Making Sense of the Missing 

Clair Wills, interviewed by Fintan O’Toole

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The former Marianvale Mother and Bay home, Newry, Northern Ireland, 2021

Clair Wills has long been among the most supple and illuminating explorers of the intertwined cultural histories of Ireland and Britain. She works in the intersections between social experience and literary representation, giving as much weight to supposedly ordinary lives as to momentous political events and artistic movements. That Neutral Island: A History of Ireland During the Second World War (2007) captured the moods and tensions of a strange period. The Best Are Leaving: Emigration and Post-War Irish Culture (2015) and Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (2017) have opened new ground in the understanding of migrants, both as they see themselves and as they are seen by others. Her new book, Missing Persons, pulls on the threads of her own family’s stories and silences to unravel a dark history of loss and forgetting.

Fintan O’Toole: You’re best known as an explorer of public history, especially of Ireland, England, and migration. But Missing Persons is an intensely personal book about your own family history. What made you decide to enter such intimate terrain?

Clair Wills: We could also put it the other way round, that the public histories I’ve written over the years were attempts to understand personal experiences—though not, of course, my own. I was interested in how Ireland’s neutrality during World War II was experienced by individuals day-to-day, or how it felt to arrive in Britain as part of the great movement and violent displacement of peoples after the war.  

It’s true that in Missing Persons I wanted to excavate a more private history. At the heart of the book is the life (and death) of a person who went missing from my family: my first cousin Mary, who was born in an Irish Mother and Baby Home in 1955 and brought up in an orphanage, and whom I never got to know. I found out about Mary when I was in my twenties, when it was too late to meet her, although she was only seven years older than me.  I spent decades trying to come to terms with the fact that she had been kept secret from the rest of us. Initially I thought the story I had to tell was Mary’s story, and that of her mother—I felt it as a kind of duty, to do justice to the people who had been shunned by the family and forced into institutions. It took me a long time to understand that in fact my story concerned the people who did the shunning. Central to this is my grandmother, who refused to accept my cousin as part of the family, and never saw her son (Mary’s father) again. I wanted to understand how a woman I knew very well when I was a child, a woman I loved, could have consented to a system that to us, a few generations later, seems immeasurably unjust and cruel.  

So it’s an intimate history—literally so in that I’m investigating illicit sex and extramarital pregnancy—but it’s also public. My family was not unusual. Tens of thousands of women and girls were sent to Mother and Baby Homes over the decades, and hundreds of thousands of people shunned them and their children. My grandmother’s views on the importance of respectability and legitimate inheritance were typical. When Missing Persons was published in Ireland in January, I did some media interviews, which nearly always started with a request to tell people about my grandmother, and I ended up feeling that this line of questioning was getting it wrong. I started responding, “My granny is your granny,” and although the interviewers looked a bit surprised, to their credit they got the point: that this is a personal book but it’s about a common, almost universal, situation in which some people were allowed to belong in families and others weren’t, and not only in Ireland.

Your family’s secret lives intersect with public history in Catholic Ireland’s institutional systems for dealing with what it regarded as wayward female sexuality. Can you explain what that system was, how it worked, and why Ireland has only come to terms with it very recently?

The network of institutions that developed to “manage” sex and the consequences of sex included the notorious Magdalene laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, County Homes, orphanages, and Industrial Schools (homes where children were taught “industry,” which for girls like my cousin Mary meant mostly being trained for domestic service). These institutions were run by religious orders (mostly Catholic, though there were some Protestant homes—James Joyce’s story “Clay” is partly set in one of them), but they were funded by the Irish state. Basically they were a cheap way for the state to provide a range of social services, as the nuns didn’t get paid for their work. And those services were all built around forms of incarceration. The Mother and Baby Homes provided a way of tidying the problem of illegitimacy behind closed doors. 


Between Irish independence in 1922 and 1998, when the last of these institutions closed, they were home (at the lowest estimate) to 56,000 unmarried mothers, ranging from twelve-year-old girls to women in their forties, and at least 57,000 babies and small children. There were similar institutions in the United States, Britain, and many European countries; nowhere else were they still in use as late as the 1990s. The proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to these homes in the twentieth century was probably the highest in the world—but that is not the only Irish anomaly. Irish women also stayed longer in these homes than women did anywhere else, with the longest stays occurring in the 1940s and 1950s. 

