Addressing Collective Shame: Poetic Justice and the Mother and Baby Homes

Author: Virginie Trachsler

‘Wash in this way and rid your hands of Mother, Baby, Home’. This is the final line of Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s poem ‘Six Ways To Wash Your Hands (Ayliffe, 1978)’, addressed to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. The publication of the Commission’s report in January 2021 and the following discussions around its shortcomings could suggest that the Commission may have unknowingly been heeding the poet’s advice. After the publication of the report, a great deal of the conversation focused on whether it had managed to ‘transfer the shame to where it belonged’, as ‘The Irish Times view on the Report’ phrased it on the day of the publication of the report, January 12th. As this short piece demonstrates, the discussion preceding and following the publication of the report focused on ‘shame’ and ‘shaming’: ‘Shame breeds shame. The shaming of women and children was, as the report of the commission of inquiry into the system of Mother and Baby Homes shows, practised on an industrial scale in independent Ireland.’1 Public discourse in Ireland performed a long-awaited reversal of blaming and shaming, in which poetry seems to have played an active part.

Irish poetry has a record of responding to reports, from Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Butcher’s Dozen’, written and published in the wake of Bloody Sunday and the Widgery report in 1972, to, more recently, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s ‘At Letterfrack’, a poetic exploration of the findings of the Ryan report on Child Abuse, published in 2009. When reports gather archival material, they also alter and select, and eventually become the general public’s way of accessing these archives. The poems, on the other hand, create a poetic counter-archive, echoing the archive, amplifying the voices it contains in a different way, engaging with official discourse and eventually coming to terms with collective responsibility. Poets have long engaged with the shocking discoveries around the Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries: from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s ‘Translation’, read in 1993 at the reburial ceremony of the 155 Magdalenes whose bodies were found during the excavation of the grounds of the Sisters of Charity convent in Dublin, to Kimberly Campanello’s poetic object and performance MOTHERBABYHOME, published in 2019, women poets have been active in creating a new archive of the shameful failings of a culture and legal system that have long refused to offer proper redress to victims.

Drawing from the concept of poetic justice as defined by Martha C. Nussbaum, I will attempt to show how poetry addressing the subject of Mother and Baby Homes has become an essential part of public discourse and has countered an unsatisfactory judicial discourse. Poets attempt to counter the effect of an archive of shaming, filing away women’s shame while exposing collective shame. I will focus on three women poets: Annemarie Ní Churreáin, an Irish poet from Donegal whose second collection, The Poison Glen, has just been published by Gallery Press, Irish American Kimberly Campanello and English poet Rachel Bower, whose second collection, published this year, is an exploration of motherhood in its many forms and contains a poem inspired by Campanello’s work.

‘Bloodroot’, the title poem of Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s first collection, published in 2017, emerged from the experience of learning that her grandmother had crossed the border from Northern Ireland into Co. Westmeath to give birth to her father in the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home in 1951. This title places the Homes at the heart of the collection. The poet’s position towards the victims of what she defines as the main subject of her book (the influence of the Irish Church and State) is also complicated by this autobiographical implication. Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s poems engaging with the history the Mother and Baby Homes are addressed and often dedicated: they are part of an open, public conversation that takes victims’ experiences and testimonies into account. Moreover, none of the poems I encountered use the lyrical I to impersonate a victim: poets place themselves on a level which is not that of testimony, victim or direct witness account. This would suggest that, even though poets like Annemarie Ní Churreáin would have reasons to explore the autobiographical impact of the homes on their lives and the personal implications of the report, the poems refuse to add to victims’ accounts and testimonies. Out of a refusal to speak for or instead of victims, the preferred gesture is to speak to the victims. Refusing to use the lyrical I to voice the experience of a victim first leads the poet to adopt the stance of a ‘judicious spectator’. Borrowing the concept from Adam Smith, Martha C. Nussbaum describes the role of the judicious spectator thus: ‘The judicious spectator must go beyond empathy, assessing from her own spectatorial viewpoint the meaning of those sufferings and their implications for the lives involved.’2 But the poet does more than observing, she also casts herself as a literary judge, another stance whose definition is developed by Nussbaum. This is what allows her to turn round the narratives of shame imposed on women in the institutions.

