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Missing Persons, or My Grandmother’s Secrets by Clair Wills: Family fables, hidden truths

This engaging and fearless memoir follows the trail of a disappeared cousin

Missing Persons, or My Grandmother’s Secrets
Missing Persons, or My Grandmother’s Secrets
Author: Clair Wills
ISBN-13: 978-0241640951
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £20

“No such thing as fun for all the family,” Zadie Smith quotes Jerry Seinfeld in her essay The Bathroom, concluding: Somebody’s going to have to give up something. It’s only a question of how much and to whom.” Missing Persons by Clair Wills looks at the price paid by certain individuals within the Irish family unit for a large part of the 20th century.

In the 1950s Wills’s uncle, Jackie, got his lover Lily pregnant, disappeared to England, “abandoning her and her child to a mother and baby home”. After years of meticulous, self-doubting research, Wills traced her missing cousin Mary, born in Bessborough mother and baby home. Mary was never adopted perhaps because of Lily’s withered arm, which Wills’s grandmother viewed as an indication of “poor stock” when she refused to agree to Jackie marrying Lily. Mary grew up in an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy in Clonakilty before moving to London as a young adult, “she killed herself in 1980″.

Missing Persons begins with an account of childhood summers spent on her grandmother’s family farm in West Cork. Seen through the eyes of a London-Irish child, Wills’s precise, evocative description denotes an almost idyllic world. What she didn’t know then was that this charming “crumbling” farm was her grandmother’s “punishment” for a “ruinous error” made two decades earlier. “Sacrifices rarely take place out in the open ... what happened amounted to the authorised sacrifice of some individuals for the sake of others; for the sake of rigid adherence to the ‘values’ of family, respectability and legitimate inheritance. Such violence had to be hidden.”

In this utterly engaging, fearless and acute memoir, Wills studies her family history to shine a light on “a whole society” who learned “ ... not to look too closely, and certainly not to ask too many questions ... learnt to avoid the shady outlines of the missing people who had once sat at their tables, or hung about in the school playground, or danced with them on a Saturday evening, or knelt beside them at Mass”.


Just how quickly this violence could overtake an individual is chilling: “the mother of a friend of mine, now in her eighties, who worked for the local county council before she was married, found herself – more than once – filing the admission papers of girls she’d seen at dances a few weeks before.” This account also illustrates how many Irish families were “involved in some way with the institutions”. It went far beyond those “directly affected as victims and beneficiaries, the institutions reached into every corner of Irish life ... the daughters and sisters and aunts who worked in the homes as part of the convent hierarchy, the local priests ... the bishops who oversaw the running of the homes, the priests who said Mass and heard confessions ... There were social workers, child welfare officers, architects, building companies, contractors who worked out the cost of repairs to the sewers. Everything was reported on, minuted, filed.”

It takes great courage to hold this painful material up to the light without being overwhelmed or overwhelming the reader but Wills manages to do just that. Not only an impeccable researcher and critic, she is a profound storyteller, operating with the economy of a poet, packing decades of research and thought into this riveting volume.

Wills is enthralled by stories and there are many enthralling stories here. Her mother, who trained as a psychiatric nurse in England in the 1950s, is a “mixture of inheritances, like a character out of a 19th-century novel: the folk beliefs and traditions of her rural ancestors, and the years of training in psychological reason, logic and psychiatry ... She is frightened that cruelties enacted long ago still have the power to hurt ... keeping silent about her family history, minimising the violence, or transforming it into a fable, is the only way she knows to keep the future safe from harm. I understand the impulse, but I think it’s the wrong way.”

But what is the right way? Wills examines her own motives mercilessly: “I’ve been trying, on a tiny scale, to count the costs of the piety and land hunger and doomed ideals of respectability that were bolstered and enabled by the institutions of church and state. But I’ve also – by default – been attacking the culture of reticence that gave people the resilience to survive. The habits of discretion and reserve that made day-to-day life liveable in a small community where everyone knew everyone else’s business. It’s a murderous impulse on my part, hardly heroic ...”

