Sunday 15 September 2019

Magdalene Ireland and Me: Caelainn Hogan's journey into our shameful past

War correspondent Caelainn Hogan discovered that a mother and baby home in Donegal had been operating up until 2006. She wrote a book about Magdalene Ireland, finding echoes of that dark time in her own family's story. She spoke to Donal Lynch

Author Caelainn Hogan pictured in The Merrion Hotel. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Author Caelainn Hogan pictured in The Merrion Hotel. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Women were forced to work in laundries for no pay
A tribute from one mother hangs on a door. Photo: Frank McGrath
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

On the face of it, Magdalene Ireland might seem like a subject at a remove from a millennial author like Caelainn Hogan. Born in 1988 in Dublin, she freely concedes that she grew up without having to deal with the worst vicissitudes of the theocracy; by the time she was an adult many of the biggest social changes, including marriage equality, repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and a proper separation of church and State, "had either happened or were about to happen".

In school, she and her friends joked about the "shopping trips" they would take to England if they had an unwanted pregnancy. In secondary school, in Blackrock, she studied An Triail, Mairead Ni Ghrada's 1964 play about an unmarried mother who, frightened her child might have to endure the same shame she had, kills her own baby girl. In boomtime Dublin, Hogan notes, such horror stories seemed "as distant as a myth".

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And yet her research of the subject for her new book Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland's Institutions for 'Fallen Women' - was not purely academic or historical.

The Ireland of that dark era also reached its cold, dead hand into her own life. Her mother and father had been unmarried when she was born and her father's parents didn't speak to her own parents for a while because of it, she explains.

Women were forced to work in laundries for no pay
Women were forced to work in laundries for no pay

In her youth she learned that her mother, who grew up in America, had had two abortions. "She had the first abortion as a teenager growing up in the US," Hogan writes. "The Planned Parenthood clinic calmly presented the options and respected her decision. Her mother, not really knowing what else to do, brought her sweets afterwards.

The second time was in the mid-1980s, after she'd moved to Ireland and not long before she met my father. She didn't feel ready to become a mother, and so she travelled to England for an abortion. She had to fly home to Dublin the same day and go straight to work, waitressing in a nightclub.

My father, worried about what people might say, didn't want me to write about it at first. There's still shame."

"The past is a foreign country," E.M. Forster wrote, "they do things differently there." Had Hogan been born a year earlier, she notes, "I would have been an illegitimate child. It was only the passing of the Status of Children Act in 1987 that abolished illegitimacy as a legal concept."

After her mother had become pregnant with her, her father suggested they get married. "My mother was four or five months pregnant on the day when they showed my father's parents her engagement ring and broke the news that she was having a baby," Hogan explains.

"My father's mother struggled with the idea. She went to Mass every Sunday, but I don't remember her being extreme about religion. She was, it seems, mainly worried about what the neighbours would think. At one point, in shock, she told my parents it was the worst thing that had ever happened to her, and that she would never be able to show her face again. When I was born, though, she doted on me."

She segues from the personal to the national story: "All of this struck me as quite important in my life, even though I never suffered discrimination in my own life," Hogan recalls over coffee in Dublin hotel. "It was a sort of cultural history thing for me. I was surprised that my mother feared judgment from me when she spoke about her abortions; she had no reason to fear that. I had no idea that some of the (Catholic) institutions were a stone's throw away from the house where I grew up."

Hogan grew up in Blackrock and studied English at Trinity College before going on to do a masters in journalism at Columbia University in New York.

She says that she felt drawn to journalism in spite of the tribulations that had begun to decimate the profession by the time she finished her degree.

"We were still in recession and there was a crisis in journalism and how to fund it. I guess I didn't really think about it all too deeply from a career perspective. I was really just interested in telling people's stories and I think that when people are so open to you you have a responsibility to tell their stories properly and to bring them to an audience."

To begin with she funded her own pieces. She worked two jobs in Dublin to fund a trip to Kashmir at a time when there was mass unrest there.

"My family was worried, but they trusted me, I didn't really give them an option. (The resultant pieces) didn't pay at all. I wasn't expecting it to pay. I was doing a little teaching in a school there.

"When I arrived a 17-year-old had been killed and this led to a cycle of protest and unrest there. I went on to focus on war reporting. I went to Sudan and Uganda and went on to report on what was happening in Syria, including reporting from border towns in neighbouring countries, camps in European cities and within Syria itself."

Her tactic of backing herself for those early pieces paid off in terms of the commissions that came her way since then. Over the last few years she has written for National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera English and Harper's. It's a roster that no other young Irish writer can boast. And the fees she can likely charge now make her early pieces an investment that was worth making.

She has a soft-spoken earnestness that suits a subject that has made the news for most of Hogan's lifetime; the Magdalene Laundries.

These secretive institutions were the flagship outlets for Catholic brutality in 20th Century Ireland. They housed so-called "fallen" women, who provided laundry services to a range of bodies - including political figures, banks and government departments - though the women who lived in the institutions did not receive wages, and in many cases had their children forcibly removed from them.

They were the worst extreme of a country that generally shamed unmarried women, and the discoveries made about them this decade have shocked the world.

