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Secrets and lies: memoirs that unlock Ireland’s past

Contemporary Irish writing shows how the history of the State can be better understood through the records, memories and stories of the family

Patrick O'Meara (seated) with Barry Houlihan's granduncle Gerald O'Meara and grandmother Mary Raleigh

The RMS Lucania was the jewel of the Cunard fleet of the late 19th century. When Patrick O’Meara, my great-grandfather, boarded the ship bound for New York in July 1902, like many thousands of other young Irish emigrants, he didn’t know if he would ever return home. A black and white photograph of Patrick hangs in my mother’s house. An older man with a kind face, he’s been a silent presence in our house for years.

Patrick O'Meara (seated) with Barry Houlihan's granduncle Gerald O'Meara and grandmother Mary Raleigh

I was born into an Ireland of the mid-1980s where secrecy, within both the State and the family, underpinned so much of daily life as it had done for decades. I was born a year after the body of Baby John was found washed up on a Kerry beach. That was the same year 15-year-old Ann Lovett died in a Granard graveyard alongside her stillborn baby, later named Patrick. As I look back on growing up in that Ireland, it has become more apparent the number who didn’t get to do so – those who were forced to emigrate but also those who died in tragedy, secrecy or isolation, and also the staggering number of women and children in particular, who were hidden, institutionalised and who fell outside of the memory of the State and of their families as generations rolled by.

A body of work has emerged in Irish writing in recent years that has taken the form of memory writing in new directions. The books and writing speak of hidden family stories, of lost lives and missing parts; stories of places that hold a residual memory of the events of the past long after all connected have left or died. Crucially, these works also bring us into a new dialogue with Ireland and our society since the foundation of the State.

The intimacy the reader feels in the midst of these books is like a seat at a family kitchen table – overhearing whispers and talk of those who had gone before us that we didn’t know, or of those we may have chosen not to know – those who were “sent away” or labelled with other euphemisms masking the real story of their absence from the household.


Clair Wills’s Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets sees the author (a historian and writer) uncover her own family history of hidden pregnancies and hidden lives across generations of women. As Wills surmises, “part of the reason families put up with the institution, and put up with the loss of their sons and daughters – was not to have to talk about it. And in the end, perhaps, not to have to think about it.”

Ellen McWilliams’s Resting Places: On Wounds, War and the Irish Revolution traces her own path back into the history of her family in Dunmanway, Co Cork, and the lingering presence of the murder or disappearing of 13 Protestants in April 1922, as well as her own journey forward into contemporary Ireland and the society of the 1980s and 1990s, that of McWilliams’s own youth.

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Then a student in a typical Irish convent school, instances like the X case mirrored the societal imbalance towards the rights of women in an Ireland that was slowly straightening its knee which had been firmly bent before the authority of Church and State. McWilliams eloquently and hauntingly writes that “the unearthing of some histories is painful, painfully slow-moving and disorientating. It casts long shadows and cannot be avoided”.

Martin Doyle’s Dirty Linen: The Troubles in My Home Place opens the present and intimate wounds of trauma still within communities at war in the past. The childhood memories and innocent misconceptions of death (not understanding a person could die of old age and not by a bullet) and eating of communion hosts (“unconsecrated – we weren’t monsters”) add a wry humour to the recovery of the truly excruciating accounts of life (and death) in Co Down in the 1970s. How can families and communities “deal with the past” of the Troubles, a phrase so often used, when accounts of collusion between State and paramilitary groups, a lack of judicial transparency and the sheer raw pain of families’ grief can find no resolution?

Doyle described the process of gathering sources and memories for the book as akin to the contents of a flax hole, a process part of the linen industry of his hinterland. “Flax bundles are steeped to break down the outer shell and expose the inner core to be smoothed out, spun and woven.” It is a fitting analogy for the lingering grief in communities and residing in landscapes, waiting to be exposed.

Other books look into the absence and void of women within much of official and personal family histories. Molly Hennigan’s The Celestial Realm: A Memoir of Madness and Maternal Lineage is a remarkable account of her visits to her grandmother, Phil, who was in a psychiatric hospital, while also striving to find out more about her great-grandmother, Sissy, who died in Grangegorman, Ireland’s largest such institution. As Brendan Kelly has noted, “On a given night in the 1950s, the number of people in Ireland’s psychiatric hospitals was more than double those in all our other institutions put together”. Ireland was undoubtedly the best small country in the world at locking away its own people.

Hennigan outlines that “I don’t have much detail about Sissy. She died in a hospital whose records are difficult to obtain ... Sissy is a figment of my imagination. I know she existed and she is part of the reason I am here imagining her, but still, that’s all I can do. There’s nothing left of her; only the history of her context and us, now.”

Imagining is perhaps all we can do. Vona Groarke uses similar language to manifest from archival fragments and documentary traces the life of her great-grandmother Ellen O’Hara who emigrated alone to New York in the late 19th century. With a family left behind in Co Sligo, O’Hara was separated from home, family and her later children, working tirelessly in a boarding house before rising to run her own one.

The enigma and the gaps are what we need to learn to read if we are ever to get out from under this history

Through poetry, prose, archival documents and photographs, Groarke “conjures [her] out of the single fact that [she] once lived”. Pieces of archives were uncovered in New York libraries, gifts from O’Hara in the past, but as Groarke adds “And yet the holes in all this knowledge are deep and dark, like looking up at the space between stars on a winter’s night”. To those family members we can never meet again, or those we never knew at all, we can assemble them in part at least, if not in whole from pieces of broken memory.

The family is perhaps the last great Irish institution to be broken down and examined. To have its parts pulled from the past and brought forward into the present. As Wills notes in her book “The enigma and the gaps are what we need to learn to read if we are ever to get out from under this history”, history, she said that is continually expressing itself through us, “reproducing itself, all the time”.

In looking back into the family of my mother’s line, we’ve chased the O’Mearas back as far as the 1820s, pinning them down through documents of their life, through papers and registers of births, deaths and marriages. It’s scarcely believable to see the handwriting of the official who entered the names of Timothy O’Meara and Margaret O’Keefe, my great-great grandparents, into parish records as they were born a year or so apart in the mid-1840s.

Babies of the Great Famine, Timothy and Margaret both survived, somehow, and found each other, somewhere, in the midst of starvation, emigration and death, and married in 1869. In a twist of bizarre fate, my sister and her family today live a stone’s throw from the old church site where the O’Mearas married and set up their family home in the wake of the Famine. Sometimes history doesn’t need to rhyme, it can stand up and wave at you square in the face, if you know where to look.

The stories, records and testimony contained in these recent books point us towards a new examination of the family within the State and of the stories that still remain untold

If Samuel Beckett wrote we are all born astride the grave, my great-great grandparents walked over the deathly void and made their own mark. Timothy lived to 85, Margaret to 70, and with their own family moved onwards in place and time, from a one-room thatched cottage, from north Cork into south Limerick, and like countless other Irish families, across the Atlantic Ocean to New York of the late 19th century.

Like Clair Wills and her book exploring the missing people in her family story, and of hidden pregnancies and absent women, there are missing people in all families. While Patrick O’Meara left Queenstown in 1902 headed for New York, his ticket was paid for by his elder sister, Ellen, who was already settled in Brooklyn. Ellen likely never returned to Ireland. Her archive and memory are kept by her alone, in another time and place, and perhaps by descendants elsewhere. The search for Ellen continues, one of our missing people.

The stories, records and testimony contained in these recent books point us towards a new examination of the family within the State and of the stories that still remain untold. All of these works bring us as readers into the realm of other people’s memories, those that are imagined and reconstructed through archival fragments and oral accounts. This body of contemporary Irish writing shows how the history of the state can be better understood through the records, memories and stories of the family, and those which we yet have to uncover.