Wills writes of the death of her own baby, “whose headstone stands taller than everyone else’s ... slab of Hornton stone that dwarfs the surrounding memorials in an almost embarrassing way, given his tiny dates: 19–20 June 1996 ... When my partner and I bought the plot, in those crazed and painful days ... we thought ... Why waste the space?” But “the huge stone wasn’t all about conserving resources ... It was also a way of insisting on his little life.” If the church and State did not consider the Tuam babies real persons, “not worthy of a proper burial”, Wills imagines “how comforting” if we could think, “the rules of life and death do not apply. They did not survive, yet they have not gone away”.

Wills visited the Convent of Mercy in the 1990s. “I was terribly nervous as I drove up to the door. I had been at school in England. I didn’t know nuns and convents ... But the larger cloud was that I was overstepping a boundary. I did not feel comfortable telling anyone what I was doing. None of this belonged to me, though I felt it touched me deeply. I was an outsider. I felt – and still feel – simultaneously attached to and ashamed of my desire to know.” The door was opened by a woman in black, “I began to explain again who I was but she put out a hand to stop me. ‘I was at school with your mother,’ she said. She saw the wild incomprehension track across my face ... perfect proof ... of the folly of trying to distinguish too sharply the church from the local community when making sense of the incarceration of children and young people in church-run institutions.”

It was “impossible not to warm to” to Sister Immaculata. “I wonder too now whether she also understood the condition of being an outsider. Like me she was both in on and excluded from the secrets of the family and the locale. As we leant in together over the ledger where she pointed out the entry, we were complicit. I do not think I am making this up.” Sister Immaculata put Wills in touch with elderly nun who had known Mary but the interview went badly: “‘She was a moody girl, a moody girl,’ Sister Ciaran said.”

Wills observes that it wasn’t until the public scandals over the Magdalene laundries, industrial schools and the mother and baby homes, that “I properly understood that what I was dealing with was not only a family shame but a national shame too. The most representative thing about my family was not the small farm, the nightly saying of the Rosary, or the close community of neighbours – all stereotypes with which we are overfamiliar – but the fact that most of its members lived elsewhere. Perhaps this is the biggest Irish family secret. The typical Irish family was not at home. Its members were parcelled out (voluntarily and involuntarily) to England, to America, to the schools and the institutions that taught children how to become nuns and brothers and priests, as well as to the social welfare institutions ... that are central to the stories in this book.”

Jackie died when he was 52. “He was living at the time in digs in Bury St Edmunds.” Wills takes a sympathetic, fresh look at the men who “took the boat”, often portrayed with “a certain reverence for their stoicism, expressed as anything but, of course. Drinking and fighting and gambling aren’t high on the list of recommendations for cultivating patience, fortitude and a calm acceptance of a destiny you can’t change.” Another uncle of Wills died at 47 on a building site in the burning heat of 1976. Wills asks if these men were saying yes or no to the family system, relinquishing their claims to the land, “leaving the way clear despite the cost to themselves”. She suggests an alternative to the “tragical-stoical story. They chose itinerant lives; they said no to marriage, family and farm. I could go further. They pleased themselves! They ... sloughed off responsibility. Perhaps, when choices are so limited, the only freedom you can exercise is to refuse to choose.”

What remains for us who have inherited these secrets and stories, the painful scandals? It hard to look unflinchingly into Bluebeard’s chamber but we must, if what Wills says is true, that “history has been pressing down on us for far too long. But it’s worse than that. It’s been expressing itself through us. Reproducing itself, all this time”.

Further reading

The Best Catholics in the World by Derek Scally (Penguin Ireland, 2021)

A powerful, ground-breaking account of the fall of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Scally’s personal and political approach is vital to an understanding of how the church gained and lost its absolute power.

The Family Plot by Clair Wills (London Review of Books, 2023)

A triptych of essays focussing on mother and baby homes, abortion laws and psychiatric asylums. Wills examines how storytelling is used to justify the control of vulnerable human bodies. Illuminating and essential.

Sive by John B Keane (premiered 1959; Mercier, 2009)

Set in the 1950s, Keane’s play was ahead of its time, fearlessly dissecting family violence with his inimitable flair and impeccable ear for dialogue.

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic