Ireland is haunted by its history, not least the abuses within Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, and by the Catholic Church. These horrors are a national shame. Debut author Molly Hennigan is calling for public recognition – a reckoning – of the horrors enacted within psychiatric institutions, stretching back to the years following the Famine.
In The Celestial Realm: A Memoir of Madness and Maternal Lineage, she weaves personal history with national atrocity. With compassion, she recounts memories of her grandmother, Phil, and her time in psychiatric facilities. Rendered with love, these memories are as heartfelt as they are heartbreaking. Hennigan’s great-grandmother Sissy, too, was held and died within Grangegorman Hospital, another psychiatric institution. These echoes of the past inhabit Hennigan’s present, as she intertwines their histories with her own. Burning with love and anger, she writes: “Where is the national apology?”
Hennigan’s conjured maternal pasts are compounded with academic research on Ireland’s relationship with madness, nonconformity and the industrial asylum complex. Drawing on Damien Brennan’s work, we are told that after the Famine the population of Ireland almost halved, but simultaneously the numbers of people held in mental asylums increased seven-fold. Hennigan writes that “the full range of emotions from anger to love to jealousy,” could lead to being committed. While housed in an asylum, the treatments for these “ailments” ranged from lobotomies to insulin induced comas. Hennigan says “the desired outcome was silence”.
In pursuit of information about her great-grandmother Sissy, Hennigan finds the archive is not forthcoming. “Female lineage in Ireland feels like a wet, mucky, bloody rag to cling to… the evidence exists, the stains of suffering are there, but there is no information. Whose blood is where?” Undeterred by the intentional silences in the archive, she continues researching, delving into the past through other means.
The Celestial Realm is a love letter to her grandmother, Phil, and their relationship. There is beauty in Hennigan’s descriptions of their hospital interactions. These moments are laced with expansive love as they sit together. In the lift and the car park, she writes of the pain of leaving her on the ward, the guilt of freedom. Fearless in its approach to both personal and Irish history, Hennigan’s The Celestial Realm marks a brave new voice in Irish literature.