Sunday 25 February 2024

Book review: Ireland’s mother and baby homes scandal viewed through a personal lens

Clair Wills recently told an interviewer that she cried while recording the audio version of this book. It’s a safe bet that many of her readers will also be shedding tears.

Missing Persons is a brilliantly crafted but desperately bleak memoir, written by a historian who has used her family trauma to put an entire country on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Born and raised in London just over 60 years ago, Wills spent summer holidays at her grandmother’s west Cork farmhouse outside Ballydehob. 

Although the place was primitive, young Clair found a certain magic in fetching water from a well and cooking over an open fire. She also got on well with her cousins, despite them sometimes making her feel like “a not-quite-fully-Irish person”.

It wasn’t until her late 20s that Wills discovered her Cork granny had been guarding a terrible secret. 

Around eight years before Clair’s birth, her uncle Jackie impregnated a teenage neighbour called Lily. She came from an even less well-off family, had a “withered arm” and, in the archaic language of 1950s Ireland, was considered “poor stock”.

With marriage therefore ruled out, Jackie and Lily were both effectively “disappeared”. He emigrated to England and never returned, becoming just another lonely Irish labourer on factory floors and building sites. 

She was sent to Bessborough House, the notorious home for “fallen women” whose residents were described by one government report as “miserable scraps of humanity”.

The resulting child, Mary, was doomed to grow up in a series of orphanages and industrial schools – just a few miles away from the farm where her unsuspecting half-English cousin enjoyed idyllic summer breaks.

For Wills, this revelation brought about a severe case of survivor’s guilt. She herself had given birth to a child outside of wedlock, but never entertained any doubts that it would stop her from enjoying full social respectability or a successful career. 

Today she is a professor of English literature at Cambridge University and the author of several heavyweight books about Irish culture and identity.

Personal work

Missing Persons is a much more personal work, although still underpinned by Wills’s academic training. For over 30 years now she has been engaged in a non-televised version of Who Do You Think You Are?, looking up birth certs, visiting graves and interviewing people who helped piece together her relatives’ troubled past.

To reveal too much about her findings here would be unfair, but she warns readers from the start that there were plenty more skeletons just waiting to tumble out of the family closet.

Wills’s pious grandmother, for example, turned out to have been expecting a child herself when she got married in 1920. 

There is strong evidence to suggest that her own mother was passed off as a sister, not an uncommon practice in rural Ireland back then.

Most tragically of all, Wills learned that there had been no happy ending for her phantom cousin Mary after leaving the Bessborough nuns. 

She trained as a nurse in England, was impregnated by an Indian doctor, got rejected by his family and eventually hanged herself.

Ireland’s mother and baby homes scandal has already inspired plenty of memoirs, some with even more harrowing stories than this one. 

What makes Missing Persons so exceptional is Wills’s determination to see the bigger picture.

Attitudes to sexuality

Her personal narrative is skilfully blended with a potted history of Irish attitudes to sexuality, arguing that our “culture of secrecy” began as a way of protecting vulnerable people but was later twisted by religious zealots into something cruel and violent.

In fact, Wills’ most striking conclusion of all is that her family ordeal was nothing special. 

At least 56,000 unmarried women (the official figure is probably a gross underestimate) entered Irish mother and baby homes and most of them had several siblings. 

Simple maths tells you that almost everyone in the country has some connection with this painful phenomenon, whether we know about it or not.

Wills’ prose style can be a little overwrought and she often has to substitute educated guesswork for hard facts. 

Even so, this is an unusually intelligent book about Ireland’s greatest national shame – written for those who want to understand a little more and condemn a little less.