Stolen: ‘Ireland loved locking people up,’ says one contributor to this film about institutional barbarism

Film review: The emotional centre of the film remains with the survivors of mother and baby homes

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Director: Margo Harkin
Cert: 15A
Starring: Marie Arbuckle, Joanne Neary, Michael O’Flaherty, Catriona Crowe, Noelle Brown
Running Time: 1 hr 47 mins

“You think you’ve heard it all,” Noelle Brown, actor and writer, says towards the close of this overwhelming documentary. “Yet every time someone contacts me I am flabbergasted.” One lesson from that testimony is no study of outrages surrounding the mother and baby homes in Ireland can hope to be comprehensive. But Margo Harkin, a film-industry veteran who first attracted attention with Hush-a-Bye Baby in 1989, comes closer than one might have imagined possible. Her film, beautifully shot by Colm Hogan and featuring a haunting score by Deirdre Gribbins, comes at the topic from several angles. Artists offer retrospective meditations on foundational shame. Academics talk us through the legal and moral background. (An impressively exasperated Catriona Crowe notes that “Ireland loved locking people up”.) But the emotional centre of the film remains, as it should be, with the survivors of institutional barbarism.

By now, any half-aware citizen should have some idea of how women were hidden away for the sin of being human and how their children were spirited into often fatal misery. As Brown implies, however, images can still shock. Harkin cannily begins her saga with a lady from Tuam explaining how, some years back, she encountered a boy dangling a human skull on a stick. Such discoveries led to a much-delayed reckoning with the consequences of allowing the Catholic Church to act as a state within the State. Mass graves were uncovered. Outrageous lies were put before the public.

It feels inappropriate to single out any of the cases represented. Each has its own particular sadness. A few have their own moments of happy release. But Marie Arbuckle, a charismatic Derry woman with the brownest of voices, owns the screen as she talks us through the loss of her son to the system and of their eventual reuniting. Every second of Michael O’Flaherty’s story is wrenching – flung into cruel foster care as tiny boy – but the small detail of him weeping when, then happily in the army, he got his first paycheck sticks in the brain.

The story is not quite over, but Harkin allows us to enjoy the “beginning of the end” as she introduces us to Joanne Neary, born in a home, and to her perky daughter. “Women just aren’t putting up with this shit any more,” says Neary. Quite so.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist