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I have three stories this month. First is an item re-blogged by a blogger I follow. I’m linking to the original which tells the story of a gentleman whose solution to his own loneliness at Thanksgiving has grown over the years to the point where he is host to up to 100 guests for a Thanksgiving dinner every year.
The second story is on a similar theme and I found it as the result of a segment on a BBC TV magazine show. We all know about adoption and fostering of children and adolescents, but what about older people who struggle with independent living? Shared Lives is a scheme which enables families to “adopt” vulnerable adults, treating them as part of the family.
Finally, I knew, like most people, that there are deaf musicians, Evelyn Glennie probably being the most well known. But I had no idea there was such a thing as a choir made up entirely of deaf people. Follow the link to hear the Holy Family Deaf Choir & Deaf Tones performing at the residence of the Irish President.
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I didn’t set out to do this at first, but the notion of sharing one post each day from the many that arrive in my in-box seems to have grown on me. Some might say it’s a lazy way of blogging, but when there’s material to delight like this story from Sally Cronin’s collection “What’s in a Name” I can’t help feeling I’m providing a useful service.
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.
I began writing my first novel in the summer of 2010. I had been living in Ireland for a little under 4 years and had been reading about the history of migration of Irish people, whether the consequence of famine, punishment by ‘transportation’ to the antipodes, or simply the search for a better life.
One of several books that I read dealing with the subject was a slim volume telling the true story of a young man who, at the age of 19 in 1895, traveled from his family home in the Irish Midlands to North America. After a spell working as a tram driver in Brooklyn, he became a sailor, working on banana boats plying between the Caribbean and the East coast of America before deciding to try his luck, first in Dawson City then in the Klondike. Like the majority of the thousands who participated in the gold rush, he was always on the verge of a fortune but never quite made it.
I thought the story would make a good novel and that I would write it. I researched the period and the places but I needed to add a ‘love interest’. The author of the original story had been unable to unearth anything suggesting a long term relationship, implying that his ancestor had led a lonely life. I decided that the young man in my version of the story would meet, and fall in love with, a young woman whilst in Brooklyn, but that something would sully that relationship triggering his decision to move as far away as possible.
Adopted at birth
I created a female character, gave her a back-story which explained her cavalier treatment of the young man. Like him, she spends the ensuing decades regretting her actions. Part of her story includes abuse by a powerful man, a teenage pregnancy, the adoption of the resulting child and a reunion, years later, between mother and grown-up daughter. I published ‘Honest Hearts‘ as an e-book at Smashwords in November of 2011 and, later, at Amazon.
Having thus discovered that I could create characters and put them in unusual situations, I went ahead and did it again, this time taking a couple of unrelated incidents from my childhood and putting them together to create a traumatic series of events in a single day in a community closely resembling the one in which I grew up. ‘Summer Day‘ was published in the same way in March 2012.
By then I had discovered the historical connection between my new home in County Laois and my birthplace in Herefordshire. I began putting together the series of articles that would become the Hereford and Ireland History section of this website and inspired me to write about the young woman who married the leader of the Norman occupation of Ireland in the twelfth century. ‘Strongbow’s Wife‘ took longer to research and write. Originally written in third person it was recast as a first person account in her own voice and published on June 1st 2014. This time I decided to create a paper back version via CreateSpace.
By then, too, I had begun thinking about the many stories emerging about the abuse of young girls and boys by celebrities and others during the 1970s and ’80s. I had already created the character of a not very successful jobbing reporter. The idea of having him retired and ghost-writing the autobiography of a soap star, with her daughter revealing herself at the book’s launch, seemed like a good starting point for a story examining the immense changes that have taken place in society and especially in regard to attitudes to sex and sexuality.
I am not sure now at what point I realised the similarities between my treatment of this theme in ‘Transgression‘, and key elements of ‘Honest Hearts’. Each has an abused teenager giving up her child for adoption. In each, the adopted child embarks on a search for her parents. Both of the abused women pursue successful careers in creative professions but suffer mentally as a result of the circumstances of their early initiation to sex.
I have no idea why two stories with very different origins, set in different historical periods, have ended up featuring such similar events. And, when I look at the background to the other two novels, I see that family dysfunction is evident there also. The central family in ‘Summer Day’ includes two women with the kinds of problems you would not expect to find in a typical twentieth century sub-urban household.
Strongbow’s wife, of course, is a woman from a very different age, and yet the true history of her background is that her elderly father sired children by women other than her mother; that her husband, for whom her hand was the price for the assistance he gave to her father, already had at least two children from a previous relationship. It was a time when the fostering of children in the families of friends was common place. On her husband’s death her own two children were placed in the care of the king of England, hundreds of miles away from the family home. A situation not so very different from that of the female protagonists of ‘Honest Hearts’ and ‘Transgression’ giving up their infants for adoption.
I wonder if the fact that my father died when I was two, that he spent those two years serving in the RAF with only infrequent visits to my mother so that I was never aware of him, and that I spent the bulk of my formative years in a boarding school that had once been an orphanage, influenced what is beginning to feel like an obsession with such themes?