Back in 2018, listening to Radio 4 whilst making dinner, I learned the awful truth behind one of Ireland’s many Mother and Baby Homes. Over 11 episodes the story of the Tuam home unfolded; how Catherine Corless, a local amateur historian, had uncovered the story of the ‘Home Babies’. Illegitimate children born to mothers who had been incarcerated – often by their own families – for the ‘sin’ of pregnancy out of wedlock.
What started out as Catherine’s investigation into the general history of the home soon became a story of unspeakable cruelty and abuse. At the back of the building under a patch of grass was a septic tank, and in the septic tank were the remains of 796 babies. All had died whilst under the care of the institution. Catherine’s persistence to uncover the truth led to a hitherto buried secret wrapped in decades of shame, lies and unfathomable cruelty at the hands of the Catholic Church to come slinking out into the light for all to see. One can’t help but think how pointless and avoidable all that suffering was.
After listening to the whole podcast series whilst frantically scribbling notes, I decided to create a retelling of the story for Narrative and Storytelling module of my Illustration Masters. Through this piece I wanted to show how absolutely nobody benefited from this terrible system, how there were victims on every side and most importantly to treat the subject delicately whilst retelling it for an audience. How an arbitrary set of social codes ruined hundreds and hundreds of lives.
At that stage I had never created a narrative piece before, so I started with a rough script and worked storyboards up from it. There were key images I wanted to included, and the overall piece was to be in black and white with red accents where appropriate. I used a mixture of analogue and digital techniques as I felt hand-drawn lines were more ‘human’ and fitting to use due to the nature of the material.
My version of the story is told from the point of view of an inmate at the home, a fictionalised character called Dolores who represents the testimonies of the mothers I had read. The name Dolores means ‘sorrowful’ or ‘pain’, and is a reference to the Virgin Mary, Our Mother of Sorrows. This often hypocritical clash of good mother/ bad mother, holy pain/ sinful pain is a central point of the piece, so I felt this name fit the subject matter.
All of the quoted text in the script are the actual words of women who had been in the home, recounting their experiences. The central character of Dolores was a combination of photographs of women who had gone into the home. The main focus of my research was the incredible book ‘My Name is Bridget’ written by Alison O’Reilly. The back cover copy sums up the story:
In 1946, twenty-six-year-old Bridget Dolan walked up the path to the front door of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Alone and pregnant, she was following in the footsteps of more than a century’s worth of lost souls. Shunned by society for her sins and offered no comfort for her pain, Bridget gave birth to a boy, John, who died at the home in a horrendous state of neglect less than two years later. Her second child was once again delivered into the care of the nuns and was taken from her, never to be seen or heard from again.
‘My Name is Bridget’ by Alison O’Reilly
Bridget eventually left the home, and went on to marry and have a family. Her story in the home is one of terrible cruelty and sadness, and was pieced together by her daughter Anna Corrigan. The willingness of Anna to share her family’s story for us all to learn from is an act of incredible generosity and bravery.
Then whilst browsing Twitter one day I came across a call for artists from Alison O’Reilly in response to the Tuam Home Inquiry. “House of Tears’ was finished, submitted and filed away by then, so I tentatively approached Alison and asked if she thought the piece was suitable for the exhibition. At that stage it was going to be a physical show in Dublin and was being pulled together on the tightest of budgets. Alison accepted the work, I was absolutely thrilled; my work would be in front of an audience who were directly affected by the events I had created this piece from. I was excited but also nervous, hoping I had done them justice.
Through incredible hard work Alison and her team moved the show online, which ultimately meant that it could have a huge reach. In August 2020 the show was screened along with powerful interviews and discussions with survivors. Here was my work, looping back to its source and being used as protest material. It was and still is an immensely moving experience and honour to have been included in the show. More material is being added to the YouTube channel, and my work was shown again in Feb 2021 in an expanded version of the exhibition.
When I created the piece I had no idea it would end up where it has, and the experience has focused my personal practice towards research-based narrative work. I have several projects in development and hope to find a way to situate them within contexts such as ‘House of Tears’, connecting them back to their original source material and the real human stories behind them. It has proved to me the power of illustration as a tool of communication and connection, what happens when you take a piece out of its folder and put it out into the world where it can become a working document with the power to tell truths, illuminating the darkest recesses of our collective pasts.
‘House of Tears can be viewed in its entirety here.
Alison later got in touch with this wonderful message.
'This is a beautiful read Laura and it is really moving to hear how much you appreciate the Stay With Me show. Thank you so much for sharing your experience of your work and out show. However, it is me who is grateful to you for allowing us show your work. Without the art, we have no show. It’s an honour for us to have your work. I feel very humbled reading how much this subject of Ireland’s lost children and the cruelty show to survivors means to you and how much you love the show. Keep doing what you do. You’ve an extraordinary talent. Much love and respect.'