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Ireland’s stolen generations

RTE’s Rachael English chatted to David Hennessy about her new book The Paper Bracelet that deals with the horrors of the mother and baby homes, the defenceless women who were degraded and shamed and the babies who were taken away from their mothers.

Some stories stay with you and others and come back and hit you year later. The inspiration for Rachael English’s latest novel The Paper Bracelet was more like the latter.

Rachael is well known to Irish television audiences for presenting Morning Ireland and other current affairs programmes for RTE.

However, Rachael was a young and much more inexperienced journalist when over 20 years ago, she interviewed a group of women who had been born in a mother and baby home in Cork and were searching for their birth mothers.

Rachael told The Irish World: “I think it was more a case that it came back to me. I had always had a bit of an interest in the story.

“I don’t think I fully understood the significance of what they were saying. Even though at that stage in the 90s, we had become aware that there was dishonesty out there on a huge scale in terms of the official response to what had happened, that people were being lied to when they were trying to find their birth mothers.

“But I look back on it now and I think, ‘Gosh, there should have been even more made of it at the time’. I went back and listened to a tape from that time and I was struck that one of the women that I spoke to spoke about how her birth cert was a fake. The people who were listed as her parents on it were actually her adopted parents so her birth mother had been erased from the record. It’s only two years ago an official inquiry was announced into that practice but at the same time, it was obviously known about 25 years ago and here this woman was 25 years ago talking about this on the radio.

“But it’s only now that we’re really starting to take this seriously. That’s a terrible thing to do to anybody: To erase their history and in the case of her birth mother just write her out of the picture entirely and pretend that she hasn’t existed.”

Having previously written about forced adoption in The American Girl, Rachael felt drawn right back to it again.

“It was after The American Girl I thought, ‘I will return to this one day’. Then I wrote another book and I wrote part of another book again but the idea was there the whole time and then I finally decided that the time to write this is now rather than putting it off. I ran the idea by a couple of people who said, ‘Oh sure, you’d have to write that’. In some ways the story was always there at the back of my head.”

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The mother and baby homes were cruel places.

The mother and baby homes, much like the Magdalene Laundries, were brutal establishments where vulnerable and defenceless young women were often shamed into giving up their children.

After having their babies effectively stolen the women would be forced to work in the laundry or kitchen to work off a ‘debt’. The only other way to achieve release was to pay a sum of money only a small number of families would be able to afford.

And once the children had been given up, there was no going back. Even now if the children want to find their birth parents they have few rights and legislation to change this has been a long time coming.

Rachael’s fictional story The Paper Bracelet is about a mother and baby home like those in Ireland’s shameful past. Set in the fictional Carrigbrack mother and baby home, it tells the story of Patricia who is packed off as soon as she tells her parents she is pregnant.

Although she is devastated when her son is taken away, Patricia has no idea a nurse called Katie, horrified by what she sees, has been keeping the paper bracelets which were put on babies’ wrists and keeps record of mothers’ names.

When Katie finds the bracelets that she has not thought about for years, she sets about giving those searching some answers.

The American Girl evoked reactions from many people who knew the reality of homes like the one in Rachael’s writing and one even partly inspired the character of Katie.

“I remember a woman got in touch with me about something that was in the previous book and we ended up having a long email communication over several months. In fact, I’m still in touch with her.

“She hadn’t worked in a mother and baby home but she did have a lot of experience of fostering so she knew the system pretty well. She basically helped people who had been born in mother and baby homes to try and find their birth families.

“And I kind of learned more and more about how complex this was and just how many stories were out there. I had this idea of somebody like that who was part counsellor/part detective and then I came across various other stories and the idea of Katie came to me and in the end the character was clear in my head.”

Rosemary Adaser, CEO of the Association of Mixed Race Irish, told us recently how she saved up for a ticket to England as soon as she was free from the mother and baby home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many survivors did leave the country that had shamed them and England was the the first choice for many.

“In the book one of the characters is eventually found in London and she moved to London after her experience in the mother and baby home.

“That was something that I wanted to get in as well, the fact that so many women left.

“If you follow this story at all, say you’re listening to the radio and there are women talking about the experience, the amount of London accents or Birmingham accents or Liverpool accents you will hear because so many women left.

“In fact I was talking to a woman just the other day who had read the book and had been born in a mother and baby home and managed to find her birth mother. It took years and years. Her birth mother was in New York.

“She had basically gone as far away as she could go at the time when she was freed from the mother and baby home.

“I can totally understand. If you had been through that experience as a young person and you had been treated in that way, you can’t blame them. It wasn’t even so much the individual cruelties, it’s just the fact of how cruel the whole system was and in many ways continues to be because it’s so difficult for people to find each other that I can totally understand why people would want to turn their backs and go as far away as they could.