As Nussbaum explains, ‘the literary judge […] is committed to neutrality, properly understood. […] She is a judicious spectator and does not gush with irrelevant or ungrounded sentiment. On the other hand, […] her neutrality does not require a lofty distance from the social realities of the cases before her; indeed, she is enjoined to examine those realities searchingly, with imaginative concreteness and the emotional responses that are proper to the judicious spectator.’3 The poem ‘Penance’ illustrates this impulse in the poet.4 The dedication ‘for a girl in trouble 1951’ (her grandmother), the ambiguity of the title (who should repent and for what sins?), and the first one-word line of the poem, between inverted commas, already destabilise the narrative of shame that has been imposed upon the woman: ‘‘Shame’ / Use this word when you speak of love’. Denied the right to talk openly about love for her child, the girl is forced to put her body through the rituals imposed by the institution. Her interiorised shame is cancelled by the speaker’s position, both as a judicious spectator, not as a voyeuristic onlooker, and as a judge, providing solace. The neutrality that can emanate from the position of the speaker who expresses herself and addresses the victim in the imperative, placing herself above and at a distance, is a neutrality strongly informed by empathy, like that of the literary judge. The imperatives used in the poem echo, but also replace and erase those used by the rulers of the institutions: the poem does not order the girl to ‘deny the child inside [her]’, as society or the institution would have had it, but, as the line flows on, ‘deny the child inside you is the child you dream at night’, suggesting an empathic connection between speaker and girl. These imperatives erase a shaming and oppressive discourse and replace it with a compassionate, empathic discourse.

The idea of redress in poetry as expressed by Seamus Heaney is palpable in Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s poems: ‘This redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.’5 By addressing the poem ‘6 Ways To Wash Your Hands’ to the commission of investigation, she extends a hand and urges them to take action and to adequately deal with the archives of collective shame as well as those of imposed shame.6 Here, the imperatives play a different role, but they again point at the poet’s position as literary judge. Each stanza opens with one of the six steps to effective handwashing. With these imperatives, the speaker presents the Commission with ironic, counterproductive instructions which sound like warnings. She reverses the religious language of purification (with the constant use of the imagery of water) used against the women in the institutions and aims it at the Commission. The final two stanzas in particular point at misuse of archives and testimonies and the inadequacy of legal language. In the final stanza, law replaces religious hymns, but the effect is the same: a shameful silencing of women and children. ‘Be a sister and repeat the law like a hymn into the sink. / Do not commemorate: Do not remunerate. Do not let / the wounded woman or her child speak in a bare tongue.’

MOTHERBABYHOME by Kimberly Campanello, published in 2019, is another kind of engagement with the Commission. It takes the form of a fragmentary counter-report, using only archives related to the Tuam St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home run by the Sisters of Bon Secours. Comprised of 796 pages, one for each child who died at the home between 1925 and 1961, it creates a new archive in which victims can be both heard and memorialised.7 Kimberly Campanello describes MOTHERBABYHOME as an ‘excavation of voices: the poems are composed entirely of text taken from historical archives, contemporary media, and other sources related to the Home, including files given to [her] by Catherine Corless.’8 The 796 pages are not numbered, but each of them, including the title page, corresponds to one of the dead babies, in chronological order. In each page, the name, date of death and age of the child when they died appear in small print, sometimes in an otherwise blank page. Several kinds of discourses coexist. There is a striking variety of poems in this book, from direct quotes taken from witness accounts to snippets of online forum discussions and poems mixing different types of archival material, survivors’ testimonies with official communication or legal aseptic language. This leaves the reader judge of the failure to acknowledge trauma. One such example is this short one-sentence poem: ‘The Government’s own report into human rights issues backed it into a corner and I have waited 60 years to raise my head and say who I am’. In the juxtaposition, trauma and the voice of a victim resurface even after legal language has attempted to silence it. The discourse of shaming recounted by the survivors pervades the text, as in this poem: ‘For years Marie’s ‘impure’ background was a source’. The inverted commas already distance us from the language used to describe the woman. The sentence is left incomplete, leaving us to imagine the unspeakable and to supplement the silence with what we know from other accounts. In this other poem, the feeling of shame is a direct emanation from the discourse of the Church: ‘it was just you’re / evil you’re evil / fumes from the / charcoal at mass’. Many poems, like this one, touch on the issue of shame to effectively transfer it onto the perpetrators. This is made possible by the coexistence of short quotes from several unidentifiable archives of different nature:

