With our Blessing: a crime novel born in a Mother and baby home
Jo Spain always wanted to write crime fiction but with the ambition of exploring social attitudes. Her father’s roots in a Mother and Baby home gave her a lightbulb moment
Jo Spain: I look at my children now, one of whom is four, and think – imagine telling a child of that age they had a new mammy and daddy? Imagine asking them to forget their mother? I get a lump in my throat every time I think of my dad, a small boy, going through that traumatic experience
There is no worse pain imaginable to a parent than the loss of a child. So it is truly distressing to realise that, for decades, a policy of forcing mothers to relinquish their babies operated in this State. In some instances, we know these babies were trafficked, sold to couples abroad by the religious institutions that ran the now infamous Mother and Baby homes.
I remember the shock I felt discovering that this happened in Ireland. Mike Milotte’s book, Banished Babies, was the first piece of research I undertook for my novel, With Our Blessing.
I’ve read and wanted to write crime fiction since I was a mere dot. The books I enjoy most tend to go a little beyond standard police procedurals. I like novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a mystery set against a backdrop exploring society’s attitude to women. I had a daft ambition that my book, too, could examine social views and perhaps an interesting period in history.
I’d always been vaguely aware of Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes. My family still live within spitting distance of the notorious High Park Laundry in Whitehall, Dublin. The history of the institutions both fascinated and appalled me.
When I decided to construct a murder plot touching on such a tragic period, I was acutely aware that I had to do so with great sensitivity and compassion. It deserved nothing less.
There was no shortage of information. I delved into the Justice for Magdalenes website, June Goulding’s The Light in the Window, Steve Humphries’ Sex in a Cold Climate and, of course, Martin Sixsmith’s Philomena, just to start.
It was while undertaking this research that I had a light-bulb moment about my own family.
My father, born in 1951, had been adopted. A baby in the 1950s, dad was most likely adopted from a Mother and Baby home.
My father died, tragically, in 1995. His life had been short and very much haunted by his early beginnings. He believed that his mother hadn’t wanted him, had abandoned him. He was emotionally scarred by this, despite his very lovely adoptive parents. As somebody told me once, adoption is the only trauma in a person’s life they’re supposed to be grateful for.
So, dad had no interest in looking for his mother. I toyed with the notion after he’d gone. I was 16 and, following my grandmother’s death three days after his, and then my grandad’s a couple of years later, one whole side of my family had been wiped out. Did I have other relatives out there, unbeknownst to me?
I ruled it out, telling myself it could be opening Pandora’s box.
I knew her name and I knew she’d come from Leitrim. Strangely, my dad had that information. It must have come from my grandparents. I’ve learned how bitterly hard it is for adopted people in this State to find out anything about their birth mothers when the information is deliberately withheld.
In 2013, I contacted the HSE. I’d managed to get my dad’s original birth cert and knew he’d been born on the Navan Road.
The woman who eventually dealt with me was initially reluctant to divulge any information. I explained that my father had passed, that most likely his mother had passed and that I just wanted some knowledge about his background for my own sake. I have children, perhaps there were medical facts I needed to be aware of.
I must have been lucky (and convincing) because this woman retrieved my birth grandmother’s file. And what she told me blew me away.
It transpired that my dad’s mother had moved to Dublin from a very small rural village in South Leitrim. She’d gone into St. Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home and had my dad in September 1951. St. Pat’s features prominently in Mike Milotte’s book – it’s estimated to have had the highest number of illegal adoptions to America, especially in that late ’40s, early ’50s period.
In a twist that was virtually unheard of for those days, my grandmother, seemingly, refused to give my dad up. She stayed with him in St. Pat’s until 1952, when she left to work as a domestic in a private home. It’s assumed she saw him every day over this period, finally taking him out of the home in 1953.
Sadly, there’s no happy ending. At some point in late 1954 or early 1955, most likely alone and very likely destitute, she returned to the orphanage and asked them to take her son. Perhaps she had lost her job. Perhaps her employer no longer wanted a child about the place. Or maybe she couldn’t cope financially and emotionally.
My dad was adopted in 1955, aged four. He had one strong memory of a nice lady giving him a snow globe and telling him he was a good boy.
I look at my children now, one of whom is four, and think – imagine telling a child of that age they had a new mammy and daddy? Imagine asking them to forget their mother? I get a lump in my throat every time I think of my dad, a small boy, going through that traumatic experience and that’s without knowing how he was treated in the home. There have been many horror stories about that specific orphanage from former residents and it was latterly included in a redress scheme.
I’ve found out so much about my grandmother’s early life thanks to the kindness of strangers and historians in her home town. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead, but I’m filled with respect for her. And I now understand a little better what made my dad the troubled man he was. For that, I am forever grateful. I wish he had been afforded the right to discover all this himself. And, of course, that he had lived to read his daughter’s first novel. I’m writing this piece on what would have been his 64th birthday.
I like to think he’d have been proud. Happy birthday, dad.
With Our Blessing by Jo Spain is published on September 10th by Quercus, £12.99