Just under two years ago, I forged a slippery path along a forgotten country track half a mile from my family home in Co Clare on the west coast of Ireland. I had to watch my step in the hungry, shoe-sucking mud that bounded the grass growing up the middle. All around, wrens and other small birds chirped and chittered amongst the berry-laden briars piling high on either side. The smell of the sea drifted on the air.
This was my second effort to unearth a local secret, the first having run aground in a deserted field overlooked by a ruined castle, now pressed into service as a cowshed. Bolstered by clandestine knowledge from an elderly neighbour, my quest was successful this time.
Under the moist and gaping eye of a little stone hump-backed bridge, to the lilt of a crystal-clear stream, I stumbled upon the last resting place of the lost babies of Kilmurry. Except for a recently added makeshift fence, I would have missed the tiny mounds – cosy and round as a mother’s embrace, tiny risings clustered around a larger hummock. And these were the lucky ones.
I counted about 20 of these tiny unmarked graves – where infants were buried under cover of darkness, no women allowed to be present. Even their mothers were forbidden to attend these underground rituals. Having died before they were baptised, these infants were banished by the Catholic Church from being interred in sanctified ground. Following strictures still observed up to 60 years ago, the families of these infants had found a place to hold them safe when their church would not.
Here in this tranquil setting, a half-mile from the pounding Atlantic surf, their makeshift graveyard was wedged between a “fairy fort” and a “blessed well” – a blending of ancient Celtic and neo-Christian traditions that would ensure no local farmer’s tractor or tools would disturb them. Simliar sites exist around rural Ireland – another such location only 30 miles from this spot has been the subject of media scrutiny.
Less than 80 miles from the Kilmurry site I visited – in Tuam, Co Galway, 800 infants met with a very different end. In February 2017, their remains were unearthed from a mass grave inside a septic tank after a campaign by local historian Catherine Corless to have the location explored. This was the site of the former Tuam mother and baby home where women and girls were incarcerated if they fell pregnant outside of marriage. DNA evidence has shown the buried babies were between 35 weeks and three years of age.
In a series of scathing articles published in October 2017, the New York Times revealed the grim fate of unmarried women and girls, and their offspring who were born behind the forbidding walls of this institution. The women were treated as “an inferior sub-species” according to then taoiseachEnda Kenny. Their children, meanwhile, were regarded as a breed apart – “They were the children of the Devil,” retired local school principal Kevin O’Dwyer told the New York Times.
In other newspaper accounts, medical records reveal the children were regarded as physically and developmentally inferior to their “legitimate” counterparts, one doctor asking “what is the good of keeping these children alive?” and asserting “it would be a great deal kinder to strangle these children at birth”. In a 2014 article, the New York Times revealed “The death rates at the homes were always well above the national average, according to official figures. In some years, more than 50 per cent of infants died, and there is evidence the state knew this; several commentators have called the homes’ problems ‘a scandal hidden in plain sight’.”
PJ Haverty, who was born in the Tuam home in 1951, has labelled it “a prison”. With the help of his foster parents, Haverty was able to track down his birth mother. She told him she had been forced by the church to enter the home and surrender him. She was detained and compelled to work for a year after his birth to pay for his care. Despite many attempts after her release to be reunited with her son, she was barred from ever seeing him again.
Corless, who grew up close to the home, described to the Irish Independent her childhood memories of children from the institution disappearing after their First Holy Communions. The practice was to forcibly separate them from their mothers within the first year of birth, and for those who survived to be fostered out. Records of these arrangements are scant and unreliable. Corless and others have expressed their concerns that there are many other mass graves of infants dotted around Ireland.
The Tuam mother and baby home was one of many such institutions around Ireland. One might be forgiven for thinking we are talking about 18th- or 19th-century practices. The shocking truth is that some of these institutions were still operating up to the mid- and even late 1990s. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes is investigating 18 such places. Among its subjects of inquiry are living conditions, infant mortality, illegal adoptions and circumstances surrounding women’s entry to and exit from these institutions. In February, the commission announced it was looking into the burials of “a large number of children who died while resident in Bessboro Mother and Baby Home in Cork between 1922 and 1998”.
RTÉ journalist Miriam O’Callaghan spoke with a woman in her early eighties who had been born in a mother and baby home. Her account of her young life is brutal – she still bears the scars across her back and hips from being beaten with a belt buckle for attempting to speak out against injustices; she is blind in one eye from the chemicals she was forced to use to launder sheets and clothes from the age of nine; she was incarcerated in solitary confinement at the same age; she was raped by a priest and her resulting daughter subsequently stolen from her by her captors, Catholic nuns.
The radio interview also confirmed the practice of “dehumanising” women entering these institutions. Their heads were shaved and their names changed. They were stripped of all clothing and possessions and made to wear a uniform with no underwear – a deliberate stripping away of their dignity, their individual identities and their personal freedoms. Violated. Silenced. Disappeared.
I too understand how this feel. I would be lying if I told you I can compare my own experiences to those of these misfortunate women and their lost children. However, writing this article is not all about them. It is about #MeToo. Aged eight: running away in tears from the old man waggling his flaccid penis at me. Aged nine: recoiling from the middle-aged family friend who surreptitiously stuck his tongue in my mouth while greeting me. Aged 13: startled by the stranger my father’s age asking if I would perform oral sex on him “for a tenner” (I didn’t know what he meant). Aged 14: repeatedly, aggressively indecently assaulted by a teenage boy. Aged 15: subjected to six months of sexually explicit phone calls, citing where I had been seen, what I had been wearing and what could be done to me next time. Aged 16: inappropriately touched by a priest.
I could fill a page, many pages, citing instances like this. And I know I am not alone.
There were times when I tried to speak out. At the age of 14, while struggling with a series of particularly vicious attacks, I asked a teacher for help. I was immediately shut down – “Stop trying to make trouble. No-one will believe you.”
My best friend dismissed my appeal for advice with: “worse things happen to people all the time”. My last recourse, a female friend told me “You must have provoked him”.
I learned to feel ashamed. To assume the blame. I learned my place was to feign politeness. But most of all, I learned to stay silent. To disappear. And so I buried my experiences, each one interred in a hole as deep and dark and soundless as the unholy resting place of those poor innocent babies in Tuam.
Looking back, I don’t blame the friends I reached out to for help. I realise now that I did not have the words then to adequately explain what was happening to me. My humiliation and my imposed sense of shame stole what few, inadequate words I had. I have words now. Too many words. If I could go back and meet my child self, I would hold her and tell her. I have the words. You are not to blame. You don’t need to speak. I will speak for you. I will speak for the other girls and women who have been silenced; for their babies who have been buried across the length and breadth of Ireland – and no doubt many other places – through no fault of their own.
Thanks to the bravery of a number of pioneering women who have spoken out in recent years, we have new words now. We have #MeToo and #TimesUp. We have other words too. We have #WakingTheFeminists and #Autonomy. I have joined my voice with many other women writers in an anthology by that name, curated by tireless women’s rights campaigner, Kathy D’Arcy.
Just published by New Binary Press in Ireland, Autonomy is rolling out via a series of international launches. The anthology calls out all kinds of abuses of power against women – from physical assaults to the stripping away of rights, including the most fundamental human right to bodily autonomy. The right to have governance over your own body – to set limits over who can touch it and in what manner. Into all of this flows access to reproductive healthcare – a right long denied to women in Ireland, with brutal and far-reaching consequences, even today. Ireland’s legal restrictions on reproductive healthcare have been condemned as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” by the UN’s human rights committee.
But I am a realist and I can see that words will not be enough. We have to find ways of fuelling the fight for change. Proceeds from the sale of Autonomy go to the campaign for legal changes in Ireland and internationally. The aim is to embed legal protections for women’s rights.
We live in a world where men like Harvey Weinstein can remain protected for decades. We live in a world where a man – who boasted on tape that because he is rich and powerful, he can “grab women” by the vagina – succeeded in becoming president of a world superpower.
We live in a world where the objectification of women is at the core of billion-dollar industries. Where boys as young as eight are accessing porn that teaches them debasing women is their birthright. As one sex educator of teenage boys recently remarked during a podcast interview on the Belfast rape trial, “If they are to use porn as their sex education, they will end up in jail”. We live in a world where Ivy League attitudes, “boys will be boys” and “locker-room talk” are used as excuses for the grossly immoral, harmful and often illegal treatment of women.
We live in a world where author and feminist Margaret Atwood has to ask “When did it become the norm to expect a porn star on the first date?”. In the same interview with Catherine Conroy in the Irish Times, Atwood stated: “Women’s rights are human rights because women are human. It’s not a hard concept.”
If we are human – and we do account for approximately half of the world’s human population – why are we still having to raise our voices? Even more worryingly, why is the pendulum swinging against us, with far-right views threatening a reduction in women’s rights across the world? There is increasing pressure in the United States to roll back women’s reproductive rights. In March, a US government official appointed by President Trump stated at a closed-door UN meeting that “the US is a pro-life country”. On May 25th, the Irish people will vote in a highly divisive referendum which will decide the fate of women’s reproductive rights in that country for the foreseeable future. According to the Guardian, “The religious right in Ireland, particularly lay Catholic groups, see the referendum as their last chance to roll back 25 years of social liberal change”.
Last year in Russia – where one in three women experience domestic abuse, and forty women die each day at the hands of their spouse or partner – President Putin signed a law decriminalising some forms of domestic abuse. Last December, a woman was jailed for 30 years in El Salvador for giving birth to a stillborn child.
In a world where the most shocking aspect of #MeToo has been – not how many women have been sexually assaulted or harassed, but how few have not – I feel compelled to add my voice to the cries of the countless women pressing for change. I understand all too well that nothing is achieved in silence. Silence can so easily be read as acceptance, as acquiescence. Silence is a slippery track full of hungry mud sucking at our shoes. We need to keep reminding ourselves it is not so very long since women were barefoot and pregnant, and consigned to the laundry.
The following poem by Anne Casey is extracted from the Autonomy anthology.
Still I Rise
(After Maya Angelou, 1928-2014)
You have stalked me down in city streets
With your grubby, prying eyes,
You have rubbed me with your smutty filth
But still, like dust, I rise.
Did my sexiness arouse you?
When I was barely aged thirteen?
When you trailed me with your wanting
Gobbing offers so obscene.
Just like storms and like winds,
Sure as sunset and sunrise,
As the stars climb the night skies,
Still I'll rise.
When you followed me at eight
Years old to display your naked crotch,
Did my gaping mouth excite you?
Did you want to make me watch?
Does my indifference offend you?
Doesn't make you quite so hard?
'Cause I laugh like I've got diamonds
In my own precious heart.
You may slam me with your words,
You may strip me with your eyes,
You may score me with your coarseness,
But still, like your heat, I'll rise
Does my derisiveness distress you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I talk like I've got tactics
In the space behind my eyes?
Out of the sheds of men's shamefulness
Up from an antiquity of blamefulness
I am handed down from Amazons, baptised in their blood
Daughter of Eve, I'd see you crawling in the mud.
Leaving behind nights of secrets and dread
Into a daybreak that's flushed fulsome red
Bringing the rage that my fine sisters gave,
I am the cry and the call of the brave.