue. How do you think Ireland’s post-colonial history factors into the mother and baby homes? 

CH: Well, look at the way “‘Kathleen ní Houlihan”’ came to represent this whole image of Ireland, a woman to be rescued or defended, being assaulted—invaded by colonial forces. It was in the nationalistic literature and art of the [1916] Rising, the country as a woman’s body being occupied. In the 30s, when [Eamon] de Valera oversaw the writing of the new constitution, he had this vision of Ireland being a land of “comely maidens” in their homesteads. It’s still within our constitution, the part that says the women’s place is in the home. It was meant to be taken out, there was meant to be a vote on it and there hasn’t been yet. 

Every mother and baby home would have an image of the Virgin Mary, in the grotto of penitence. That was the ideal woman, a Virgin Mary.

But you can see where Ireland was trying to create a new national identity that was in every way opposed to Britain, and that was primarily done through this association with the Church. A Catholic nation, a moral nation. One in which women went from being active fighters, activists within the Rising to comely maidens that were meant to stay at home. Women becoming pregnant out of wedlock defied that image. The system of institutions was to hide away anyone who defied or undermined the ideal image of what Irishness was in the eyes of the state and church. That meant mothers and babies—any other people, too. Mental institutions were used the same way. 

Every laundry or mother and baby home would have an image of the Virgin Mary, of course in what looks like the grotto of penitence. That was the ideal. The ideal woman was a Virgin Mary.

LS: You note that a 1924 report stated one in every three illegitimate children born alive was dying within a year. I’m interested in this report because it suggests awareness, which is to say, complicity. To my mind, there is intentional complicity and ignorant complicity, but it seems like the two kinds can do the same amount of damage. What kind of role do you think complicity has in silence, institutionalism, and the shame-industrial complex?

CH: I think it’s shocking how quickly these institutions became normalized. I’m still surprised when I go through reports on mortality rates within the homes and the fact that those rates were raised during the very first years the system was operating. It was no secret. The children were dying and at much higher rates because of the conditions and very little was done about it. You see even the way that the [famine] workhouses were repurposed from the workhouse system imposed by Britain. The likes of Tuam and St. Patrick’s were in former workhouses, places which separated children as well. So, we took over that system, we gave it to religious orders who really perpetuated that environment. In other words, it was never a secret, people in positions of authority knew the realities of the conditions within the institutions and they knew children were dying at disproportionate rates. There was just a sense that these lives didn’t have as much value as the lives of others. 

I don’t know if you could call it complicity, but it’s absolutely culpability and the effect of stigma that allows you to normalize some lives having less value than others. There was also a sense that these children were immoral and delicate, the children born of an immoral relationship were somehow physically vulnerable. It was as if their deaths were seen as inevitable because they were born “illegitimate”. A deeply internalized discrimination towards these children, instilled by the Church’s dogma about sex outside of marriage being a terrible sin, was replicated in politics and law. 

In terms of complicity, I think it’s hard, again, for my generation to understand the deep influence of the church people at that time, where the church was really the ultimate authority. People didn’t question. 

LS: Our generation is talking a lot about how social oppressions are systemic. Racism and sexism are deeply woven into society but there aren’t physical institutions in the same way Catholicism has churches. How do you think institutional power presents nowadays?

CH: Eliza Griswold did a great piece recently for The New Yorker on crisis pregnancy agencies, religious crisis pregnancy agencies that were given funding for doing ultrasounds and operating the reproductive health care even though really the whole intent of their operations was to prevent women seeking abortions. So, we’re seeing the rollback of rights. In the U.S., there’s the strong influence of the religious right. In Ireland, the Church does still have influence over us. I think it’s 90% of primary schools are still owned by the Church or denominational. 

Private organizations were profiting off the institutionalizing of people. We see that worldwide—this sort of treatment of marginalized people is normalized.

Look at systems like Direct Provision in Ireland where we have normalized the institutionalization of vulnerable people. That, to me, shows how a harmful system grows and is accepted for so long. Private organizations were profiting off the institutionalization of people. And I think we see that worldwide—this sort of treatment of marginalized people is normalized, it becomes acceptable. There are so many parallels—think of the forced separation of families in the U.S. 

I think that was the most surprising thing about the legacy of the religious run institutions in Ireland: how normal they were considered. It wasn’t a completely secret system that no one knew about, it was just seen as the way things were done. The people sent to those institutions were seen as people deserving of that discrimination. In order for discrimination to be systemic, it has to be normalized. 

LS: Do you think spending so much time immersed in this material has improved your ability to see contemporary parallels? How has it felt being steeped in this story for so long?

CH: I think one of the main things it showed me was the lengths to which people will go to protect an institution. When it comes to church and state, that is the purpose of silence, to protect the institution. And, I say this in the book, that doesn’t do them any favors.

I also saw how institutions grow and then have to be sustained. And yes, there are endless parallels. It’s the same with Direct Provision, and you could say private prisons in the U.S., and other carceral, for-profit institutions. The lengths people will go to when there’s an incentive to keep an institution running is shocking. No matter what the damage is. 

With the Church today, you see the same sort of stigmas and discrimination. During the World Meeting of Families a few years ago, there was a Catholic bishop who said contraception removes a woman’s right to say no to unwanted sex and blamed homosexuality for a “contraceptive mentality.” The Catholic hierarchy still seeks to influence state policy and law. 

With systems like emergency accommodation, we are still warehousing vulnerable people for profit. It’s a way to hide people away. The ongoing moralizing and pathologizing, taking away agency from people—it’s a way of taking away power and giving it to someone who thinks they know better. I think that’s probably the core of how the mother and baby institutions developed in the first place. 

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