Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets by Clair Wills review – a search for truth | Autobiography and memoir

Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets by Clair Wills review – a search for truth | Autobiography and memoir

In 2014, the bodies of nearly 800 babies and small children were found in the septic tank of a former mother and baby home in Tuam, Galway. They had been deposited over four decades, a practice that only ended in 1961. This grisly discovery, made by a local historian, forced a long overdue public reckoning in Ireland.

Why was it considered necessary, by individual families as well as the Catholic church and the Irish state, to place unmarried pregnant girls in brutal institutions, to subject their babies to coerced adoption, often abroad, and to treat the children that remained with such indifference or active malice that in Bessborough, one of the largest homes in the country, the infant mortality rate in the early 1950s was five times the national rate? Why was there such extreme shame and secrecy about sex and reproduction outside of marriage?

Clair Wills is a cultural historian who has written extensively on Irish history. She’s half Irish herself, on her mother’s side, and though she was born and raised in England she has a personal history with the mother and baby homes. In 1954, her uncle Jackie got a local teenager called Lily pregnant. His mother, Wills’s grandmother Molly, refused to permit their marriage. Instead, Lily was incarcerated in Bessborough, where her daughter Mary was born the following year.

Mary spent the entirety of her childhood trapped inside orphanages and industrial schools run by nuns, though she was only 25 miles away from the tumbledown little farm near Skibbereen in Cork where Molly still lived, and where Wills and her siblings spent idyllic summer holidays. As an adult, Mary too became pregnant and was rejected by the father’s family, an event so traumatic in its repetition of her unhappy history that she took her own life.

Wills first heard about Mary in the late 1980s, shortly after she’d given birth to her own baby, also out of wedlock. This time there was no question of being shuttled back to Ireland and taken to the mother and baby home, or of adoption under pressure of familial disgrace. But a different kind of illegitimacy hampered her attempts to understand what had happened to Mary: the sense of illegitimacy attendant on being not-Irish, or not Irish enough. She’d grown up in England, after all. Despite those potato-picking summers, “I didn’t even live in Ireland. I wasn’t ‘properly’ Irish.”

She made furtive attempts on the archive anyway: interviewing nuns, gathering up birth certificates, looking for graves, an uncertain detective periodically checked by shame. Gradually, she came to feel she didn’t have the right to delve any further into the intimate details of Lily and Mary’s painful lives. Her task instead was to discover how her ordinary, statistically average rural family could have colluded in a national act of such cruelty and disavowal.

As the subtitle suggests, it’s Molly who lies at the heart of this story. Molly, born the week that the Irish nationalist MP Charles Parnell died in Hove, in the arms of Kitty O’Shea, his former lover, then wife, with whom he had three illegitimate children. Wills argues convincingly that the revelation of Parnell’s long adulterous love affair altered the course of the struggle for Irish independence, allowing the Catholic church to assume its death grip on the private lives of the Irish people.

Molly came of age in the war of independence, and to Wills’s shock tumbled perilously close to Lily’s situation in her own youth. Sexual continence, or the successful performance of it, spelled security for a working-class country girl, while a slip (which might, of course, be rape) could precipitate catastrophe. The only difference was that by the time Lily became pregnant, the system of silencing had become institutionalised, a national bureaucracy run by religious orders and government departments, from which it was almost impossible to escape.

In her ability to unearth the social shifts embedded in intimate domestic history, Wills often recalls Lorna Sage’s unforgettable memoir Bad Blood, another tale full of rebellious pregnant girls. Like Sage, she is deft at unpicking lies, evasions and gaps in the record, grasping that these things have political as well as private meaning. Both women understand how trauma might be inherited, reduplicating through the generations, leaving a stain you have to work to interpret.

“I learn from these stories,” Wills writes of her mother, “about the culture of silence into which she was inducted, and about how information was withheld and knowledge circulated, particularly between women … By keeping and selectively sharing secrets women conspired to retain some autonomy, even agency, in communities in which they had little choice over what happened to them.”

But it wasn’t just the women who got damaged. The strange thing about Molly’s refusal to let Jackie marry is that it meant she lost her son, too. When Lily went to Bessborough he moved to England, where he vanished into an itinerant and undocumented underclass of Irish migrants, who worked on the roads and building sites or as seasonal agricultural labourers. In the moving final section of Missing Persons, Wills attempts to find Jackie, or at least to understand what his invisible life might have involved, day after freezing day, year after backbreaking year.

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This is a short, very personal book, but it is also an act of fairly radical reframing. The missing are the people pushed to the margins by a ruthless culture of sexual shaming. By placing them at the centre of her story, Wills simultaneously recalibrates what it means to be Irish. “The most representative thing about my family,” she writes, “was not the small farm, the nightly saying of the Rosary, or the close community of neighbours … but the fact that most of its members lived elsewhere. Perhaps this is the biggest Irish secret. The typical Irish family was not at home.”

I couldn’t read those lines without thinking of my own family. My grandmother grew up on a farm in Carlow. Like Molly, she was one of 13. She came to London before the second world war, married an Irishman and by the time I was born was settled in Harrow, with a sister nearby. Like Wills’s mother, she passed on a legacy of family stories, ghoulish and oddly truncated. They stuck up like sore thumbs, anecdotal and unattached, drawing you into a darker, more ambiguous history. Her husband was struck dumb as a boy after seeing his republican father chased by the Black and Tans. A sister had a baby out of wedlock, who died of starvation in a Catholic children’s home in England.

Until I read this book, I thought the inconclusive nature of these stories, their multiple gaps, was evidence of being inauthentically Irish, a plastic Paddy, not home often enough to have heard the full story. The reparative quality of Wills’s work, at least for me, is to reframe that sense of illegitimacy as the definitive article, an inheritance just as true in its way as the bottle of Lourdes water or the family farm.

Olivia Laing’s The Garden Against Time will be published in May by Picador. Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets by Clair Wills is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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