Caelainn Hogan was born in Dublin in 1988, and grew up a stone’s throw from Ireland’s biggest holding centre for adoptions. Her journalism has featured in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New Yorker, VICE magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Irish Times and The Dublin Review. In her debut book, Republic of Shame, she examines Ireland’s institutions for unmarried mothers, and the people whose lives will be forever impacted by the country’s fixation on shame.
Caelainn will be in conversation with Katie Hannon on Friday, 15 November at 6.30 pm. Find out more here.
What first made you interested in researching and writing a book about the institutions for unmarried mothers?
I began writing the book in 2017, the year that the results of the test excavation in Tuam were released. I had been reporting abroad as a freelance journalist but was back home in Ireland, working on stories about current forms of institutionalisation, like direct provision and emergency accommodation. A catalyst for me was realising how little I knew about Ireland’s religious-run institutions, particularly the so-called mother and baby “homes” where women pregnant outside of marriage were sent. When I began speaking to people about these institutions, I quickly came to realise how many lives were still being impacted by this legacy of shame and stigma. People I knew personally were affected. People my own age who were adopted through the institutions were still being denied access to their own birth information. There was a new generation only beginning to search.
I wanted to speak with many different people who had been inside these institutions, to understand this legacy through their lived experiences. I spoke with a mother who gave birth twice in Tuam and was sent to a Magdalene Laundry and also to a nun who worked in Ireland’s biggest mother and baby home. They described a surreal system of secrecy. It became more and more important to me to understand the experiences of people who had been behind the walls of these institutions.
One of the most gripping aspects of the book is how contemporary it is. We have a tendency to view these places as part of Ireland’s recent history, but your book draws a lot of attention to the fact that for many people, it’s still a huge aspect of their lives. Did you have a particular moment when it really hit you how current this subject matter is?
I remember one moment when it struck me just how recently this system operated in Ireland. I was in the middle of viewing a room to rent in Dublin and the woman told me she was born the same year as me but in the Bessborough mother and baby institution. At the time she was only starting to trace her mother. Today she is still facing years on a government agency waiting list.
I was born in 1988. The legal status of illegitimacy was only abolished in 1987. I grew up in an Ireland that was rapidly changing and where the authority of the Catholic church was never unquestionable or absolute. The endemic abuse in religious-run institutions exposed during the 1990s had sparked a national reckoning that is ongoing. Apart from those waiting to trace, I also met mothers whose children died in the institutions and who were still searching for where their own babies were buried. These were people in urgent need answers.
Early on in writing the book, I spoke with a friend’s aunt who grew up not far from me and had herself been born in one of the religious-run institutions. When she became pregnant she was sent to a mother and baby home institution in Dublin in 1988. She kept her baby but was alienated by her own adoptive parents and faced a lot of stigma. These could have easily been alternative fates for myself and my mum, since my parents weren’t married when I was born. Then through my reporting I found out about a mother and baby institution that was open until 2006. I could have been sent there myself. This was definitely not the past.
You make a point of addressing the abuse that many women were suffering long before they got to one of the institutions. Do you still see ripples of a society that let this abuse go on unfettered in Ireland today?
There were people I spoke to who had been institutionalised for most of their early lives. Some never escaped the system. Many people born in the institutions, who weren’t adopted or “boarded out”, were sent on to industrial and reformatory schools, where they faced abuse and exploitation. Some young women who had been through these institutions as children were later sent to the mother and baby homes if they became pregnant. They might then be sent to the laundries for life. It was a cycle of institutionalisation and punishment that affected generations. When you ostracise and incarcerate people it fuels stigma. The shame associated with these institutions made people feel that this shame was imposed on them for life.
I see ripples of that stigma in the way people continue to be marginalised and discriminated against in our society, from single mothers who are homeless to people seeking asylum. The views of the Catholic hierarchy on reproductive rights and women’s autonomy certainly haven’t changed.
You did a lot of your research and interviews in 2017 and 2018, which were tumultuous years for women in Ireland with the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment. How did this affect the research you were doing and your own attitude towards the subject matter?
In the book I speak about a conversation I had with my own mother about her own experiences. It was something we only ended up speaking about during the Repeal referendum. Many people were speaking publicly (and privately) about experiences they hadn’t discussed before. Shame relies on silence and a sense of alienation, though my mum didn’t feel shame about her choices. There was a growing national conversation about the shame imposed on pregnant women. The legacy of the mother and baby home institutions and the treatment of “unmarried mothers” was a catalyst for many people to vote for change.
The referendum came up in most of my interviews. I spoke with a bishop while writing the book who entertained the idea of mother and baby homes being brought back as an alternative to abortion. It shows a disturbing ignorance of the life-long pain these institutions have caused, how women were forcibly separated from their children and treated as criminals – offenders and penitents – for being pregnant outside marriage.
As illustrated in your book, many people in Ireland are still affected by what happened in these institutions. Based on your experiences, is there any way the average person living in Ireland can help the healing process?
It’s important to realise that this is our present, not just our past. Thousands of people’s lives are still being impacted both by what they experienced in the institutions and the ongoing denial by church and state of access to their personal records and information. If you’re Irish, chances are you know someone affected.
We need to acknowledge the lived experiences of the women who were sent to these institutions and to have their voices heard when it comes to discussing supports or justice. We should be teaching the lived experiences of this system in schools. It’s important that records held by the state are not sealed. The archives of the religious orders also, which include the personal records of survivors and of institutions that were paid public money, should be made accessible.
The Adoption Bill and the Retention of Records Bill are two pieces of legislation still under consideration which directly impact survivors. Noelle Brown, a survivor and activist, said recently that people should ask, “What did we do for Marriage Equality and what did we do for Repeal?” She wants people to understand that the Irish state is still discriminating against adopted people by denying them access to their birth information and to see this as an issue of equality.
Many people have helped to break the silences that surrounded these institutions and continue to do so. Through the book I hope more of those voices are heard.