An Affair With my Mother by Caitriona Palmer (Memoir)
A Second Life by Dermot Bolger (Fiction)
I wanted to read these books when the opportunity came, in order to see if my treatment of the subject in Honest Hearts and Transgression was authentic. Both books deal with adoption as experienced in Ireland in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. This was a period during which any young Irish woman who conceived out of wedlock was regarded as a pariah. Her child was taken from her and provided with a good, usually middle class, home. The mother would be ostracised by her family and told by the nuns who ran the mother and baby homes, and arranged the adoption, that if anyone were to discover her secret no man would look at her.
Bolger’s book is fiction and set in the mid 1990s. The male protagonist has a near death experience at the start of the book and this triggers a need to discover more about his birth mother. The book was first published in 1993 but underwent a complete re-write before being reissued, in the edition I read, in 2010.
Palmer is a successful journalist. She began the search for her mother whilst in her twenties in the late 1990s. She was eventually able to set up a meeting with her birth mother. The problem then was that the mother was married with a family. Neither the husband nor the children knew about her earlier indiscretion. She was so terrified of them finding out that meetings between mother and daughter were conducted clandestinely, hence the title. These secret meetings went on for 15 years during which the daughter continued to seek information about both sets of biological grand parents.
When Bolger’s fictional protagonist finally tracks down his birth mother it is only to discover that she is dead. The only member of the family who has remained in contact with her is an older sister who does agree to meet her nephew. She is able to provide details of the events surrounding his conception and the subsequent forcible transportation of the pregnant nineteen year old to the mother and baby home. He visits the home and later meets the older brother, now a priest. He is angry at the role this man played in the cruel treatment of his mother.
These visits provide Bolger with an opportunity to present both sides of the argument about such treatment: the culture in which the woman was deemed to have sinned and it was necessary to protect the child by giving it a second life in a “decent” home.
Both Bolger’s protagonist, and Palmer, struggle with feelings of rejection; feelings that, in Palmer’s case, are not relieved by her mother’s insistence on secrecy. Both the fictional and the real mother are consumed with a need to know that their secret child is faring well. A need that is satisfied in Palmer’s case though not in the case of Bolger’s fictional mother. I believe my own handling of that aspect of adoption was adequate.
What is notable in both these books, and in the culture they depict, is an absence of any serious condemnation of the behaviour of the men who were responsible for these young women becoming pregnant. In Britain in those years, a man who was responsible for making a young woman pregnant was expected to marry her and most did. Knowing this, few took the risk unless ready to face that consequence.
Like Bolger’s fictional protagonist, Palmer visits the village in which she was conceived and the mother and baby home in which she was born. Palmer’s book was written six years after Bolger’s re-write and over two decades after his original. And yet, comparing Palmer’s real life experience with Bolger’s imagined one, one is struck by the similarities. Of course, Palmer’s is not the first real life account of these situations which were all to common in Ireland. The most well known is perhaps Philomena Lee’s 2009 account of her search for her son, aided by the British journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan in the film Philomena. Palmer recounts a meeting with Philomena Lee.
There are other similarities: Bolger’s protagonist is a freelance photographer with a journalist friend who can help with his search, Palmer is a journalist with similar contacts. Palmer resides in Washington so, after the first few years, communication with her mother is mostly by e-mail. On the other hand, the duration of the search by Bolger’s protagonist is only a matter of months whilst Palmer’s spans several years.
Bolger enlivens his tale with a ghost story whilst in Palmer’s memoir we are treated to an account of her time in the former Yugoslavia working as PR consultant for an NGO.
Both books are thoroughly readable and provide valuable insights into a period of Irish history that has been the cause of much anguish for a generation of women.