In 2015 a commission was set up to investigate the homes, following the discovery of the bodies of nearly eight hundred babies and small children that had been deposited in a septic tank on the grounds of a former home in Tuam, County Galway. There is a lot to say about the commission, how it operated, and what it found, but I’ll mention the finding that caused the most outrage, which is that the primary responsibility for the treatment of women and children in the homes “rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches.”

Even if this statement were true, it gets us nowhere. The attempt to parcel out blame for the treatment of unmarried mothers and their children, either to the institutional system or to families, is a misunderstanding of the nature of this history. What needs to be explained is why people consented to the system. That is what I’ve tried to think about in the book, through the figure of my grandmother and other members of my family: Why did this system make sense to them?

My own feeling is that, outside of legal claims for reparation and redress, “responsibility” is not a useful word to bring to this history, because it quickly falls into binary arguments about blame and guilt. I’ve tried to think in terms of a wider category of “answerability” or obligation. In this wider sense I am answerable to this history. I got to belong when my cousin didn’t; I have suffered the loss of my cousin, but I also benefited in complex ways from her absence. I think that people feel relatively comfortable when I say that I feel responsible for, in the sense of answerable to, this injustice. But not always when I suggest that they are too. That claim would go something like this: You, Fintan, are accountable for what happened. My granny is your granny. Not everyone wants to go there.

One of the things you explore in the book is the way people in a society like that of Catholic Ireland can both hate a system and believe in it at the same time. How did people manage that?

We could be teasing this out for a very long time. The deference to homegrown Catholic authority after independence, a kind of fatalistic acceptance of one’s lot, a genuine belief in the sinfulness of the body—there are lots of reasons. But I don’t underestimate the terrible experiences of loss and pain that families went through by consenting to the system. I became very interested in how sexual secrecy operated in the period before independence. There were all sorts of ways that an unplanned pregnancy could be “managed” informally in late Victorian and Edwardian Ireland—abortion and infanticide, obviously (and it’s worth pointing out here that juries were very reluctant to convict when these came to trial), but also shotgun weddings, informal fostering out, babies brought up by an aunt or a grandmother. 

I think that keeping sexual secrets in this period was a way for women to look out for one another—they had so little autonomy, so little control over their own lives. In the book I wonder whether these habits of secrecy, developed in a period when the authorities and their institutions were associated with alien rule (the police force, the workhouses, the County Homes, and so on), left people with few defenses against the new Irish Catholic institutions that came into operation after independence. Suddenly here was your local priest, or your aunt the nun, or your friends and neighbors saying, the Mother and Baby Home will keep your secret for you. It must have seemed the sensible thing to do, to give up your daughter or your grandchild to the institutions, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t incredibly hard.


We naturally think of remembering and forgetting as opposites, but your book suggests that this is not really so, that much of life is lived somewhere in the liminal spaces between them.

Yes, I think that’s true. The book is about how a kind of violence gets covered over, or disavowed, and remembered at the same time. The church-state institutions that were set up to contain the poor, the sexually wayward, and the mentally ill weren’t in themselves secret, but they were in the business of secrecy. The Mother and Baby Homes and orphanages thrived in the 1950s and 1960s as a way of keeping sex and pregnancy hidden, and the women and children were collateral damage. The system was highly visible, bureaucratic, and officially sanctioned, yet barely talked about, and that contradiction shaped families too, and the way people understood their own experiences. “Whatever you say, say nothing,” the knowing injunction memorialized by Seamus Heaney in a different context, applies here too. In order to uncover how people in my family thought about illicit sex, illegitimacy, and institutions, I ended up following the tracks laid down in family stories and anecdotes. There were so many stories that petered out or that ended in gaps and ellipses and “said nothing.” I tried to interpret those gaps—the missing bits—as places where the past was both preserved and disavowed.  

I’ve been thinking about this history for years, but I only really began to grasp it during the pandemic, when I spent many hours talking on the phone, and sometimes in person, with my mother (who is now in her early nineties). She was cut off and lonely under lockdown rules, and talking about her past became a way of being close to her, even of taking care of her. The tangle of stuff remembered and forgotten had become a kind of burden for her, I think—because the victims of this history aren’t only the people who went missing, but also those who were allowed to belong, and who carry the shame of the violence done in their names.

