MARY MUSGROVE on her photography exhibition – currently showing at the London Irish Centre –that delves into her family history and the mother and baby home scandal. By David Hennessy
The Mary, Mary exhibition by photographer Mary Musgrove at the London Irish Centre in Camden is described as a ‘photovoice’ project for victims and survivors of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes Scandal.
It is a story of the ‘aftermath of trauma’ and a semi-autobiographical account of ‘what remains.’
In January 1964, Mary Musgrove’s mother was incarcerated for having a baby whilst unmarried.
That later led to her sister’s forced adoption. Her sister had originally been named Mary by her mother.
Ireland’s still unresolved Mother & Baby Homes scandal has been well-documented and is a shameful part of Irish history.
Musgrove feels that aside from some apologies and some compensation claims, there has been no long-term acknowledgement to help survivors and their families deal with their decades of abuse and trauma.
Her own personal interpretation of the psychological issues faced by victims/survivors relies on what she calls therapeutic photography.
She says the images in Mary, Mary explore Ireland’s landscapes in winter, where the narrative begins.
The exhibition is, she says, about Irish society’s attitudes towards those in power, in politics and religion and records crimes against vulnerable young people who needed help from people they
should have been able to trust.
It offers a safe place for victims and survivors to talk about their experiences if they wish and seek support with The Survivor Group at the London Irish Centre in Camden.
Mary Musgrove, who is London Irish, told The Irish World: “Mary, Mary evolved as part of my Master’s (degree).
“It was my final project and I decided to do it because I felt that there was a need to address our family history and what had happened to my mum and my sister in 1964.
“I wanted to address the history of the family, to address what happened to our family because of this trauma with mum and ‘Mary’ because it impacted our family on a subliminal level.
“It was always there.
“It was a secret that was never, ever talked about, discussed, or delved into.
““It had an effect on me because I found out about it when I was 17, so it was something that I obviously brought up with mum and I went to look for my sister.
“I went to look for ‘Mary’ when I found out, and I was shunned by the nuns.
“It just made me very, very conscious that it was something I could do nothing about.
“It was something that made me quite angry, and it was always pushed to the back of my mind but always there in the background, whirring away, ‘Where is she? What happened? Why does nobody talk about it? Why is it such a secret? Why is it so bad?’
“I never did anything about it because I didn’t want to upset the family because it was such a taboo subject.
“It was left and with secrets, there’s shame.
“It was something that should have been more open and should have been discussed and talked about and I should have been able to look for her in a proactive and positive way.
“It was something that I feel created generational trauma for so many that not only went through an horrific experience, but were then stigmatised afterwards or had to leave their home and family regardless and could never speak of it again or look for children. It was trauma and heartache that never ended because there were so many unanswered questions.
“Around Ireland from 1921 to 1996 there were about 90,000 women incarcerated and their children forcibly put up for adoption.
“The remnants remain because if you look around Ireland, every couple of houses you see, there’s a derelict house. There’s a home that somebody didn’t come back for.
“The Irish diaspora that went to England, Australia, and America, although a lot of people went because they were sent away to earn money, there was a lot of people sent away because there was shame.
“It has a relation to the landscape we see today.”
Q: DIDN’T THE FILM PHILOMENA AND THE IRISH GOVERNMENT REPORT INTO THE MOTHER & BABY HOMES BRING THE SUBJECT INTO THE OPEN?
“Absolutely, because before the film Philomena a lot of people knew nothing about it.
“The Church doesn’t have the hold that it had then.
“The films, books and inquiry allowed people to talk more about it.
“People have been able to find their adopted children or their adopted children have been able to – with huge difficulty – trace their birth families.
“It has been too late for a lot of people and some people didn’t want to be traced. So, for a lot of people, there were no happy endings.
“It does make it easier for people to talk about but there were a lot of survivors that were traumatised – men and women – during that period.
“It wasn’t just the Mother & Baby homes, there were the Christian Brothers as well.
“A lot of those survivors don’t want to go back to that story.”
Q: YOU SAY YOU WERE YOUNG WHEN YOU FIRST REALISED YOU HAD A LOST SISTER. DID BECOMING A MOTHER CHANGE THE STORY FOR YOU?
“You can’t really understand just how traumatic it must have been.
“When they talk about it in the Dáil, they just look at numbers and how many people have been affected.
“It’s all just numbers, it’s statistics.
“They don’t look at the long held trauma of what these women went through, they were abused and had their babies taken from them.
“I can’t imagine for one second having given birth… you go through all this joy and pain of having a baby, look forward to having a baby for so long, nine months – the thought of somebody coming along and taking any of your children away. I can’t imagine anything worse.
“Then, after that, to be punished.
“(Punished) for days, and weeks, and months, and for a lot of people – years.
“Was it not punishment enough to take your baby away but then to be continually punished within a mother and baby home?
“I just can’t imagine how people overcome that.
“As a mother myself, I just couldn’t bear that.”
Q: DID THIS PROJECT RECONCILE THE IRELAND YOU WENT ON HOLIDAY TO THROUGHOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD, WITH THE SETTING FOR THIS SCANDAL AND HORRIFIC STORY?
“As a teenager, going back to Ireland wasn’t somewhere I wanted to be. There was the oppression there.
“That would have been growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Once I knew about the story at the age of 17 and what had happened, and I heard other stories as well.”
Q: YOU’RE REFERRING TO STORIES LIKE THAT OF ANN LOVETT, THE 15-YEAR-OLD WHO GAVE BIRTH BESIDE A GROTTO IN LONGFORD IN 1984. BOTH SHE AND THE BABY DIED.
“Young girls were dying and there was still that shame attached to the family.
“I wanted to use my photography to show images that showed the oppression, what had gone on in Ireland during that time, during my lifetime.
“I used this project to investigate what had happened to my family, to investigate and research the Irish history that ran alongside my family history.
“I needed to, like you say, reconcile the outcome, to have a positive outcome at the end of it.”
Q: HAS IT BEEN A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE?
“It’s been a real rollercoaster throughout the whole project.
“I started off to research it and then got very angry, then I got very sad.
“I wanted to produce a piece of work that would question the injustices of the church, and the
“It wasn’t to horrify people, because a lot of people know the stories anyway, it was purely to find my peace as a Catholic, as a daughter, as a mother.
“I just wanted to come to terms with the injustice of what happened and use images to find
a way of healing generational trauma.
“During the process, I cried, I got angry. I researched more.
“I covered the distance of the journey that my mum had to take on that day and I questioned everything and looked into everything.
“I talked a lot with my sister, so rather than keeping it a story in the background, it was all brought out.
“For me, it was a healing, therapeutic journey although it’s still very raw.
“You can’t help but be transported back to that time.
“From the time that I found out to the time that ‘Mary’ found Mum, there was just such a large space in between where it’s so sad that I listened to the nuns and didn’t do anything about it. It’s my way of apologising to ‘Mary’ for not finding her. That’s why it’s Mary, Mary. It’s the story about us. It’s Mum’s story as well, but it’s a story about me finding ‘Mary’
“A lot of it is about guilt, loss. It is a sad story.
“No matter how old we get, secrets that make you feel ashamed should be talked about because there should have been no shame.
“This project is a photovoice, it’s telling a story with photos, to bring out something that can’t necessarily be easily said.
“I really hope, whether they be survivors or people that know people that have been through this, that the exhibition Mary, Mary brings them to a place where they feel that they’re able to talk about what happened to them, if they want to.”