Ireland's shameful history of mother and baby homes has been recorded in many true stories and biographies. They contain a litany of harrowing depictions of vulnerable and defenceless young girls and women, shunned by their communities and by their own families. With the wholehearted collusion of Irish society, they were hidden away, cruelly punished for their "sin" and then had their babies forcibly taken from them.
They were compelled to sign a Certificate of Surrender, a consent form which took away any rights and they were told it was illegal to attempt to trace their babies. Names were changed, birth certificates forged and files mysteriously disappeared. After their babies were born and in many cases, effectively stolen from them, the mothers had to continue working in the laundry or kitchen to defray the cost of their stay. Daughters of wealthier parents were able to pay to secure their release but most had to put up with cruelty and punishments including having their hair shorn. Those who tried to escape were apprehended and returned by the gardaí.
Many will know bestselling novelist Rachael English as a presenter on Ireland's most popular radio show, Morning Ireland. She has worked on most of RTÉ radio's leading current affairs programmes, covering a huge range of national and international stories. Over 20 years ago, as a young journalist, Rachael interviewed a group of women who had been born in a mother and baby home in Cork. All were trying to find their birth mothers but with little success. Rachael realised that thousands of women, who had been treated like criminals, were still living with "this bitter legacy and many were doing so in secret". Many had left the country. As for their children who were adopted, even now "they have few rights, and legislation to change this has been a long time coming".
The Paper Bracelet is Rachael's novel based on these real events. It details the life of "Patricia" after she confesses to her parents that she is pregnant. She is shown no mercy and is whisked off by the parish priest to Carrigbrack, a fictional mother and baby home about 40 miles away from her hometown in Co Clare.
Patricia is the new name she is given and her parents already use it in the few hours before she is taken away to be imprisoned. English describes the lives of the various other women and girls "from every street in every village and town" also confined in the home over the following months. She gives birth to a son, Paul, and is devastated when he is taken away. The grieving young mothers mostly get no sympathy from the nuns, though not all were cruel.
The second protagonist is Katie Carroll. Recently widowed and now in her early seventies, she worked as a nurse in Carrigbrack for a short spell in 1971 and 1972. Horrified by what she saw in the home but unable to do anything, she felt compelled to keep the tiny paper name-tag bracelets which were put on the babies wrists and to keep a notebook with a record of the mother's given and real names. She also recorded the names the mothers had given to their babies. She had kept them in an old shoebox until now.
As Katie struggles to sort out her late husband's wardrobe, she finds the old shoebox. There are 47 bracelets collected in a little over a year. With the help of her niece Beth, she posts on an online forum hoping to reunite the babies or their mothers with the tiny bracelets. Initially, Katie is subjected to vitriolic comments from trolls but finally the first of the babies, now in their mid-forties, gets in touch. As they are reunited with their tiny bracelets and Katie remembers many of the mothers, their stories are revealed.
The adopted children include Gary, a bass player with a famous band, who has lived the rock star life; Ailish, who has been downtrodden all her life by her adoptive parents and subsequently by her abusive husband, and Brandon, who discovers he has a twin. Many of these adopted children had previously tried and failed to find their birth parents, some had tried DNA matches. Katie finds it hard to believe how little information is available, as she remembers everything was catalogued right down to a bar of soap.
Like many young people today, Beth is dumfounded by the treatment of women that pertained right up to the 1980s. As some mothers are found, there cannot always be resolution for sundered families. The Paper Bracelet is an engrossing and sympathetic novel and in a startling denouement, Rachael English underlines what is perhaps the most striking and saddest of all: that many women still cannot break their silence, even in these more enlightened times.