Metropolitan Museum of Art

Giovanni Bellini: Madonna Adoring the Sleeping Child, early 1460s

My baby’s headstone stands taller than everyone else’s. I mean this literally—it is a great, solid slab of Hornton stone that dwarfs the surrounding memorials in the graveyard in an almost embarrassing way, given his tiny dates: June 19th–20th, 1996. There is a practical reason for this mismatch. When my partner and I bought the plot, we learned that each eight-by-two-and-a-half-foot patch of earth could accommodate two and a half people. Better leave room to write in ourselves, we thought. Why waste the space? And I was rather comforted by the notion that I knew where I was headed in the end. But my partner and I are no longer together, and now when I think of the headstone I imagine my parents’ names inscribed below my son’s, and their bodies lowered into the plot alongside his small bones—although I do not tell them this.

The huge stone wasn’t all about conserving resources, however. It was also a way of insisting on his little life. He died shortly after he was born in the small hours of the morning, in a hospital in the London borough of Hackney, after I hemorrhaged during labor. When the hospital chaplain came to see me later, I still had Thaddeus lying next to me in the bed, and I asked to have him baptized. Er, no, the chaplain explained, he couldn’t do that, because he was already dead. He kept fiddling with the little metal paperclip he had used to attach some records to the inside cover of his black notebook. I was out of it on the morphine I had been given for the emergency Caesarean section, and I remember feeling not merely confused but astonished. He was so lately dead! Barely dead at all! Wasn’t he still warm? Couldn’t the chaplain do it anyway? The paperclip went up and down.

Later, the priest from my parish in Stoke Newington turned up and baptized away without any qualms. Or he blessed him, or something. It wasn’t that I had faith; I just needed a ritual. After that I went into ritual overdrive. My partner and I drove out to graveyards all over London, surveying the desolate plots beneath overpasses and within hailing distance of the North Circular. And we arranged a big funeral mass, with all the works—the coffin on a little stand at the front of the church, cousins over from Ireland, readings, poems, hymns, flowers. All this for a baby who had lived for less than an hour. I look back and wonder why someone didn’t take me aside, although I would have reacted as I reacted to the hospital chaplain, with uncomprehending blindness. The whole thing—the big Mass, the big stone, the big family event—it was madness, but it was also necessary.

The revelations in 2014 of the haphazard burial (would “dumping” be a more accurate word?) of the bodies of nearly eight hundred babies and small children in the grounds of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Galway, where unwed mothers were sent to give birth between 1925 and 1961, were shocking for many reasons, but high up among them was that they offer incontrovertible, physical evidence that some lives mattered more than others in twentieth-century Ireland. Obviously that is not in itself a surprise, although Irish society is adept at pretending that it managed to escape the class system that apparently uniquely marred Britain. Its overlords were mostly foreign and Protestant, and were mostly got rid of; it escaped the Industrial Revolution (as though class only arrived with factories); its cities were small and in them community life was still possible; and anyway through much of the twentieth century no one (not even the well-off) had any money.

Weasel terms like “status” have been used instead of “class” to describe the rigid stratifications in rural, small-town, and urban Ireland. But everybody knows there were the haves and the have-nots. Everyone knows that lots of the have-nots went to England, to become the underclass of the postwar industrial boom, to try to make good, or to have their babies in secret. For others there were the industrial schools, the county homes, the asylums, the laundries, and the Mother and Baby Homes. Nearly everyone over the age of forty knows of someone who was incarcerated in one of these institutions, if only for a time. Nowadays, blogs, advice columns, and chat rooms online reveal thousands of people searching for information about their mothers, sisters, aunts, and, weirdly, even about themselves.

There is an early painting by Giovanni Bellini that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Madonna Adoring the Sleeping Child dates apparently from the 1460s, but has been overenthusiastically restored, so that there is something disturbing about the baby’s china-like flesh, picked out in dark outlines, and something definitely off about his impossibly bent right arm. “The sleeping child is a reminder of Christ’s death and sacrifice,” says the catalog note, and he certainly looks not too well. And then there is Bellini’s Madonna Enthroned Adoring the Sleeping Child, in which Jesus’s arm dangles in a positively dead-child manner. The dead weight of his arm mirrors almost exactly the dead weight of the crucified Jesus’s arm in Michelangelo’s Pietà at St. Peter’s. If he is alive, he is only a little bit alive.


