Summer 2014, shower clouds overhead. As we walk the leafy pathway, my child takes my hand.
“Why are we here?”
“Because some babies died and are buried here.”
I don’t tell her then the real reason we have come to this place where they stole the rights to the female Irish body. I don’t tell her then I am exhausted. I don’t tell her then we are here because a part of me has come uncoiled, unfurled, awake.
… The “babies” are the almost 800 children, most under the age of three, who died in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961, when the Home closed. [Catherine] Corless, who was writing an essay on the Home, became intrigued by the unmarked site, and wondered what was down there. She now believes the nuns who ran the Home converted a disused sewage tank into a burial vault, and the skeletons accidentally discovered by two local boys all those decades ago are those of the dead children, some placed in coffins, but the bulk of them wrapped in shrouds, unnamed, unmarked…..
Just over a year and a half after Savita [Halappanavar] died, a young refugee known as Ms Y, not long arrived in Ireland and pregnant as a result of repeated rape in her own country… A few months later, Ms Y, now 24 weeks pregnant, refused food and drink over 40 hours in hospital, after staff told her it was too late for an abortion. Two weeks on, maybe some time after Ms Y told hospital workers “you can leave me now to die”, and after she had been visited by four consultant psychiatrists, the hospital’s clinical director, a consultant obstetrician, a social worker, and a pastoral care worker, it was determined there was a possibility Ms Y did know her own mind and a 26- week-old baby was delivered by Caesarean section on August 6 2014. Seven days later, Ms Y was discharged from hospital. The baby remained behind.
There are days we walk through the grounds of St Joseph’s Church on a shortcut to our home on the hillsides of Cork city. My girl children hoist themselves up a high wall and climb across a patch of tended garden to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who stands, as ever, in transported prayer. My children shout: There’s Mary, they grab hold of her arms, play hide and seek at her back and front. Can you see me Mummy? Take a picture Mummy! Me! Me! Me and Mary! My girl children assume their lives. It would never occur to them that they should ever be reduced.
For most of my life, I’ve been ashamed. As a teenager, I burned with embarrassment. For several summers from the age of 13, I exchanged with a French girl who was everything I wasn’t: pretty, outgoing, surrounded by boys. She could walk across a room without thinking about it. I remember her flirtatious confidence and my own despair when I looked in the mirror.
If I had been born a Swede, would I feel so ashamed? … Born in 1970s Ireland, I was born a sinner, the descendant of Eve, the silver-tongued temptress, biting lustily into the apple, sucking out its juices, drooling, voracious. I grew up, like Masaccio’s horrified cast-outs, apologizing, concealing. Now, here, in my 20s on the European stage, I wasn’t enough of a woman: on university exchange away from Ireland the young men (mine included) laughed at us, pointed fingers. Just how old are Irish girls when they lose their virginity? For the first time in my life I found myself shamed for the sex I hadn’t had, not the other way round.
—And I read in the report into the death of Savita Halappanavar: “At interview the consultant stated: ‘Under Irish law, if there’s no evidence of risk to the life of the mother, our hands are tied so long as there’s a fetal heart’.”
—And I read, in the draft inquiry into the Ms Y case, that consultant obstetrician X stated: “The hope was that Ms Y could be maintained on the ward for as long as possible and hopefully to 30 weeks so that the baby could be delivered appropriately.”
—And when my husband went back to work a week after our second child was born, I didn’t know how to say, to beg: “Please stay. I think I might go under.”
Catherine Corless spent the summer of 2012 gathering evidence on the Tuam Mother and Baby home. She pieced the story together, talking to people around the town, going through minutes of local health board meetings reported in back copies of the Tuam Herald. She knew about the little graveyard. Everybody knew…. Famine graves, everyone agreed. So, a few prayers. Then two foot of clay, rubble all over the area, closing it in. Then rubbish, empty beer bottles…. Everybody knew. Nobody knew.
Who’s buried there? asked Corless, when she began her research. We don’t know who or what….we think ‘tis famine victims….no ‘tis the unbaptized babies in the home. (Over the centuries, until Catholic Church policy relaxed, the stillborn, the aborted, the suicides, infanticides, unbaptized children, were placed in unconsecrated ground, with no official graves to mark their existence. These sites, only some of which have been officially mapped, are known as ‘cillini’.) …
Where does it come from, this silencing of experience? A hundred times a day, I doubt my writing of this piece, my writing of anything, really. The topic, women’s shame, is too big to deal with in a single essay, a male writing colleague emphasizes, across one of my drafts.
Yes, of course. I agree automatically, instinctively. Sorry. I’m making a big deal. Sorry. Maybe it’s just me. Sorry.
And then, on Facebook, a link to an interview in Vanity Fair, with the Irish novelist Anne Enright. “Women in religious cultures are magnets for the ambient shame that’s around, and there’s an enormous amount of it in Irish culture. It becomes embodied in women. That has to be hugely regulated.”
In print and in person, Enright has always seemed to me fearless, unfettered, bolshie in a way that I am not. So for maybe five minutes, after reading what she has to say, I feel emboldened, less alone.
One way or the other, I keep going. I go out to the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, almost a year after my first visit, to a second memorial; since the first protest, campaigners have been given access to the “Little Angels” plot and this time the event is inside the complex. The day sparkles, blue and clear. We’ve come, as a family — husband, two children — straight from a summer fun day in the park; one of my children has a cat-face, both are carrying balloons sculpted into animal forms. For the most part, though, the presence of children is indicated only by the signs that replace them: the blue and pink balloons, the tea lights; the clay teddy bear in the window of an ivy-scattered ruined Keep, the adults who talk about pain, peace, overwhelm, in this place where angels lie alone. The adults are vulnerable, emotional….
Traces in the visible of something absent, wrote the artist Rene Boll in a catalogue essay accompanying an exhibition that explored the Cillini of Achill Island. But it is the very visibleness of this situation that takes me by surprise, as it did when I visited last year. As much as anyone, I’ve pushed this stuff into a box, refracting it through a lens that mythologises, simplifies: this was a bleak time, before the light. ‘Deeply disturbing’, said the former Children’s Minister, Charlie Flanagan, on the radio, ‘a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland.’ That’s right, we nod, relieved: it’s over, it’s past tense, we’re not like that anymore. Except that the people surrounding me today – and there are many my age, younger even – are visibly, viscerally, there, here, and on this plot of grassland surrounded by hedging with its white and pink flowers, they wear the past — their past, our past — like the pages of a book upon skin.
… That my female body remains an untrustworthy site in contemporary Ireland is something that shadows me daily, a dull, constant, ache. It shadows me as I sit in the playground at Tuam and watch the birds dip and turn in a cluster, steadying themselves for the evening settling. It shadows me as I watch a car pull up and two children tumble out; the car stays, engine running, while the children — aged four or five, I’m guessing — run and shout, bouncing from one activity to the other. It shadows me when I leave and get back in my own car, retracing the route I have already come. The sky is turning grey and red as I pass schoolgirls in their uniforms, high socks and bare legs on this bitter clear day. After a while, I pull in to make some notes, and watch from my car window a woman walking with a child. The child, a girl, carries a white teddy and is wearing red wellington boots…. As I sit there that day, I know there’s much I could say to the little girl with the white teddy and the red wellington boots; there’s much I could say to my own little girls, there’s much I would say, could say, if the words I form would ever make a sound.