Your family history seems to contain a contradiction. On the one hand, it goes back a very long way in only a few generations. Yet on the other, it’s full of holes and silences. What are those silences, and how did you become attuned to them?

I wanted to call the book “Making Sense of the Missing.” That was my working title, and I meant two things by it. How did my grandmother and the others who were involved in disappearing my cousin make sense of what they were doing? Where did the sense of shame and the need to keep illegitimacy secret come from, what was the work it did for families? The fact that my family functioned despite, and maybe even because of, its missing persons, the fact that it made enough sense—this is part of my inheritance, and the inheritance of a great many people of my generation. 

So I was also asking, how can I make sense of this now, as the inheritor of that history? I’m part of the historical archive—the remembering and forgetting is in me, whether I like it or not. In the book I try to interpret the gaps and silences and holes in my own understanding and in the stories that were handed down to me. That includes thinking about my own reaction to getting pregnant when I was a student in the 1980s. In fact, one of the things I discovered while writing the book is that not only does my family stretch a long way back in only a few generations (my great-grandparents were born in the 1830s and 1840s), but in every generation we’ve had children outside of marriage. I’m rather proud of that.

In a wonderful phrase, you say of your mother’s life that “history became geography” when she emigrated from Ireland to England. In what ways does migration shape the sense of family identity that you’re exploring?

I think it’s central. The scattered family has long been part of Ireland’s sense of itself. That’s why the rhetoric of the close Irish family is so strong—it’s a reaction to the fact that children were always saying good-bye, often never to be seen again. In the book I trace the movement of my grandfather’s siblings from West Cork to Boston and Peabody and Marblehead in the 1880s and 1890s. (They worked as servants and in glue factories.) And then in the next generation his children went to England. So few people got to grow old in the country where they were born. One of the questions I try to think about in the book is whether that long history of dislocation prepared families for losing their children to the institutions. There was a kind of fatalism to it.

And then there is the impact of poverty. I mean both actual poverty—having to leave home in order to survive—and the shame of that poverty and wanting to overcome it, to distance yourself from it. My grandmother was born in 1891; in her teens she was working as a live-in servant for local farmers, and her older siblings had all gone to America. When she finally got her own home in her early forties she became absolutely wedded to the idea of the family’s respectability. “Respectability” is almost a dirty word nowadays, suggesting a prim and narrow worldview, but it may have been the only kind of dignity available to her. I’ve tried in the book to learn to respect it, ironically enough.

You write of the stories your mother told about the family and all their vivid details, but you also end up bluntly saying that you don’t believe her when she claims that her mother had another baby who disappeared from the record. Was it hard to write that?

I am somewhat ashamed to say, no! I’m not accusing my mother of lying, but of only half-knowing what she knew. When she was a young teenager she worked out that her mother had been pregnant before she was married, in 1920, when she was twenty-eight years old. But she couldn’t talk about it with anyone, least of all her mother. She was hearing all kinds of rumors and half-told stories, and she knew other secrets were being kept from her. She knew there had been a family rift sometime in the 1910s, and she tried to figure out the reason for it. The idea that her mother had fallen pregnant in her teens with another baby, long before she was married, was a story she created to try to make sense of the secrets that were being kept from her. So my mother’s stories may be untrue in a literal sense, but they capture another kind of truth. They register the shame that her mother was having to overcome—not only the shame of sex before marriage, but, perhaps even worse, of having married a Protestant, in 1920, in the middle of the Anglo-Irish war. Can you imagine!

“Legitimate” and “illegitimate” were the horrible terms used about children who were born inside or outside of wedlock. But they also hover over your own sense of belonging in the book—are you “legitimately” Irish? Did writing the book help you to answer that question for yourself?

I talk in the book about the worry I had, over many years, that this story wasn’t mine to tell. I was brought up in England, and my father was English (though he was completely in love with everything Irish, including and first-above-all my mother). My sisters and I were raised with a very strong sense of our Irishness (and my three sisters all live in Ireland now, a kind of reverse migration), but I felt very strongly that the story of my cousin didn’t properly belong to me, though I couldn’t leave it alone. In the end I came to realize that my “illegitimacy” in relation to this history might be exactly what would allow me to uncover the layers of secrets and half-understood stories. 