One line on the parallel between the Madonna who breastfeeds her baby and the Madonna who weeps over her dead son is that her tears take the place of her milk, as Jesus’s life comes full circle. This gap in time is short-circuited by the mother who gives birth to a child who dies. Her body bursts with milk and tears and blood. Her breasts harden with unwanted milk and her eyes seep. She puddles, like a stricken Witch of the West: “I’m melting.” Her body cannot deny that the source of life is also the source of death. Baptisms—and even funerals, since funerals presume a life has been lived—are one way of repudiating this unwelcome knowledge.

My attempt to persuade myself, and those around me, that my own baby was barely dead at all extended beyond baptism. I wanted him beside me. I wanted to adore my sleeping child, and in fact if you cradle a small dead body close it does stay warm, or a little bit warm. But that brings its own problems. I kept Thaddeus next to me in the hospital bed until one of the midwives suggested she take him away and pop him in the fridge for a while. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring him back.” Which she did, and over the next twenty-four hours or so he came and went, in his Moses basket. Once when she arrived to take him off for his chilling, I asked, What kind of fridge? I was imagining him in one of those crime-drama metal drawers. Um, she said, I think it’s a Zanussi. It was one of the few really good laughs I got in those days—seeing him suddenly in with the milk and orange juice.

Later, at the funeral, my sons took over the task of keeping him alive. “Why is it so big?” asked the three-year-old as, arms outstretched like a fisherman recalling his catch, he tried to measure the difference in size between the box in front of him and the tiny body he had seen. I must have given an inadequate answer—all I could see was how small the coffin was—because several months later he came to me in some distress to say that he was worried that Thaddeus would be getting too big for his coffin now. His older brother had a similar concern. They had each chosen a treasure to place in the coffin: a board-book version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (I tried not to think about the worm holes) and a soft toy. Wouldn’t he be getting very bored by now, with only those toys to play with?

A child who has never really been born cannot really die. It is immortality of a kind, but not the sort that anyone would hanker after—in a box, underground, just persisting, like Paddy Maguire in Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “The Great Hunger”:

If he stretches out a hand—a wet clod,
If he opens his nostrils—a dungy smell.

It is a fiction, of course, to think of the dead who never made it fully into life as somehow less dead than the really dead. But it is a comforting fiction. The unconsecrated graveyards that dot the Irish countryside are home to unbaptized babies but also to criminals, suicides, and the insane. In a secular age the natural burial that was forced on these outsiders brings them strangely closer to us—they fertilize the fields we farm and lie beneath the earth we tread. They are not set apart. It is, unfortunately, far harder to imagine the same of the 796 babies and small children who died at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home—aged between thirty-five weeks’ gestation and three years old—or the nearly five hundred who died at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork City and for whom no official burial records can be found. Yet how comforting it would be to imagine that since the church and state institutions did not consider them persons—they were not worthy of proper burial—the rules of life and death do not apply. They did not survive, yet they have not gone away.


It was some time before Thaddeus’s birth-and-death, back in the early 1990s, that I visited the Convent of Mercy in Clonakilty in order to try to find out more about my first cousin. I cannot remember when I first heard about the existence of this cousin, whom I had never met, and who had died more than ten years before I went searching for information. What I knew, or thought I knew, was that my mother’s eldest brother, Jackie, had got a local girl pregnant in 1954. Jackie was then in his mid-thirties and living at home on the farm with his mother; most of the younger siblings were by this time working in Dublin or in London. My mother (nearly ten years Jackie’s junior) was doing her nursing training at Whipps Cross, and she had to take several months out to go home and nurse her mother, who had reacted to news of the pregnancy with a sort of breakdown that everyone called a stroke.

