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‘The grown-ups kept Mary a secret from the rest of us. How did they live with that?’

Missing Persons, or My Grandmother’s Secrets by Clair Wills: Secret pregnancies and missing women are part of the family story of a great many people

In November I recorded the audio version of my book about the – surprisingly numerous – women in my family faced with a crisis pregnancy: a cascade of women from grand-aunts in the 1890s through grandmothers and aunts in the 1920s and the 1950s, right down to me and my cousins in the 1980s.

The producer rang me a few weeks before the scheduled recording, to go through a few dos and don’ts. Do read through the whole book out loud and check for words you may be unsure of; don’t wear clothes that rustle because every sound, including a stomach gurgle, gets picked up by the microphone; do relax and take your time; don’t worry about mistakes – everyone makes them, and you can just take the sentence again. I did as I was told, and it was true there were words I had to practice (proselytism, for example), and place names I had to check (Bearna na Gaoithe; Lissaclarig). I turned up for the recording in the closest thing to a tracksuit I own – rather appropriate, I discovered, as sitting as still as possible for hours required workout levels of physical strength. I was ready for the sound-proofed cubicle, the headphones, the retakes whenever I stumbled or went too fast, or too slow, or for a score of other reasons. But it turned out I wasn’t quite ready for the book itself.

About halfway through the reading, my voice began to crack. Strangled noises came from my throat. I swallowed hard to try to clear them. I was glad I was wearing reading glasses; I hoped they hid the tears that were starting to edge, embarrassingly, down the side of my nose. I apologised to the producer through the glass partition and joked that I should have been prepared – after all I’d read the book out loud the week before. Not only that, he pointed out, but I’d written it. The upset was mortifying. How could my own book be making me cry?

It may have been a purely physical reaction – the human voice is a vehicle for carrying emotion after all, and although I knew passages of the book almost by heart, I had composed them silently. Nonetheless, I’d been thinking about these women’s stories for decades. Long enough, surely, not to get waylaid by them.

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More than 30 years ago, when I was in my late 20s, my sisters and cousins and I learnt from an aunt about a first cousin whom we had never met. Mary was born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in 1955 (she was two years older than my eldest sister) and brought up in an industrial school in Clonakilty. My uncle Jackie, Mary’s father, had disappeared to England after his daughter was conceived; Mary’s mother (Jackie’s 19-year-old neighbour) had escaped to the United States when she could. All through the 1960s and 70s the grown-ups kept Mary a secret from the rest of us. We thought there were 12 of us, but really, we were 13.

I remember the horror, verging on panic, at this discovery. I had recently given birth to my first baby, who I was bringing up in England on my own, and the shock may partly have had to do with the frightening difference between the generations. Although I vaguely understood that having a baby on my own was going to be hard (and it was) I never seriously doubted that I could manage the baby, alongside a future job, even future relationships and possibly even future babies (and I could). There was no question of homes and orphanages – no question of being cast out.

Another way of putting this is to ask where the sense of shame and the need to keep illegitimacy secret came from, the work it did for families, and the sense it made

Over the years more and more information about the network of church-state institutions that dominated Irish social life in the mid-20th century has come to light, through campaigning journalism, survivor testimony and official reports (especially the 2002 Ryan report into sexual and physical abuse in industrial schools and reformatories, and the more recent, contested, Report of the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes). I have learnt to understand the story of my secret cousin as the unholy outcome of a set of adverse historical circumstances – a church obsessed with sexual sin, trust in priestly authority, the unavailability of contraception (illegal until 1979, even for married couples), attitudes to illegitimacy, the premium on “respectability”, rural poverty and anxieties about farm inheritance. And the circumstance that was most significant of all: the existence of a Mother and Baby Home in Cork city where the pregnancy could be kept private, if not exactly secret, from the neighbours.

It all adds up to an explanation of a sort, but like a badly-balanced sum there’s a remainder. The thing that is never quite explained by this kind of history is, how could it have been worth it for the people involved? Why did families – why did my family – collude with the institutions as a way of covering up sex and childbirth? How did Mary’s parents and grandparents live with the knowledge of her being confined in the orphanage, barely 20 miles away, for all that time?

Another way of putting this is to ask where the sense of shame and the need to keep illegitimacy secret came from, the work it did for families, and the sense it made. The existence of my cousin was kept from us for decades. The fact that my family functioned despite, and maybe even because of, its missing persons, the fact that it made enough sense – is part of my family story, and the story of a great many people of my generation.

All the women I write about wanted to keep a secret, although not always the same one

As I searched through family records I found other secret pregnancies. A marriage in 1920, three months before the baby was born – no guarantee that the man who walked down the aisle was the father of the child, though he may have been; a marriage between cousins in 1893, also less than three months before the baby was born; and in 1891 a question mark over my grandmother’s birth. My great-grandmother was turning 50, and her last child had been born more than 10 years earlier, when she apparently gave birth to my grandmother – it is possible that my grandmother was instead the child of one of the girls, then aged 18 and 20, who she was to come to think of as her sisters. Passing off a baby as the child of a relative was one of the most common ways of hiding an unplanned pregnancy.

These informal ways of managing sex and fertility in pre-independence Ireland were shaped by social circumstances very different from the 1950s. My relatives in west Cork in the late 19th century were labourers and servants, not farmers – there was no inheritance or dowry to be preserved. No worries about good “stock”. My landless Catholic ancestors married landless Protestants and no one made a fuss about having to convert, or asked for written assurance that the children would be brought up as Catholics. For decades after the famine the Church had a shaky hold among the rural poor. It was a struggle, even in the 1870s, when my grandfather was born, to persuade people to get married in church, or to baptise their children – and there were no Mother and Baby Homes run by orders of nuns to whom you could deliver up your baby on the quiet. Bessborough didn’t open until 1922; instead there was the workhouse. But if you fell pregnant in Ballydehob in 1920, as my grandmother did, even the workhouse wasn’t really an option, because the workhouses in Schull and Skibbereen had been commandeered by the British army, and were magnets for raids and counter-raids during the War of Independence.

All the women I write about wanted to keep a secret, although not always the same one. There’s a big difference between hiding the shame associated with a pre-marital pregnancy, or keeping quiet about a relative bringing up your child as their own, and the shame of sacrificing of a child to an orphanage in the name of legitimate inheritance and social respectability. That was the secret the grown-ups were keeping when we were children – their own silence in the face of that violence.

One of the tasks of a historian is to try to get to a place where the behaviour of people in the past begins to seem comprehensible, even natural, given the context in which they were living. The goal isn’t to be able to point to the decisions people made and say, Wasn’t it awful, the things that were done then? Nor, however, are historians in the business of dispensing forgiveness. I wrote my book because I wanted to try to understand the actions of my uncle, and my grandmother, and everyone else who kept our cousin Mary secret, but not in order to excuse them.

But I think writing the book also had another purpose, one I didn’t fully realise until I read the words I had written out loud in the audio-booth. In writing Missing Persons, I had been asking the book itself to hold the story for me. I had written it in part so I didn’t have to know it. The book is like a safe into which I have locked private feelings of sorrow and pity. It is where I keep the secret of the violence done by my family because – and this is true for people in families everywhere – the knowledge of those we are prepared to sacrifice in order to survive is unbearable.

Missing Persons, or My Grandmother’s Secrets by Clair Wills is published by Allen Lane on January 25th.