Breaking the silence

Caelainn Hogan

Author Caelainn Hogan spoke to David Hennessy before she comes to Liverpool Irish Festival to talk about her book Republic of Shame which looks at the horrors of the mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries. 

Dublin journalist and author Caelainn Hogan will come to Liverpool this month to discuss her book, Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s Institutions for ‘Fallen Women’.

The event is part of the Liverpool Irish Festival.

Republic of Shame has been described as an important book highlighting the reality of life inside institutions like the Magdalene laundries and Ireland’s many mother and baby homes, places where girls and women were incarcerated and condemned to servitude.

In most cases their babies were adopted – often illegally.

Mortality rates in these institutions were shockingly high, and the discovery of a mass infant grave at the Bon Secours mother-and-baby home in Tuam in 2014 made headlines all over the world.

Just last year, the full report into the mother and baby homes was finally delivered and the Taoiseach offered an apology on behalf of the state. A redress scheme has been announced and an information and tracing bill has come into effect. But the redress scheme has been condemned for excluding many while the information and tracing bill has also been described as ‘flawed’ meaning many people are still searching for answers and loved ones.

Caelainn Hogan sat down with many survivors to write Republic of Shame and the book details their experiences.

It may be hard to read at times but it documents Ireland’s shameful past.

When she comes to Liverpool Caelainn expects to meet many who were affected by these institutions either by spending time there or leaving Ireland to escape.

However these places also existed here and she says it is important that Britain now opens its own inquiry into similar institutions and forced adoption.

Caelainn told The Irish World: “I’m hoping that this event can open up a conversation and break some more silences around the experiences of survivors.

“I think what’s most moving for me is when people tell me that reading the book, or coming to an event like this, has helped them have a conversation with someone in their family or about their own experiences.

Philomena Lee, the woman whose life was shown in the film Philomena.

“It’s a catalyst for change when we break those silences.”

Caelainn describes what moved her to write Republic of Shame.

“During the debate leading up to the marriage equality referendum, I remember there was some debate around who gets to be a family. People opposed to marriage equality saying, ‘Children should only be raised by a married heterosexual couple’.

“And there was real pushback against that at the time, I remember people who’ve been adopted, or people who’ve been raised by their grandparents, or by single mothers pushing back against that thing, ‘No one’s gonna tell me who my family is or who gets to be a family’.

“For so long in Ireland, there wasn’t equal protection for families that didn’t match the idealised institution of the family as dictated by the church.

“That was a conversation that I remember happening.

“Then we were looking ahead to the abortion referendum as well and so a lot of people were sharing testimonies about how they had been treated as pregnant people forced to travel outside the country or shamed into silence, unable to speak because of the shame that was imposed on people who accessed abortion.

“And at the same time, survivors of the mother and baby home institutions were sharing their testimonies, speaking out about the injustices within those institutions, and how pregnant people had been treated by church and state in this country for so long, effectively incarcerated and silenced for decades, separated from their children due to the stigma against being born outside of wedlock and being pregnant outside of marriage.

“All this was happening at the same time. It was a very pivotal time.

Historian Catherine Corless carries a “baby coffin” in Tuam.

“2017 was also the year that it was confirmed that significant human remains were found in sewerage chambers on the grounds of the Bon Secours institution in Tuam, so it was a really significant time and I wanted to write about it.

“I started speaking to people who had been in these institutions, and speaking to survivors about their experiences of being locked away in institutions and separated from their children.

“And what really struck me was that this was not the past, this was an ongoing injustice.

“These were mothers still searching for their children and people still searching for information about their origins and their family and identity.

“And people my own age, that surprised me: That this was something that my generation was dealing with as well.

“People my age and younger were still searching for answers, who had been born in these institutions and separated from their mothers and their families through this system.

“There was a lot of issues around the denial of equal rights for adopted people to their birth certificate and their information, something that in Britain has been, I think, normal since the 70s, that you should get access to your original birth certificate as an adopted person.

“Ongoing injustices needed to be exposed and I wanted to shed some light on that by sharing these testimonies.”

Taoiseach Micheal Martin presented a state apology to the survivors of Mother and Baby Homes, following the publication of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. 

Caelainn grew up in Blackrock, Dublin and did not know that these institutions were operating very near to her own doorstep.

“I grew up across the road from the Daughters of Charity that ran the largest mother and baby home institution in Ireland, so wasn’t aware of what was right on my doorstep until I started writing Republic of Shame.

“St. Patrick’s Templehill was a place I walked by almost every day on the way to school actually, so it was all around us, these invisible institutions that were known locally but not spoken about.

“I guess writing the book was an attempt to change that and break some of the silences around these institutions.

“I just have so much respect for the survivors I spoke to and for their ongoing fight for justice and for the truth, who for so many years have been speaking out about what happened in the institutions and no one would listen, or believe them.

“People often talk about giving a voice to survivors through writing about these stories but survivors have their own voices and they have been using them for many years to try and expose the injustices of these institutions.

“But people in power repeatedly denied the lived experiences of survivors, as we’ve seen through the Commission of investigations report that just came out there.

