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I am often told that “it was the times” but those “times” stretched from the first years of the Free State until the last years of the Celtic Tiger

By May 29, 2021June 8th, 2021No Comments

Caelainn Hogan author of Republic of Shame on Ireland’s shame industry, the power of survivors speaking out and breaking the silence.


The post-its in bright yellow, blue and pink bore hand-written promises to women of the past and the future. On the day that Ireland voted by a landslide to repeal the Eighth Amendment and legalise abortion, I stood in the beaming sunshine reading these small missives, more than a hundred of them stuck to the large glass wall of a Dublin gallery. “I’m sorry our country failed you,” one read. “We will not let our country fail you again.” 

The women of the so-called “past”, failed by this country when state policy and religious doctrine forced them into institutions and separated them from their children, are still very much alive. In my book, Republic of Shame, I speak with a mother sent to the Tuam institution multiple times before being incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry. People my own age and younger were adopted from the mother and baby homes. Silence and shame is being perpetuated today as we continue to deny people equal access to their birth information and identity.

I was born the year after Ireland finally abolished the legal status of illegitimacy. My mother was not married to my father at the time. This was in 1988 and mother and baby home institutions run by nuns were still operating across this island. I was nearly ten years old when the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland closed, the same year that the Spice Girls had their hit single ‘Wannabe’. 

I was around 17 years old when the last mother and baby home institution in Ireland closed, just as the recession hit in 2006. That institution was closely linked with an anti-choice crisis pregnancy agency set up by Catholic bishops called Cura, which only ceased operating the year the eight amendment was repealed. Majella Moynihan, who as a trainee garda was prosecuted for having sex outside marriage, spoke last night about being separated from her son through this very same agency.

That pivotal moment of change, when Ireland voted for Repeal three years ago this week, was catalysed by people breaking silences and sharing stories, whether on post-it notes stuck to a wall, opening up to loved ones and family in private, or speaking out publicly. 

It was during the referendum that I first spoke to my own mum about her experience of accessing abortion and being forced to travel to England for reproductive healthcare. I was also in the middle of writing my book about the religious-run institutions for so-called “fallen” women in Ireland. I remember people sent to and born in these institutions, where women were incarcerated as “offenders”, were some of the most powerful voices for reproductive rights and choice. The Adoption Rights Alliance stated at the time that the Eighth Amendment represented “the latest incarnation of the control that was exerted over the thousands of women and girls who were forced to relinquish their children for adoption and who were incarcerated in mother and baby homes”.

While writing about the religious-run institutions and what I call the “shame-industrial complex” in Ireland, I realised that people I knew personally were affected and also that countless people were only beginning to search for answers, facing countless barriers and official silence. I wanted to create a space for different generations of Irish people to come together and speak about their experiences. Last night, on the stage of the National Concert Hall, an event called Breaking the Silence brought together writers, musicians and survivors of Ireland’s institutions to share new creative responses to what is an ongoing legacy.

A musician who campaigned for Repeal and who also identifies as a generational survivor of the religious-run institutions, Jess Kavanagh was born in 1986, when the Irish state was still stripping children of equal rights. The status of illegitimacy continuing until 1987 was an “egregious breach of human rights”, according to The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, affecting people born outside the institutions as well. While Kavanagh has spoken about her mother being born in the Castlepollard mother and baby institution and the ongoing search for her maternal grandfather, the new poem she shared at Breaking the Silence spoke to how the status of illegitimacy affected her own life. 

I am often told that “it was the times” and my generation couldn’t possibly understand, but these “times” stretched from the first years of the Free State until the last years of the Celtic Tiger. In my ear still were the words of the nun who leaned closer towards me, at a table laden with tea and fruits, to say that the church had built the schools and the hospitals and that these people making a fuss (the survivors fighting for access to their own information) only wanted money.

The Church crafted a narrative which positioned religious orders as saviours providing services and charity, while Catholic hierarchy opposed public supports and services that might have weakened its control over the ‘institution of the family’, even fighting a proposal to provide free healthcare for mothers and babies. Phil Mullen, an academic leading the first Black Studies module at Trinity and writing a book of essays for Skein Press about growing up black in the 1960s/70s within the Irish industrial school system, read a story last night about stealing a penny from what was known as the “black baby box”, a defiantly humourous testimony which exposes the hypocrisy of the Church’s supposed charity, as it kept vulnerable children in institutions where they were neglected and where abuse was endemic. Mullen is a trustee of the Association of Mixed-Race Irish, a group founded by and supporting survivors that has strongly criticised how the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes dismissed evidence of racial discrimination within the institutions. 

Religious doctrine fuelled stigma and violence against girls and women, considering them morally contagious, with church and state authorities calling mothers “multiple offenders” for having children outside wedlock, “penitents” who had to be contained. What most so-called ‘unmarried mothers’ needed was their autonomy and rights to be respected, protection from discrimination when it came to employment and housing, economic support to address the systemic inequalities that made them vulnerable, and the equal rights of their children upheld.

Older survivors of the religious-run institutions have told me they didn’t think young people would care about their experiences. But young people in Ireland have grown up in a country broken free from theocracy and have seen movements for equality achieve significant change. They are outraged by the ongoing silence being imposed through denial of information and identity. I have listened to many young people speak out against the ongoing influence of the church over our education and healthcare systems.

People have told me that reading Republic of Shame started conversations within their family about relatives sent away to the institutions, cousins they never knew existed. In recent weeks and days, many people I spoke to while writing the book have reached out to say they have finally made contact with the loved-one separated from them through the mother and baby home institutions, some after searching for decades. 

The more silences are broken, the more people speak about their own experiences, the more we begin to trust each other and the weight of shame imposed for so long by a state-funded and religious-run system of institutions begins to be lifted. Survivors speaking out are bringing an end to shame and silence perpetuated by the denial of information and equal rights.


Watch Breaking the Silence on the National Concert Hall YouTube ( and Facebook (

Image via lusciousblopster on Flickr