future generations

are elderly and want

answers her childhood

was one for public scrutiny

if you managed to survive

they were ashamed

This poem opens on the paradox of ‘elderly’ future generations, stressing the importance of the report both as a move forward and a means to urgently offer redress. The shift in pronouns from ‘her’ to ‘you’ to ‘they’ in the final line (‘they were ashamed’) efficiently transfers the shame onto an unnamed and unstable ‘they’. The fragmented structure of the poems and of the work itself allows for the creation of an archive of shame that transfers shame onto the failing state and society as a whole by revealing the inadequacy of the discourse they offered: while they were considered impure, it is the mothers in the isolation of the homes who ‘washed society’s dirty laundry’.

Rachel Bower, in ‘Mother / Not Normal’, our final poem, published in her second collection These Mothers of Gods in 2021, chose to work not from the report or the archives directly, but from the already fragmented and poeticised version created by Kimberly Campanello. Working from a counter-report, rather than the report itself, she amplifies the voices that are silenced by official discourse. This creates a textual network — from Campanello’s work to her own — to address failure and collective shame while memorialising the victims. As in Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s poetry, the lexical field of purity reverses the shaming discourse used by church authorities. ‘Mother / not normal’, the title of the poem, is a quotation from the following poem, by Kimberly Campanello:

mother not

normal

delicate, beginning to thrive

delicate, wasted

not

normal

delicate, beginning to thrive

delicate, was

As in this original poem, which is the inspiration behind Bower’s ‘Mother Not Normal’, the words in italics read like a medical diagnosis, listing symptoms attached to mental illness: ‘permanently restless / refuses food / resists interference / delusional / imagines wrongs at the hands / of the sisters’. The italics in the poem encourage us to see two types of discourse. The first one, in italics, is the diagnosis imposed on the woman by an external representative of authoritative discourse (the doctor). The other is the imagined perception of the woman’s thwarted motherhood. The endnote specifies that words in italics are taken from Campanello’s work, but this is not always the case. This is an imagined archive of the stigma attached to mental illness: these words are not directly borrowed from Campanello’s poems. Uncanny details such as the ‘sherbet lemons’, in italics in the middle of the poem, might be meant to point us to the fact that the discourse is imagined. However, the part in italics could still be read as a plausible medical diagnosis of an institutionalised woman.

This is what a poetic counter-archive of shame is: it is the archive of what we begin to identify so well as a discourse used to shame women that we can fill in the holes ourselves; a poem that draws from and credits another woman’s engagement with the archive, rather than trusting the report to act as a mediating text between us and the archival and testimonial material. These poems are not placed on the level of victims’ accounts. They offer poetic justice by addressing the victims, engaging with their stories, and by placing themselves on the same level as legal and official discourse. They aim at reversing shaming by pointing to the failings of this discourse. They create a counter-archive, one in which the material is mediated through compassion and empathy, examined by a ‘literary judge’ who attempts to offer more adequate redress.

1 ‘The Irish Times view on the Mother and Baby Homes report: a culture of silence and shame’, The Irish Times, 12 January 2021 <https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/the-irish-times-view-on-the-mother-and-baby-homes-report-a-culture-of-silence-and-shame-1.4456594>

2 Martha C. Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Boston: Beacon Press, 1995, p. 90.

3 Poetic Justice, p. 86.

4 The text of this poem is available on the Books Ireland Magazine website: https://booksirelandmagazine.com/poetry-annemarie-ni-churreain/

5 Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, London: Faber & Faber, 1995, p. 3.

6 The text of the poem can be found on the publisher’s website: https://www.doirepress.com/writers/annemarie-ni-churreain

7 Photographs of the work can be found on the author’s website: http://www.kimberlycampanello.com/motherbabyhome

8 Kimberly Campanello, ‘An excavation of voices from Tuam’s Mother and Baby Home in poetic form’, The Irish Times, 19 April 2019. <https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/an-excavation-of-voices-from-tuam-s-mother-and-baby-home-in-poetic-form-1.3864976>


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