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  • What Lies BeneathThe Year in Ireland
  • Liam Harte (bio)

A hallmark of contemporary reassessments of Ireland's past has been the exploration of the experiences of persons and groups whose perspectives were largely absent from traditional accounts of Irish history. A common feature of this reconceptualized historiography is the exposure of the inhumane and often grossly abusive treatment of vulnerable people—predominantly women and children from impoverished backgrounds—who were consigned to Ireland's carceral network, which included orphanages, reformatory schools, psychiatric hospitals, Magdalen laundries, and mother and baby homes. The layers of secrecy that once shielded these mainly church-run institutions from public scrutiny have been stripped away by a series of investigative studies, government inquiries, creative representations, and personal testimonies by victims and survivors. Landmark revelatory works include the memoirs The God Squad (1988) by Paddy Doyle and Freedom of Angels (1999) by Bernadette Fahy; the plays Eclipsed (1992) by Patricia Burke Brogan and Laundry (2011) by ANU Productions; documentaries and films such as States of Fear (1999) and Philomena (2013); and studies such as Suffer the Little Children (1999) by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan and James Smith's Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment (2007).

Activist women have contributed greatly to the protracted work of uncovering evidence of abuse, documenting survivor testimony, campaigning for inquiries and redress schemes, and highlighting the complicity of families, state agencies, religious organizations, and local authorities in maintaining this culture of punitive confinement. To date, however, few of these women have written autobiographically about their motivations and experiences. For this reason alone, there is cause to welcome the publication of Belonging: A Memoir of Place, Beginnings and One Woman's Search for Truth and Justice for the Tuam Babies by independent historian Catherine Corless. Although it is not the only one, hers is an account of one woman's tenacious search for truth and retroactive justice for those who were denigrated in life and disregarded in death. Suffused with empathic moral concern [End Page 45] and emotional poignancy, Belonging highlights the systemic subjugation of women and girls who transgressed the stringent socio-sexual codes of a patriarchal state, and brings their suffering alive in our consciousness.

Corless attracted global media attention in 2014 when her research into St Mary's Mother and Baby Home in her native Tuam in County Galway was widely reported internationally. Her painstaking investigations led her to conclude that the bodies of almost 800 infants and children had been interred in a mass, unmarked grave next to a sewage system in the grounds of the home, which operated from 1925 to 1961 as a refuge for unmarried mothers under the management of the Bon Secours order of Catholic nuns. The ensuing public outcry forced the Irish government to establish a commission to examine the operation of the nationwide network of mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998. Among its headline findings were that approximately 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 "illegitimate" children resided in the eighteen institutions it investigated, and that the infant mortality rate was exceptionally high—an estimated 9,000 of these children died in care. Of the stigmatized single women who were admitted to these forbidding establishments, the commission's report had this to say:

Some pregnancies were the result of rape; some women had mental health problems, some had an intellectual disability. However, the majority were indistinguishable from most Irish women of their time. The only difference between the women in mother and baby homes and their sisters, class-mates and work companions was that they became pregnant while unmarried. Their lives were blighted by pregnancy outside marriage, and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider community.

(Final Report 2)

This arbitrary yet highly consequential distinction between respectability and fallenness functions as a key leitmotif in Corless's autobiography. Early in Belonging she recalls how her daily walk to school in the 1950s would take her past the fortress walls of St Mary's, behind which "all the babies with no mammies and daddies lived" (21). This cordon sanitaire extended into the classroom, where a form of...