Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets review – a voyage into Ireland’s dark heart | Autobiography and memoir

Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets review – a voyage into Ireland’s dark heart | Autobiography and memoir

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.

All families nurse guilty secrets, secret sorrows, as Clair Wills more than once acknowledges. Most of us are content to leave such matters undisturbed; not so Wills, who, with fortitude and much honest misgiving, puts on private trial a family, a generation and, indeed, an entire people and finds them guilty. She refrains, however, from condemnation. That is not her purpose.

Wills, a professor of English literature at Cambridge, has written numerous highly regarded books on Irish history and society. Although she grew up in London, her family on her mother’s side had its roots deep in Ireland, in an area of West Cork north of the town of Ballydehob. There, on a small, isolated farm, her grandmother lived into old age after her husband’s early death, watching her children emigrate, not to America, as most Irish people did in previous centuries, but to England, where they found jobs “nursing in psychiatric hospitals, labouring on farms, and building the motorways and power stations of England’s postwar boom”.

Each summer throughout their childhoods, Wills and her three sisters were taken for a holiday on their granny’s farm. The accommodation was basic: there were only two bedrooms, the one where the old woman and the girls slept together, and the “good” one that was reserved for the parents. “By the early 1970s the small-farm economy had decisively failed, but my grandmother … had no option but to keep living inside a world that had no future. Their lives outlasted their livelihoods.” All the same, magic attached to the place, in the eyes of the young.

Behind the idyll, however, a darker reality was hidden away in orphanages, in mother-and-baby homes, in so-called “industrial schools”, and in the infamous Magdalene Laundries. These institutions were funded, grudgingly, by the state and run, harshly, by the religious orders. The statistics are well known but still they shock. As Wills reminds us, between Irish independence and 1998, the mother-and-baby homes held, at the lowest estimate, “56,000 unmarried mothers, ranging from 12-year-old girls to women in their forties, and at least 57,000 babies and small children”.

In 2014 at one of these institutions, in Tuam, County Galway, run by the Bon Secours nuns, the remains of nearly 800 babies and young children were recovered from a disused septic tank, following research by a tireless and courageous local historian, Catherine Corless. Many of the children had died of malnutrition. A government commission set up to investigate the deaths concluded that the homes “did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced the prospects of survival”.

Wills gives life, if that is what to call it, to these horrendous statistics. At some point, she cannot remember precisely when, she discovered that her mother’s brother Jackie, who was living on the farm with his mother, had impregnated a young neighbour by the name of Lily. Lily’s family was even less well off than Jackie’s; also, she had a “withered arm” and was therefore “poor stock”, so that marriage was out of the question.

Wills learned that Lily had her baby, named Mary, that Mary was consigned to an orphanage and later an industrial school, that when she grew up “she went to England to train as a nurse, that she became pregnant by an Indian doctor, that she went to India to meet the family and was rejected by them, and that she killed herself in 1980”. As Philip Larkin has it in This Be the Verse, “Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf.

As Wills dug deeper into her family’s history, she made other, startling discoveries – Jackie’s betrayal of Lily was not by any means the only secret her grandmother guarded to the grave.

The great famine of the 1840s– in which a million people died and a million emigrated – effectively destroyed the old, half-pagan Ireland celebrated by Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory. With so much of the peasantry wiped out, the petit bourgeoisie came to full power, and with it rose the “modern” Irish Catholic church. As Wills writes: “The rosary, novenas, devotion to the sacred heart and the immaculate conception, candles, vestments, incense, beads, scapulars, medals, missals: all the paraphernalia that we associate with old-timey Catholicism was introduced in the 1860s and 1870s, as a way of capturing the imagination of the people – and policing their behaviour.”

This was not the church of Jesus but of St Paul: severe, male-dominated, pleasure-hating, and terrified by what it saw as the sinful power of the female, which must be suppressed or at least strictly controlled. In the new, “respectable” Ireland of the shopkeepers, the farmers and the priests, sex outside marriage was, as Wills writes, “codified as a sin, for which women must atone in a penitentiary regime”.

In the “new” Ireland, families became “practised at not seeing what they could see, and not knowing what they knew”. A Faustian pact was sealed between family, church and state, and the cult of secrecy was “bureaucratised”. And as under all totalitarian regimes, people – women and babies – went missing, by the tens, perhaps the hundreds, of thousands. This was a collective crime for which Ireland has still not been brought to full public trial. Should it ever be, Wills will make a powerful witness for the prosecution.

  • 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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