The Paper Bracelet
While Rachael English is best known to the nation as a journalist, broadcaster and presenter of Morning Ireland, she also writes bestselling, topical fiction. In the author's note to The Paper Bracelet, English recalls researching Bessboro House in Cork in the 1990s and being somewhat haunted by the experience. "Eventually," she says "…I had to remind myself that I wasn't writing about an issue, but about characters. I had to keep asking myself: What must that experience have been like? And what is it like to live with the consequences?" Hence this novel.
The story opens in 1969 with Patricia, barely 20, being whisked away under cover of darkness to the fictional Carrigbrack mother and baby home in Co Clare. The parish priest is the chauffeur. She pleads with her parents one last time. Her father retorts: "Some girls are raised to be no better than tramps, but that was never the case in this house. Her failings are her own." And Patricia will pay dearly for those "failings".
Back in present-day Dublin, recently widowed Katie misses her husband and wonders how she will fill her days. She finds a box of paper bracelets she has kept for over 40 years, identity bracelets of babies born in Carrigbrack, where she worked for the first 18 months of her nursing career. She'd kept a notebook too, with some sketchy details on the babies' mothers, and had stowed these away in a shoebox in the back of her wardrobe.
Her adult niece, Beth, is living with her - another well-paid young professional who can't afford a home in today's Dublin - and Beth is used throughout the novel as the vehicle for astounded, indignant disbelief. How could so many women have been treated so brutally, in such numbers and in such recent times? How did the lucrative racket of the sale of babies to wealthy Americans even happen? Why are the nuns who ran these abominable prisons, many of them still alive, not accountable, and why is the State backing them to the hilt?
Katie wants to return these bracelets to their rightful owners. With Beth's help she posts an ad on an online adoption forum, leaving a dedicated email address, and the plot unfolds from there. Using a dual timeline - Clare in the early 1970s and Dublin in the present day - English presents us with a plethora of characters, and three in particular, who have spent their entire adult lives looking for their birth mothers. Reflecting real life and its tendency to disappoint, not everyone finds what they're looking for, and in some cases the mothers are dead. Mothers themselves are also searching for the babies who were stolen from them.
Grim as the picture is, the reader is reminded that all of these stories were prompted by those the author heard when researching Bessboro House only 20 years ago. The fallout of despair crosses continents and time zones and it nestles in a nuns' yard full of tiny, unmarked graves in Co Clare. It transpires that Katie has her own secret, not revealed until the last minute, with shattering consequences.
This story of loss and grief reminds us that the ghosts of the mother and baby homes, alive and dead, are not going away.