My mother told me that during those months at home she talked to both Jackie and his lover, Lily, but they would not marry—and that this was in no small part because Lily was never going to be accepted by my grandmother. Lily was from a smaller, poorer farm, but my grandmother might have got over that. What she couldn’t get over, apart presumably from the fact that she regarded Lily as sexually wayward, was that she had “a withered arm.” It was Social Darwinism that did for her. Lily went into a home to have her baby; Jackie went to work in England, and he never came home again. The farm he was to inherit was destined instead for the second son, Stephen, who came back from Dublin to take over running it.

I cannot remember exactly when I heard this story, but I believe it was 1989; I was in my mid-twenties and a graduate student. Nelson Mandela would soon be released from prison, the Berlin Wall had come down, and I had just given birth to my own baby. My boyfriend and I had agreed on friendly terms to go our separate ways. I would like to think I would have cared about Lily anyway, but I am sure that my shock had in part to do with the frightening difference in our situations. Although I vaguely understood that having a baby on my own was going to be hard (and it was), I never seriously doubted that I could manage it, alongside a future job, even future relationships, and possibly even future babies (and I could). I did not seriously doubt that I had a future. I felt outrage over my grandmother’s behavior. To destroy three lives (Lily’s, and the baby’s, but also Jackie’s) for the sake of some false—indeed wicked—ideals of morality, propriety, and respectability, some bogus notion of genetic inheritance: I could not accept it. My mother’s refusal to express the same sense of outrage puzzled and distressed me. Certainly she expressed sadness, but beyond that I could not penetrate. And to my shame, for a time I let the whole thing go.

It wasn’t as though my grandmother hadn’t been punished for her intransigence. She had kept the farm, but at what cost? She lost her eldest son; most of the others (two more brothers, two sisters) also lived in England, and came home rarely. How could the house and land possibly have been worth it?

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s we visited the farm where my grandmother continued to live with Stephen every summer, and sometimes at Christmas too. A slightly larger than average farmhouse stood (still stands—one of my cousins lives there now) on thirty-three acres of land, three acres of which is water: a lake, pretty from a distance, is just boggy land and tangles of reeds when you get close up. The thirty-acre farm was meant to be the crucible of independent Ireland’s rural economy, an area of land supposedly large enough for farmers to make an admittedly frugal but honest and mostly self-sufficient living. Whether that was ever possible is doubtful. In the 1940s my mother’s brothers hired themselves out to dig ditches, lift potatoes, and cut hedges in the summers, to make ends meet. Eventually either financial need or a rigid sexual morality, and probably both, was to send them away.

I remember our summers on the farm as idyllic, but they were so in part because the land was barely worked. It made no economic sense to invest in machinery; a visit to granny’s was a visit to the nineteenth century. The fields were full of stones, thistles, dock, and wild flowers. They were, of course, beautiful. My uncle Stephen borrowed machinery for larger tasks, but mostly he worked with a spade and a scythe. There was a donkey and cart for shifting stuff. He had no car. My grandmother looked after the sow—she seemed to be always making pigswill in the back kitchen. The hens wandered in and out of one of the barns, with its rotted doors and the broken roof slates opening up jagged shapes of sky.

I loved the inside of the house: the fireplace with its hook for the iron bastable, the settle with the horsehair stuffing coming out, the dresser and low benches painted that particular shade of brown, the blue-and-white-striped ware, the pile of copies of Ireland’s Own to which I brought my puzzled, South London understanding, the daily baking of brown bread and sometimes sweet white bread with raisins, the enormous (horsehair-stuffed) mattresses on which we all (sisters and cousins) slept top-to-toe in rows, the cotton squares of curtains sewn onto plastic-covered wire. But the house was rotting like the barns. You could pass a broom handle through the wooden planks that formed both floor and ceiling. One of the three bedrooms was out of bounds, as you might fall through to the back kitchen below. And this beautiful but dying farm was apparently too good for Lily.