In 2013, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised for the State's role in the laundries, calling them "the nation's shame".

Hogan says the story that most affected her during the writing of the book concerned a man she calls Jim, who was born in the mother and baby home in Tuam - his mother had been only 16 when she had him.

Hogan and Jim had met by chance in a cafe in Knock. He wondered if he might have had a brother or sister who died in the home. He often drove through Tuam on what Jim calls "his own quiet pilgrimage".

"Knock, where we happened to meet, is obviously a place of intense religiosity and he is a man of faith but he still felt very let down by the church," Hogan explains.

"I guess what his story showed me was that it's not as simple as people who are anti-church and want answers. He was a quiet man, a kind man but you could feel the disappointment. He worked for the Galway county council, which was the other authority responsible for the Tuam home. So he felt doubly betrayed."

The most difficult stories for Hogan to research involved mothers still searching for their babies. "It's hard to comprehend the pain of that. They worried about whether their children had gotten the medical treatment they needed, they worried if they had dealt with the stigma of growing up illegitimate."

She mentions the case of Ann O'Gorman, who became pregnant in 1971. She was eventually referred on to the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork, where she worked in the laundry room or polished floors. O'Gorman remembered hearing her baby's cries while giving birth but fell into unconsciousness. When she awoke three days later, she was told that the baby had died. With Hogan she visited the grounds where she believed her daughter, whom she named Evelyn, was buried. "To me that was the worst cruelty," Hogan says. "All she wants to know is that when she dies she will be laid to rest with her daughter. There are still (members of the congregation) alive who worked in Bessborough."

The book is full of arresting little vignettes that the gimlet-eyed Hogan captured on her travels around the country and from State records.

She says the piece of reporting of which she is most proud concerned the Mother and Baby Home in Newtowncunningham, a tiny town in Co Donegal, not far from Letterkenny.

While most people would presume that mother and baby homes had all closed decades ago this one ran until relatively recently.

"It was opened in 1980s and didn't close until 2006," she says. "I went to a local pub there which is opposite the old building, which is still standing. The woman running the pub remembered the mothers coming in to buy minerals and she said they wrote letters home pretending that they were working in Derry. The home wasn't run by nuns but I went to meet the woman who ran it. She told me of one woman who managed to keep her baby and went back home to Sligo with the child where the local parish priest refused to baptise it."

The woman who ran the home explained that it wasn't just Catholic girls who stayed there; there were Protestant women, and a Pakistani woman who had fallen out with her father. There were also some women who were already single mothers, which Hogan found confusing.

"I asked why would these women go to such lengths to keep a pregnancy secret when they were already raising a child by themselves, and I was told that it was almost like 'I've made this mistake once, I don't want to be seen to be making it again'."

Hogan says that many of the referrals to the Mother and Baby Home in Newtowncunningham came via Cura, the so-called Catholic crisis pregnancy agency. Hogan spoke to one woman who worked as a volunteer for the agency who told her that concern about women travelling for abortions was a motivating factor in the referrals. Cura was funded by the State until 2018, when it was closed following the abortion referendum.

Hogan says the Donegal stories, as well as her own personal story, underlined to her that, far from being ancient history, there are elements of Magdalene Ireland that were surprisingly persistent in remaining part of Irish culture, even as Irish society appeared to change profoundly.

"There's a sense that this was dead and buried but when you scratch the surface it's still very much there. Writing this book really made me wonder what are the questions we will be asking ourselves in the future. What did we accept that we will look back at and find unacceptable? I think there are so many parallels between the way these women were treated and the way we treat people today in Direct Provision. Maybe one day we'll look back on that the way we do on the mother and baby homes today."

'Republic of Shame, Stories from Ireland's institutions for "Fallen Women"', by Caelainn Hogan, is published by Penguin Ireland on Thursday (€25)


Fallen women:  Landmark discoveries of Magdalene Ireland

A tribute from one mother hangs on a door. Photo: Frank McGrath

High Park, Drumcondra, Dublin

In 1993, after the sale of part of their property to a developer, a mass exhumation was carried out at one of the biggest Magdalene Laundries in Dublin - known as High Park and run by The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity from 1858. The discovery of bodies led to a public outcry. In all, 155 corpses were exhumed and cremated.

Bethany Home,Rathgar, Dublin

This was a residential home founded in Blackhall Place in Dublin in 1921 and moved to Orwell Road in Rathgar in 1934. While the perception was that only Catholic women suffered in mother and baby homes Bethany House was mainly for Protestant women. Some 220 children died in the home between 1922 and 1949 and were buried in unmarked graves at the nearby cemetery in Mount Jerome, Harold's Cross. Controversially, Protestant mother and baby homes are still not part of State redress proceedings.

The Bons Secours Mother and Baby Home, Tuam

By far the most notorious of the mother and baby homes, this maternity home for unmarried mothers and their children operated between 1925 and 1961 in Tuam, Co Galway. In 2012 the HSE estimated that at least 1,000 children from the home had been sent to the US for adoptions without their mothers' consent. That same year, a local historian, Catherine Corless, made worldwide headlines when she discovered the graves of nearly 800 babies, who had been disposed of in an inhumane manner; some remains were found in the sewage system of the home.

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