‘Ghostgirl’ and the Fifty-six Thousand

 In Diary, Events, News

In her latest collection, entitled Ghostgirl, the poet Annemarie Ní Chuirreáin breathes life into the lived experiences of those women and girls incarcerated in Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes, between 1922 and 1998.

On the opening page, we read:

‘Stranorlar Mother & Baby Home in Donegal opened in the nineteenth century as a workhouse for the local poor and continued as such throughout the Great Famine. By 1924 the workhouse had transformed into a state-run home for unmarried pregnant women and their children. The home, operated by the Sisters of Mercy, admitted 1,646 unmarried mothers between 1922 and 1964. The youngest maternity admission was 13 years old.’

The poems in Ghostgirl are filled with resonant images of ‘girls in trouble’, ‘sinful girls, the fallen’. One reflects that:

‘It was winter, a snowdrop in my belly. I barely knew myself, / shape-shifting like a cuttlefish in swelling waters’.
There is also the grim fate of boarded-out children: ‘What the archives do not record: / the scent of rat. Fat, tailed, scurrilous. / And how it sickens a house’.

‘Mother and Baby Home’ is, of course, a misnomer. They were institutions, most of them bleak and brutal, all of them designed to contain and control women in what Caelinn Hogan describes as this country’s ‘shame-industrial complex’.
Reviewing Caelainn’s book ‘Republic of Shame’ in ‘The Stinging Fly’, Carol Ballantine writes: ‘Scholars of postcolonial nation-building have shown across countries that national identity is often staked on female virtue, defined in the Irish case by Catholic teachings. If Irish women were the bearers of the nation’s virtue, what was to be done with those who were not virtuous?’

We now know the answer.

Referred to variously as inmates, offenders and penitents – the language lurching between criminality and sinfulness – 56,000 women and girls were locked away, lest their ‘immoral’ presence infect the rest of the population. There was no greater shame than pregnancy outside marriage
Writing about the emotion of shame, the feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky notes: [Quoted by Carol Ballantine in The Stinging Fly, December 2019]

‘The need for secrecy and concealment that figures so largely in the shame experience is disempowering … for it isolates the oppressed from one another and in this way works against the emergence of a sense of solidarity.’

Secrecy. Shame. Isolation.

‘It is probable that the proportion of Irish women in mother and baby institutions was the highest in the world.’ [James Gallon: Institutions and Ireland: Mother and Baby Homes and Irish Transitional Justice. Irish University Review. Spring/Summer 2022]

All those women, all those babies trafficked all over the world, all that grief that still haunts the survivors today.

In A Good Enough Mother, St. Brigid’s is a fictional institution. But what happens there is drawn from real-life accounts from the real-life women who found themselves prisoners of the ‘shame-industrial complex’.

Speaking about The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood said that all of the terrifying events she depicts in that novel have their precedents in history. She didn’t have to make anything up, in that sense – and neither did I. In newspaper interviews, in the survivors’ own words, in the revelations from Tuam and Catherine Corless’s sterling work: we cannot say that we don’t know what happened behind those walls.

All of which makes it even more unforgivable that ‘The Irish government’s recent report from the Commission of Investigation (2021) into mother and baby homes has been condemned by survivors as ‘incomplete, a cop-out, and worse’.

‘The nature of these findings and the treatment of victim-survivors and their testimony leads to the conclusion that neither the Commission nor the Irish government have been interested in believing victim-survivors or treating them with respect and as rights holders’.

Now that is truly shameful.

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