AS a young reporter, RTÉ journalist Rachael English was sent to Cork to speak to women who had been born in the Bessborough mother and baby home.
The experience affected her deeply and after touching on the issues in a previous novel, she made mother and baby homes the central element of her latest novel, The Paper Bracelet.
“My first interest in the subject came 24 years ago when, as a reporter on the News At One, I was sent to interview a group of women who were born in Bessborough and having great difficulties tracing their birth mothers,” she says.
“I’ve never forgotten those women or that story and ever since those days I have always had the interest in it as a journalist.
“Then, when it came to writing fiction, I felt there was an awful lot to say and to write about.”
In The Paper Bracelet we meet newly-widowed Katie, who spent time working as a nurse in the fictional home of Carrigbrack in Clare in the early 1970s. She decides to use information she recorded and kept during her stint there to help women there at the time and the babies born to them.
She is helped in her quest by her adult niece Beth and they are soon joined by Gary and Ailish, adoptees whose lives apparently began in the home at roughly the same time, but whose journeys brought them to vastly different adult lives.
As Katie and Beth search, they encounter many different situations, from women and children desperately seeking their never-forgotten biological family to those who want to leave their experiences in the past. Katie and Beth, and the reader, cannot expect fairytale endings to stories that in many cases are steeped in heartache and trauma.
It reflects, the author says, the real lives of those affected.
“It’s still very much a live issue, and still something we are struggling with,” Ms English says. “Not that long ago I interviewed the head of the adoption authority, who said that the people who contact them are overwhelmingly those who were adopted as babies. They still have relatively few birth mothers coming forward.
“She was making the point that it is still up to the rest of us to say there is no stigma, there’s nothing to apologise for.
“I thought that was so sad, that, obviously, in many cases women still fear coming forward. Even though they might have spent most of a lifetime wondering what happened to the child.”
Tremendous work has been done in Ms English’s own industry on the subject of mother and baby homes in Ireland.
So, why approach it through fiction? She says the fact that the homes were still active in the relatively recent past, with many people still alive who were affected on way or another, is part of it.
“The practice was so widespread, as some of the characters say in the book, nearly every street in the country had a story,” she says. “But it wasn’t something that was spoken about a lot.
She believes that even though many women are now telling their stories, it remains raw for many
“It is still something that is very much around us and there are so many people out there with stories,” she says. “Sometimes, fiction gives you this space without intruding on anybody’s life to tell a story and work through the truth.”
In The Paper Bracelet, Beth is the voice of the younger generation, shocked at what took place in the homes but almost equally appalled at the families and wider public who allowed it to happen.
Ms English feels including that point of view was important, as it highlights how norms change through the generations.
“I grew up in the 80s, when there were still a limited number of homes open, and I honestly think it was something, even though sending pregnant girls away as a practice was dying out, that we still almost accepted as part of life,” she said.
“Even though everybody would have said that it was wrong, and you look back 20 or 30 years on and think ‘wasn’t that madness?’
“I can understand why women in their 20s, like Beth, just look at it all and say, ‘what were you doing, why did you agree to it?’.
“Every generation is the same, there are probably things we are doing now that seem perfectly acceptable and in a few years, we will look back and say, what were we doing?”
Ms English acknowledges that, unsurprisingly given her background, she is a research buff.
But The Paper Bracelet wears the research lightly and moves with the pacing of good detective fiction. Katie and Beth encounter dead ends and closed doors aplenty and their work to get around these highlights the battle real people in the position face.
But despite the distressing subject matter, this novel is not a heavy or depressing read.
It acknowledges and addresses the terrible experiences suffered by the women in these homes, and it doesn’t flinch from the long term consequences, felt to this day.
But good writing and plotting mean that the story is still the main driver of the book, albeit a story that is grounded in real pain.
From early on, it is also clear there is more to the motivations and story of one of the main characters.
The reader is brought on a journey that foregrounds the story and experiences of the characters, rather than making them a proxy for a history lesson.
The result is a warm, fast-moving and enjoyable novel, one that highlights why Rachael English is one of Ireland’s bestselling, and best, storytellers.
The Paper Bracelet by Rachael English is published in Trade Paperback by Hachette Ireland, €13.99. Available now.