Paulo Nunes dos Santos/The New York Times/Redux

A shrine built to honor the children buried at St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland, October 2017

My uncle Stephen would sit at the long table and pour the tea from his cup into the saucer to cool it before drinking. In my memory I am always five or six and sitting on his knee. I had no interest then in where he was when he wasn’t in the kitchen or out in the yard giving me a ride on the donkey. And there is so much about him that I do not know. The things that I do know are not enough. I know that he had rheumatic fever when he was a child—my mother recalls how they all had to tiptoe in whispers around the house for months as any sound or movement gave him pain—and that he was never physically strong; I know that he drank, though I don’t recall him ever being drunk; I know that he socialized in the pub a few miles from the farm and I presume he used to walk there; I know (bizarrely) that he used to poach salmon by setting off small explosions in the river and waiting for the fish to float to the surface. I know for sure that he died when I was eleven, and when he was less than fifty years old. I can remember clearly my father taking the phone call from my mother, who had gone back home when Stephen was hospitalized with pneumonia. It was seven o’clock in the morning and we were supposed to be getting ready for school. The tears ran down my father’s face.

All this I had stored up when I decided to find out more about Mary, my cousin, Lily’s baby. “I cannot remember when” is becoming a trope, but it is the case—I cannot remember when I learned that Lily had her baby in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork, and that later, when Mary was perhaps four years old, she moved to the Convent of Mercy in Clonakilty. I know now that four years was a very long time to stay in the home, and that the reason for it was Lily’s arm. Mary was not adoption material. I cannot remember when I found out that Mary lived in the County Home until she was sixteen—maybe longer—or that 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. She is buried back in Ireland. I do remember the confusion and distress of trying to piece things together through conversations with my aunt, my mother, and my cousins, the guilt I felt about wanting to know more, the sense of a fog of information half-told and half-understood, the frustration of trying and failing to find her grave, and I remember going to the Convent of Mercy in the early 1990s.

I phoned first and spoke to a nun, explaining who I was and what I was looking for—information about my cousin. When had she entered the institution, how long had she stayed there, and was it possible to speak to anyone who had known her? She said she could show me the record of admittance. The old Convent is an imposing three-story nineteenth-century pile, built on a hill, on grounds set apart from the town. More than thirty windows look down on visitors entering the gates. I was terribly nervous as I drove up to the door. I had been at school in England. I didn’t know nuns and convents, except by reputation, and that might have been part of the nervousness. But the larger cloud was that I was overstepping a boundary. I did not feel comfortable telling anyone what I was doing. What right had I? None of this belonged to me, though it touched me deeply. I was an outsider. I felt—and still feel—simultaneously attached to and ashamed of my desire to know.

The door was opened by a woman in her late sixties. She introduced herself to me as Sister Immaculata O’Regan. I began to explain again who I was but she put out a hand to stop me. “I was at school with your mother,” she said. She saw the wild incomprehension track across my face. But she was indeed from the same townland, was brought up in a house a mile or so from my grandmother’s farm, and was a few years ahead of my mother in school. It was perfect proof, if I could have understood it then, of the misguidedness of trying to distinguish the church from the local community when apportioning blame for the incarceration of children and young people in church-run institutions. When one in ten Irish children (the figure is from the mid-1960s) entered a religious life, either as priests, monks, or nuns, what distinction could there be between the family and the church?

What I grasped at the time was that Sister Immaculata—a clear-eyed woman it was impossible not to warm to—was glad to help because she understood the sadness of the story, and my need to know. I wonder too now whether she also understood the condition of being an outsider. Like me she was both in on and excluded from the secrets of the family and the locale. As we leaned in together to the ledger where she pointed out the entry, we were complicit. I do not think I am making that up.

I don’t doubt, however, that had I made the phone call to the convent a year or two later—after the beginning of the public outcry over the Magdalene Laundries and related institutions, where so-called “fallen” women were confined, and forced to work without payment, for years and sometimes lifetimes—I would have been fobbed off. I would have been told that the records were lost, or that I needed permission from some institutional body or other to consult them. I would have been tied up in red tape, as the religious orders closed their doors to callers and instructed their solicitors. And as it was I got as much evidence as I could bear of the cruelty and lack of love in the system anyway. Sister Immaculata explained that she had not been in the convent when my cousin lived there, but there was an elderly retired nun, Sister Ciaran, who had known my cousin, and she was willing to talk to me. She gave me her phone number.

