RTÉ broadcaster Rachael English's new novel unravels secrets from mother and baby home
RTÉ Morning Ireland broadcaster Rachael English's latest novel offers an insight into Ireland's dark past of mother and baby homes and forced adoption. She chats to Jenny Lee
FOR decades, Ireland's mother and baby homes were shrouded in secrecy. Although a Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has been set up in the Republic, many heartaches and unanswered questions remain.
One journalist who has covered many stories about mothers who endured and lost during their enforced time in these homes is Rachael English, whose latest novel The Paper Bracelet centres on adopted grown-ups from these homes trying to discover their identities.
The RTÉ Morning Ireland presenter's first experience of these homes, which were a common-place for unmarried pregnant women to be sent during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, was as a young reporter over 20 years ago.
"I interviewed several women who'd been born in a mother and baby home in Cork city," she recalls.
"All were trying to trace their birth parents, and none were making progress. Even basic details about their backgrounds had been denied to them. No matter that they had been adopted by loving families, they felt as though a vital part of their identity was missing.
"I've never forgotten those women, and not just because of the power of their words. For the first time, I was forced to think about the sheer number of people whose lives were spent wondering about their earliest days and whose attempts to find out more were stymied."
This is the second of English's five novels which has offered an insight into Ireland's dark past concerning mother and baby homes and forced adoption. Her 2018 novel The American Girl reached number one on the Irish paperback best-sellers list and this book, although not a follow-up, does contain two of the same characters: nuns who worked in the fictional Carrigbrack Mother and Baby Home.
The Paper Bracelet tells the story of Katie Carroll, a former nurse at a mother and baby home in the west of Ireland during the 1960s, who has kept a box containing many of the identity bracelets from the babies born while she worked there.
Following the death of her husband, Katie makes a decision to try to reunite adopted people with their birth mothers. With the help of her niece, she posts a message on an internet forum. As the replies roll in, the readers are taken on a rollercoaster of emotions through success, failure, heartbreak and joy.
During more than 20 years as a journalist, English has worked on most of RTÉ Radio's leading current affairs programmes including Five Seven Live, The Marian Finucane Show, The Late Debate and Saturday View, covering a wide range of national and international stories.
While her books are inspired by real events and do contain some factually correct information, she is conscious of separating both her vocations. After her second novel, she took the decision to go part-time with RTÉ to dedicate time and "head space" to her fictional writing.
"My background as a journalist tends to seep into my writing, and it's easy to become ensnared by too much research," she says.
"While writing The Paper Bracelet, I read histories, listened to old radio programmes and scoured message boards.
"Eventually, it occurred to me that I was like an interviewer who's overly keen to display their knowledge. I had to remind myself that I wasn't writing about an issue, but about characters. I had to keep asking myself: what must that experience have been like? And what is it like to live with the consequences?"
English decided to continue exploring the theme of mother and baby homes when she realised the extent to which people living all around her are still affected by the impact of not knowing their birth origin.
"There were huge levels of secrecy. Everywhere someone has a story of the next door neighbours' girl disappearing for a year 'to work in Dublin', or somewhere else. It's still very raw and topical, as only now people are able to talk about that period of time.
"My colleague recently told me about discovering she had another brother. Their parents had the child when they were about 14 and were forced to give him up for adoption. They stayed together and later married and had children together.
"His adopted parents changed his name to Pat. My colleague had two older brothers and, funny enough, one of them was also called Pat," laughs English, who admits that researching and writing the novel was emotional.
"I feel an eejit saying it upsets me when writing it, but if it doesn't move the writer, you can't expect the reader to be moved.
"In recent years, the story of Ireland's mother and baby homes has become better known. There has been considerable international news coverage of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam where, following the work of local historian Catherine Corless, the remains of hundreds of children's bodies were discovered.
"And The Clann Project report highlighted how most of the women were effectively incarcerated. They had little or no control over what happened to them and their children. Those who ran away were apprehended and returned by the Garda.
"I'm conscious that to younger readers such events might seem like ancient history. But for the women and the children who were taken from them, the consequences continue to reverberate."
English has already begun working on her next novel and although the time period and subject have changed, it's still dealing with themes of family, tangled lives and feeling disconnected.
"Set in the US and Ireland, and linking back to the Irish Famine, it's about two women who don't know they are related. The question of how we are shaped by where we are from and how we are treated, is a fascinating subject."
While English hasn't yet researched her own genealogy, her husband, former Irish News business columnist Eamon Quinn, has delved into his past.
"Eamon is from Belfast and has ancestors from Tyrone and Leitrim. He found it fascinating, and very moving looking up the 1901 and 1911 census", she says.
:: The Paper Bracelet by Rachael English will be published by Hachette Ireland on February 27.