“Survivors felt their experiences were completely denied in a report that within the first few pages called these institutions ‘refuges’.

“These were places the survivors describe being sent away to and effectively incarcerated within and abused while in these institutions, treated very inhumanely, forced to work, denied time with their children, and then forcibly separated from their children in many cases.

“So for an official report to call these places refuges, I think is very cruel after so many survivors had shared their testimonies in good faith.

“There’s been many survivors who have been pushing for a review of the findings of that report, the government is denying survivors in their quest for those findings be reviewed and challenged.

“It’s still, I think, incredibly important to listen to the testimony of these survivors.

“The survivors I’ve spoken to just want justice.

“They want justice done, they want the full truth.

“And they feel that this report and the state is denying them that justice and refusing to listen to their voices.

“We have a redress scheme that still excludes many people who would have been sent to these institutions.

“We have new information and tracing legislation that just went through this year that many survivors described as very flawed.

“Adopted people, many of whom were adopted from these institutions, still don’t have absolute rights to their birth certificate without going through agencies like Tusla, which have been highly criticised by survivors.

“Many people who are living in Britain are affected by this also.

“The Association of Mixed Race Irish have been calling for justice and access to records for many years.

“There are just so many barriers that are in place and many have said that this basic access to information and identity should be part of any redress and yet, survivors still don’t have or are still facing so many barriers in accessing information about their own identity, and their family.

“There were many cases of illegal adoption and there’s yet to be an official investigation into that.

“This has a relevance, there’s been a campaign for an investigation, a public inquiry into forced adoption in Britain that’s being denied as well.

“That could also affect many women and girls that left Ireland to go to Britain when they found out they were pregnant.

“But these institutions existed in Britain as well.

“One of the first mother and baby institutions was St Pelagia’s in London and it was set up by the sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, which ran three institutions in Ireland.

“It wasn’t just in Ireland.

““So it is something affecting many people in Britain today, whether they are women who travelled to England to escape institutions here or British women and girls sent there.

“I’m interested to go to Liverpool and hopefully talk to people more about the experiences there and how the institutions operated as well because I think there is so much in common.

“There are thousands of women and girls who left Ireland to go to England.

“I think that’s still an untold story.

“I think there’s a lot of silence around the experiences of women and girls that left Ireland, and went to England in an effort to keep their children and some found themselves in similar institutions as well or sent back to Ireland, there’s so many stories to be heard.”

Mother and Baby home survivor Rosemary Adaser

Caelainn spoke to UK-based survivors for her book.

“One of the survivors I spoke to was one of the thousands of women sent back, often forcibly, from England, to Irish institutions.

“She was sent to Bessborough. Her son sadly died while in the institution and she was told nothing about where he was buried and denied information around that, and she was put back on a boat to England.

“And she’s still living there and has been fighting for so many years for information, trying to find out where her son was buried.

“It was only after the official report came out that I actually noticed an anonymous paragraph within that report that seemed to relate to her son, and it turned out it was her son that the report was referring to.

“Even then she had to apply to the authorities for the same information she had been trying to get for so many years.

“He was buried in a famine burial site in Cork, not far from the institution itself and not a single marking for his grave.

“There was a number of people I spoke to about their experiences being either leaving for England or being sent back to Ireland to these institutions.

“I think there’s just so many people who have probably never spoken about why they left Ireland, and their experiences going to England alone.

“I spoke to many women who would have been institutionalised through their whole childhood and early life: Born in a mother and baby home institution, sent to an orphanage and then an industrial school.

“And when they came out, when they’re finally released at 16 or so, at least one woman told me that she left for England because she was terrified of being put back and the only thing you could do to avoid being sent to the Magdalene Laundries or incarcerated for the rest of her life was to leave, to escape.”

Republic of Shame has been described as hard to read, was it hard to write? Was it difficult to listen to people’s experiences or ask them to open old wounds? “I think one of the hardest things for me was hearing people still denying the truth of what has happened in these institutions, claiming that it was a conspiracy or Tuam didn’t happen.

“And despite the countless testimonies from survivors, about their own experiences in these institutions, to still have official reports describe these institutions as ‘refuges’, to have people questioning or doubting the lived experiences of survivors, I think that was even more difficult than writing some of the experiences.

“That was the hardest thing.

“I’m keenly aware that for survivors who spoke to me, they had to relive traumatic experiences and it wasn’t easy for them.

“I think it’s important to remember what survivors have gone through, it can be very painful for survivors to relive this trauma but they do so in the hope that their lived experiences will be heard and it will bring about justice and change.

“So to be forced to relive that trauma and then have their testimonies denied is especially cruel.

“The denial of their experience in the official narrative is very harmful and hurtful to survivors, many of whom would have given their testimony in the hopes that something like this wouldn’t happen again.

“It’s very important for them that what happened in these institutions is understood.

“The forced separation of children from their mothers and the trauma that was inflicted, for that to be understood is so important.”

Caelainn Hogan will be speaking with Dr. Meav McDaid, as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival at Royal Court Studio 6pm on 28 October.

The Liverpool Irish Festival runs 20- 30 October. For more information, click here.