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Review of Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets: Exploring the Dark Side of Ireland
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Review of Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets: Exploring the Dark Side of Ireland

Missing Persons must have been a very difficult book to write, for certainly it is difficult to read. This is not due to any defects of style or execution – it is an expertly crafted work, at once vigorous and subtle, which manages its effects and conserves its revelations with all the skill of a master novelist. The difficulty for the reader is in struggling to absorb the pain and pity of the story, or stories, which it relates.

Many families have hidden secrets and sorrows, as Clair Wills recognizes multiple times. While most people prefer to keep these things buried, Wills bravely and with some hesitation, delves into the private affairs of a family, a generation, and even an entire population, ultimately finding them at fault. However, Wills does not pass judgment; that is not her intent.

Professor Wills, who teaches English literature at Cambridge University, is highly regarded for her numerous works on Irish history and society. Despite being raised in London, her maternal family has deep roots in a specific area of West Cork, located north of Ballydehob. Her grandmother, who lived on a small and isolated farm, spent her old age there after her husband passed away early. She witnessed her children immigrate, not to America like many Irish people did in the past, but to England where they found employment in various fields such as nursing in psychiatric hospitals, working on farms, and contributing to the construction of motorways and power stations during the postwar boom.

Every summer when they were growing up, Wills and her three sisters would go on vacation to their grandmother’s farm. The living arrangements were simple: there were only two bedrooms, one where the girls and their grandmother slept together, and a nicer one for the parents. Despite the fact that the small farm economy had collapsed in the early 1970s, Wills’ grandmother continued to live there with no other options. Their lives extended beyond their means of making a living. However, for Wills and her sisters, the farm held a special kind of magic.

Despite the picturesque facade, there existed a darker truth concealed within orphanages, mother-and-baby homes, “industrial schools”, and the infamous Magdalene Laundries. These institutions were reluctantly funded by the government and harshly run by religious groups. The numbers are widely known, yet they continue to be startling. As Wills notes, from the time of Irish independence until 1998, the mother-and-baby homes housed a minimum of 56,000 unwed mothers, including girls as young as 12 and women in their 40s, as well as at least 57,000 infants and young children.

In 2014, at a location in Tuam, County Galway, which was operated by the Bon Secours nuns, the bodies of approximately 800 infants and young children were discovered in an abandoned septic tank. This discovery was made possible by the diligent efforts of local historian Catherine Corless. It was determined that many of the children had passed away due to malnutrition. After conducting an investigation, a government commission concluded that the homes did not provide proper care for “illegitimate” children and actually decreased their chances of survival.

Wills is responsible for bringing these disturbing statistics to light. She recalls that at some point, though she can’t pinpoint exactly when, she learned that her uncle Jackie, who lived on the farm with his mother, had gotten a woman named Lily pregnant. Lily’s family was even poorer than Jackie’s and because of her physical disability, she was deemed unsuitable for marriage.

Wills discovered that Lily had given birth to a daughter, Mary, who was placed in an orphanage and then an industrial school. As she got older, she left for England to train as a nurse. However, she became pregnant by an Indian doctor and traveled to India to meet his family, only to be rejected by them. Tragically, Mary took her own life in 1980. As expressed in Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” the cycle of suffering perpetuates from one generation to another.

While Wills delved further into her family’s past, she uncovered other shocking revelations. It became clear that Jackie’s betrayal of Lily was not the only secret that her grandmother took to the grave.

The devastating famine of the 1840s had a profound impact on Ireland. It resulted in the deaths of one million people and the emigration of another million, effectively destroying the traditional, somewhat pagan culture that was celebrated by poets such as Yeats and Synge, as well as Lady Gregory. With much of the peasantry decimated, the petit bourgeoisie took control and brought about the rise of the modern Irish Catholic church. Author Wills explains that during this time, there was a surge in religious practices such as rosary recitations, novenas, and devotion to saints, as well as the use of candles, vestments, incense, beads, scapulars, medals, and missals. These were all employed as a means of captivating the people’s imagination and controlling their behavior.

This church was not dedicated to Jesus, but rather to St. Paul. It was characterized by strictness, male dominance, a disdain for pleasure, and fear of female sexuality, which was seen as a sinful force that needed to be suppressed or tightly regulated. In the newly “respectable” society of Ireland, made up of shopkeepers, farmers, and priests, sex outside of marriage was considered a sin and women were forced to atone for it through harsh penitentiary measures.

In the modern Ireland, families were skilled at ignoring obvious truths and feigning ignorance. A deal was made between family, church, and state, and a system of secrecy was institutionalized. Just like in other totalitarian regimes, numerous individuals, particularly women and babies, disappeared in the tens or possibly hundreds of thousands. This was a communal atrocity that has yet to face a comprehensive public examination in Ireland. If it ever does, Wills would serve as a compelling witness for the prosecution.

  • Clair Wills’ book, “Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets”, is available from Allen Lane for £20. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery fees may be included.

Source: theguardian.com