Claire Wills shares a piece with us on her new read Missing Persons or My Grandmother’s Secret.
You know that feeling that there’s something you are not in on? We all know it. It’s a condition of
growing up. The belief that one day the things that have been kept secret from you – secrets of sex,
but also money, work, all the things that are really going on – are going to be revealed. In my case,
growing up half-Irish in England – in Croydon to be precise, in the 1960s and 70s – there were more
particular secrets, involving cousins who were being kept hidden, and uncles we never saw. It was a
story with which we have become relatively familiar, in the wake of the scandals involving Irish
Mother and Baby Homes, of sex, illegitimacy, and the abandonment of a child to an orphanage. And
when I began to try to work out what had happened, I discovered more extra-marital pregnancies,
more abandoned babies, and a whole lot more shame. As it turns out I can trace a history of
unmarried motherhood in my family from the West of Ireland in 1890s through to the birth of my own
first child ‘out of wedlock’ in England in the 1980s.
I’ve written this book not only to try to uncover the story of what happened to my cousin Mary and
her mother in the 1950s – though that is part of it. I also wanted to understand how families like mine
made sense of their missing persons. Where did the sense of shame and the need to keep illegitimacy
secret came from, and what work did it do for families? The fact that my family functioned despite,
and maybe even because of, its missing persons, the fact that it ‘made enough sense’ – is part of what
I have had to come to terms with in writing this book.
The division people who count and people who don’t, or don’t count enough, isn’t just an Irish story,
or even an illegitimately half-Irish story. Families everywhere refuse to acknowledge their own
violence, and tell oddly shaped stories to cover it up, though admittedly not all of them have churchstate institutions ready and waiting to keep their secrets. This book is for everyone who knows what it’s like to be told something that can’t be put into words, everyone who understands how shame
travels and gets attached to knowing things as well as not knowing them – anyone with a family,
You can now pre-order Missing Persons Or My Grandmothers Secrets on dubraybooks.ie.