Then again, I’ve always been interested in the typical. I don’t think I’d ever be able to write a straightforward biography because it would depend so much on thinking about what was unique about someone’s life. I guess this goes back to your question about public and personal histories, and how I don’t really think of them as all that different. I love all the things that are typical about my family, from the numbers of my grandparents’ siblings who emigrated to Boston in the 1890s (the majority of each laboring family’s children), to the thirty-acre farm bought in 1932 just at the time when politicians were extolling thirty acres as the ideal farm size for the new nation, to the five out of seven siblings who emigrated to Britain in the 1950s, to the extramarital pregnancies, the Mother and Baby Home, the County Home, and the Industrial School—my family did the classic things, around the same time everyone else was doing them. And to cap it all off, the most typical thing about my family was that it was not at home—nearly everyone lived elsewhere. So not being legitimately Irish, not quite belonging, is how I might be most Irish, in fact. Perhaps it’s just a rhetorical homecoming, but I like it anyway.

England, for the generations of Irish people that encompass much of your family history, is, as you put it, “both enemy and savior.” Did this doubleness reflect the experiences of the other migrants you wrote about in Lovers and Strangers, your previous book?

When I was writing Lovers and Strangers I became very interested in the temporality of migration, in what it means “to live by way of memory and anticipation, until the two of them become indistinguishable,” in John Berger’s plangent words, so that part of you is always trying to get back to the thing you’ve left behind. And then the country you’ve left changes without you there (or in the case of parts of postwar Poland, for example, simply disappears), and so when you do return you are displaced a second time. Emigrants end up living in two time zones, or at least that was true of postwar emigrants, in an era before the Internet and mobile phones. In the last part of the book I wrote about the impact of this doubled time on the children of immigrants, who have to manufacture a relationship to a past in another country, though it’s no less real for being made up. A Sikh immigrant who arrived in the midlands in the 1970s, the scholar Darshan Singh Tatla, wrote to me saying that was the moment in the book that most resonated with his own experience. 

The experience of migration has these shared, almost universal, aspects, but it is also historical. I often go back to a comment by Raymond Williams in his brilliant book The Country and the City (1973), where he says that we have to be able to account for both the persistence and historicity of concepts—one without the other is no use. That might lead us to consider how the current legal structures around migration, including detention, state pushbacks and the practice of “bordering” (forcing refugees and migrants back across international borders, or sending them to a third country, and refusing them the right to apply for asylum), are rooted in a long history of encounters between the migrant and the settled, the idea of the metropolis and the periphery, the modern and the archaic. But they are always being remade for the present—and right now in obscenely unjust ways.

One of the things I found so brilliantly expressed in Missing Persons is the complexity of the motivations that are wrapped up in the keeping of secrets. There’s shame, of course, but there’s also a kind of thrill, a sense of power.

Recently a friend was tempted to tell me the identity of the well-known figure with whom she was having an affair, and I had to leap in to interrupt her: “No, don’t tell me!” I’ll never be able to keep the secret. I’m a terrible gossip. It’s not an honorable trait, but it has its uses—and my mother was aware of it when she started telling me the family’s secrets. She knew I was going to talk, and the fact that she knew is one reason why I could write the book in the end, despite the feeling of illegitimacy.

So, although I can keep what I’d called “serious” secrets, I’m not discreet. But I recognize the value of secret-keeping. It’s not all about shame—maintaining reserve is one way that people living in small communities can continue to live with one another, for example. And yes, I think there is a kind of power associated with secrets, but also a form of care. When my mother kept the secret of my grandmother’s premarital sexual life she felt she was looking after her—even though my grandmother didn’t know she knew, so it was an unacknowledged form of care. Maybe this has partly to do with a society that makes use of the confessional; there’s a power in telling secrets but also a power in keeping them, and the figure of the priest is a good reminder of that.

But secrets outlive their usefulness, and they become more dangerous in their posthumous incarnations. My family kept the secrets of sex and pregnancy and childbirth for a mixture of reasons, some of which were good. But there is no sense in keeping those secrets anymore. We will never make sense of the missing if we don’t talk about them; we will never accept our own accountability unless we address this history. I guess I’m saying, you have to know when to betray. The book is a betrayal of a family contract. I can’t deny that.

Missing Persons or, My Grandmother’s Secrets is published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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