“There’s probably still too much secrecy about all of this but thankfully in Ireland now it’s fair to say that it’s possible for some people to be more open. And if people don’t want to tell their stories, they should be given that space too.

“There are cases of women who literally live in fear of being found so there is a balancing of rights there.

“It’s not as though everybody should be forced to talk about what happened to them but it would be nice to think if women do want to talk, they’re able to.

Rachael English with RTE colleagues Dr Gavin Jennings and Keelin Shanley who passed away last year.

“All of these issues have been there for years and have come to the fore every now and again.”

Having written two books on the subject now, does Rachael reflect and ask the big question of why these places were allowed to carry out such horrors for so long? “It’s just this was the acceptable way to behave.

“Obviously religion was part of it but it wasn’t just about religion. It was about so-called respectability.

“It was about money as well in the sense that there was no support for single parents. There was literally nothing, there was no payment until the 1970s so if you had a baby, you were on your own. There were no allowances, there was nothing.

“There were a lot of layers to it, as to how this practice continued for so long and why. There are lots of recorded cases of young women running away from a home and being brought back by the guards but it was no business of the guards. The women hadn’t committed any crime. In fact in many cases they may have even been the victim of a crime but it was just this thing that went unspoken.

“In recent years the surface has been scratched, I’m not saying everyone you meet has a story but I’m just amazed by how many families, how many people I know, say, ‘That’s like my aunt, we were never told and I only found out in my forties that I had another cousin..’

“It’s just there are an awful lot of stories out there still and I suppose for the women in particular time is moving and if they do want to find their son or daughter, time is running on and they mightn’t have a lot more time so now is really important.”

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was due to report their findings in June but whether this will still happen in the wake of Covid-19 is anyone’s guess.

“It’s been delayed a couple of times. At the moment it’s hard to know whether it will be pubished in June but I hope it is because I know there are a lot of people who want official recognition of what was done to them. I think that matters to a lot of people. I tried to get that across in the book in a way that the characters are not looking for anything, they just want people to accept that this happened and that this was wrong.”

Terry Harrison whose baby Niall John Dunne Kiernan was adopted and she had never seen again joined a protest which was held outside the Dail to call for full Statutory Commission of Inquiry into all Mother and Baby homes in 2014.

It was actually the story of Philomena Lee, made into an Oscar-winning film by Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, that somewhat inspired Rachael to write The American Girl which led to The Paper Bracelet.

“In a convoluted way, the genesis of this book is with Philomena Lee’s story. I was listening to Liveline when the film Philomena came out and people were ringing in with their own stories.

“One person told a story about discovering that her birth mother was American so that’s where I got the idea for that book so in a way it kind of does all go back to Philomena’s story and the fact that that perhaps more than anything else opened the door so people felt they could talk about this subject.

“I just remember at the time caller after caller after caller telling their stories and it was just immense, the sheer amount of unhappiness and in many ways hidden unhappiness that women had had and tried to get on with their lives.

“We hear a lot at the moment about resilience and fortitude and everything. I think these women embody resilience and fortitude. What so many of them had to put up with and the fact that they still went on and lived their lives.

“When you read women’s accounts they say, ‘I got on with my life but still there hasn’t been a single day of that life that I haven’t thought about my son and daughter and wondered, ‘Are they alright? What happened to them? Has life been kind to them? Do they have any interest in meeting me?”

“It does all go back to Philoemena, I suppose.”

Philomena Lee, who inspired the Oscar-winning film ‘Philomena’ and her daughter Jane Libberton

The musician Don Stiffe told us recently about his search for his birth mother. We also interviewed Elizabeth Coppin about taking a landmark torture case against the Irish state for their treatment of women in the Magdalene Laundries.

Rachael says she felt a responsibility to the subject as it still affects many people’s lives.

“Obviously it’s a work of fiction and the mother and baby home in the book is a fictional place and the characters are only real in my head but there is an element if you’re writing about something like this of having a certain responsibility to try and get the basics right.

“It’s been really heartening and touching when over the past few weeks as the book came out several people who have searched for their own birth parents have got in touch with me to say, ‘You got it right, the descriptions are accurate’. And I guess they’re the people who know far more about this than anybody else.

“I’ve also had a couple of lovely messages from women who gave birth in mother and baby homes so that does matter with something like this because in a way it’s part of history but in a bigger way it’s not. The stories are still all around us.

“The home I did the story about shut down in ’96 which does seem extraordinary. It’s not that long ago. Sometimes I think we see photos of mother and baby homes and they’re black and white and they’re pictures of iron cots and nuns in long dresses and it can seem like it’s ancient history but it’s not, it’s very, very recent.”

The Paper Bracelet is available from Hachette in Ireland. A UK edition will be available from Headline in July.

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