I knew I could not call from my aunt’s house or any of my cousins’ so I used our rudimentary mobile phone, though reception was terrible. I drove around looking for a signal, parked the car on a quiet street somewhere near Enniskeane, and called. Sister Ciaran was in her eighties and was now living in a retirement home. I imagined myself talking into a small, carpeted bed-sitting room, with an armchair, TV in the corner, crucifix on the wall. I began badly. A confused and possibly aggressive-sounding account of my desire to talk to someone who had known my cousin was met with a defensive counterblast. “She was a moody girl, a moody girl,” she said.

In other circumstances I might have been able to interpret “moody” as “spirited,” and tell myself a story of resistance. But I knew, as Sister Ciaran knew, that Mary had later killed herself. “Moody” opened up a world of misery on the part of my cousin and callous indifference on the part of her “carers” that I had not properly prepared myself for. An already unsteady house of cards came cascading down. I sat back in the driver’s seat of the Austin Metro, amid the muck and detritus of the kids (two of them by this time, different dads)—the discarded straws, empty crisp packets, baby wipes, torn coloring books, mashed wax crayons—and wept.

I should not have been so shocked. At the time I was editing an anthology of Irish women’s writing, including contemporary journalism, autobiography, and memoir. I was familiar with the campaigning articles by writers such as Mary Holland and Nell McCafferty on access to contraception, deserted wives, and the abortion referendum. I knew the stories of Joanne Hayes and Ann Lovett, young women who had tried to have their babies in secret. Both were scandals not so much of sex and reproduction as of the various official bodies (the church, the school, the police, and the judiciary) that let them and their babies down. Although the Ryan Commission report into sexual and physical abuse in industrial schools and reformatories would not be published until 2009, the silence about this systematic torture was beginning to break. There were stories in the papers and on the radio of the pervasive cruelty—rapes, beatings, broken bones—at Goldenbridge industrial school, at Artane, and at Letterfrack. As far back as 1970 the report of the Kennedy Committee into children living in residential homes had begun to uncover institutional cruelty and neglect.

For a long time I thought that my duty to my cousin and her mother was to uncover their story, to refuse to honor the association, once seemingly naturalized in Irish culture, between shame and secrecy. I made ineffectual stabs at getting to see various archives, with the aim of finding out “what really happened.” But I am not so sure that I have the right to disturb the remains of Lily, Mary, Jackie, and Stephen anymore. I am brought up short, first, by a sense of my own presumption. Although I would know more, by excavating dates and institutions, would I really know more of them? Moreover, it feels close to stealing. Lily and Mary belong to each other, and the people who knew them, but they belong to me, and to my sisters and cousins, only as lives lived in the dark.

All of the people involved in that mess in 1954, including my uncles, were condemned to live half-lives. While Jackie was consigned to laboring on building sites in England and an early death, Stephen was buried alive on the farm. And the half-lives lived by Lily and Mary are all too plain. Beyond the immediate family, however, this tragedy is interesting not for its particularity but for its typicality. Every family has a similar story, and sometimes they even come with happy endings. Tidying women away in Mother and Baby Homes or sending them to England, keeping children in county homes and industrial schools, was the norm. It was common from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s for critics to comment on the peculiar docility of the Irish Catholic character—neither fired up by faith, nor particularly resistant either. The years when Mary lived at the Convent of Mercy were years in which religious observance in Ireland was at an all-time high for both men and women, measured by mass attendance and involvement in pilgrimages, devotions, and missions. The church provided far more than a religious home—it provided a social life and a community.

It is not what we know but how we know that matters. The difficulties I encountered in the 1990s in penetrating further into the half-understood story of my cousin and her parents were in part because of the secrecy that still surrounded them all those years later. But the secrecy was also a way of keeping them safe from the presumptions and condescensions of the next generation. Those of us, my sisters and cousins, born in the ten years after Lily gave birth in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home came of age as a generation as the inheritors of a history we half-knew, and the consequences of that half-knowledge were unpredictable. They include, surely, the fact that between us, in my family alone, we have had no less than five babies “out of wedlock,” and we have tenaciously held on to all of them. As Patrick Kavanagh put it, we are all “first cousins to the ghosts of the townland.”