The statue that moved — and the cousin I never knew


In July 1985, a number of Irish religious statues began to move. There were reports of apparitions at nearly 30 sites across the country — many of them Marian Year Grottos that had been built in small towns and villages throughout Ireland in 1954 to commemorate the centenary of the dogma proclaiming the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

By far the most popular apparition was the life-size Virgin set into a grotto 10 metres above the road about a mile outside the village of Ballinspittle, County Cork. For six weeks or so that summer, crowds of 8,000-10,000 people gathered every night in the fields below the grotto to witness the statue bend, shake and rock from side to side; to see the face of Christ superimposed on the face of Mary, and sometimes the face of Padre Pio; to watch the Virgin move her hands in prayer; or to look out for the sacred heart hovering above her head. There were coach parties from Dublin and Galway and Limerick, minivans bringing the sick hoping for a miracle, crowds of the faithful alongside sightseers, reporters and television crews. Before the end of the summer, the village had new toilets beside the makeshift car parks, and two public phone boxes.

That July I was 22 years old. I had just finished university finals and was loafing about, wondering what to do next. Rather than going home to Croydon, I was spending the summer as I often did, with my aunt and uncle and cousins near Skibbereen, a small town in West Cork about 35 miles from Ballinspittle. One night, after watching yet another item about the statue on RTÉ news, we all piled into a couple of cars and drove across country to see for ourselves. My cousins joked that I was there as the control — if I (someone without any faith, practically a pagan) were to see the statue move, we would all know it was fake.

Hundreds of people stand below  a statue of the Virgin Mary placed some 30 feet up a cliff
People gather below the statue of the Virgin Mary near the village of Ballinspittle, County Cork, in 1985 © Liam White/Alamy

It was nearing midnight when we arrived. We had to park a long way from the grotto and walk the last stretch, as the crowds were huge and the lanes were narrow. We passed chip and burger vans and hot drink stalls until we came to a large area filled with people craning their necks. A gathering of nuns stood near the front, leading the singing and the Hail Marys; there were the old-timers with their rosaries, a contingent disgorged from the pubs, and groups just like us, curious locals and their relatives home from England.

The chanting and the kneeling in the middle of a damp field at night seemed a bit ridiculous, especially given all the people munching chips. After a while, my cousin Caroline and I got the giggles until — at exactly the same moment — we saw the statue shake violently from the waist up, as though it was about to break in half. We both let out a Hammer-horror scream, to the great annoyance of the people around us, who were deep in a fervent rendition of “Hail Queen of Heaven”. After that, there was no chance of recovery. Everything set us off. We were doubled over, stuffing hankies into our mouths, snorting and crying with laughter.

What we saw that night seemed to us to have nothing to do with divine intervention. The movement of the statue appeared mechanical rather than lifelike, and we thought the most likely cause was an electrical surge, or short circuit, in the halo of bulbs around Mary’s head. But the real question is not what people saw but why, at that moment, did they want to see a miracle?

Over the years, the phenomenon of Irish Marian apparitions (from the Virgin’s appearance at Knock, in 1879, to a slew of more recent examples) has been explained as a response to social instability, an emotional release, or the result of a power struggle between the popular and the institutional church (though the nuns were certainly taking charge that night in Ballinspittle).

A statue of the Virgin Mary, her hands clasped in prayer, is set in a mossy wall
For six weeks that summer, crowds of 8,000-10,000 people gathered below the grotto hoping to see the statue shake and rock or the face of Christ superimposed on Mary © Alamy

But in the mid-1980s a number of events pointed to a particular crisis over the family, and women’s sexual lives in particular. In September 1983, the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, acknowledging the right to life of the unborn, was approved by a two-thirds majority in a referendum. Abortion was already illegal in Ireland but the campaign for a constitutional ban was a pre-emptive move by the religious right, concerned that Ireland might go the way of the UK (in 1967), the US (1973) and France (1975) in allowing abortion in certain circumstances.

In January the following year, 15-year-old Ann Lovett died, along with her baby, after giving birth alone at the Marian Grotto in Granard, County Longford. And later that year Joanne Hayes was wrongfully accused of having given birth to, and then murdered a newborn found washed up on the coast near Caherciveen with 28 stab wounds and a broken neck. The “Kerry babies” tribunal stretched through the early months of 1985. It was set up as an inquiry into the police, focusing on how Hayes and her entire family could have been brought to confess to a crime they could not possibly have committed (the baby’s blood type was A, but both Hayes and her lover were O). It quickly degenerated into a public forum shaming Hayes for her lifestyle and sexual history.  

If a Marian statue was ever going to move, this was surely the moment. In this scenario, the apparitions were a kind of last hurrah of the church, in retreat in the face of secular modernising forces, questioning the laws and customs governing illegitimacy, marriage, birth control and divorce. But I’m not convinced by this neat story of liberal Ireland sweeping away the religious deference of the past. The reality is much messier than that, particularly when it comes to women’s bodies, the histories they tell and how they are policed.

On March 8, Ireland will hold a referendum on deleting Article 41.2 from the constitution — the one that states that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”. The fact that this gender-based domesticity clause has outlasted the banning of homosexuality (decriminalised in 1993, following a ruling by the European Convention on Human Rights), divorce (legal since 1996), same-sex marriage (since 2015) and even abortion (since 2018) is one sign of what women have been up against.

A man in a street, one arm raised, holds a placard that reads ‘Choose Life! Vote No’
An anti-abortion protester holds up a banner in Dublin ahead of the referendum on May 25 2018 © AP
A young man in bow tie carries a placard that reads ‘Time moves on, why haven’t we?’
A man in period costume on the annual March For Choice in Dublin by the Abortion Rights Campaign, May 2018 © Deirdre Brennan/eyevine

Apologies over the treatment of women by church and state have issued thick and fast from the Irish government in recent years. In 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised to former residents of the Magdalene Laundries, and argued that “in naming and addressing the wrong . . . we are trying to make sure we quarantine such abject behaviour in our past and eradicate it from Ireland’s present and Ireland’s future”.

But the past keeps returning. In 2021, Taoiseach Micheál Martin issued a similar apology for the “profound, generational wrong” done to former residents of Mother and Baby homes, the religious-run, state-funded institutions where unmarried pregnant women and girls went to have their babies in secret. He acknowledged that, for much of the 20th century, “women as a group and regardless of age or class were systematically discriminated against in relation to employment, family law, and social welfare, solely because of their gender”.

Yet despite the promises of legal and financial redress, women and children are still having to petition the courts on a range of issues, including forced separation of mothers and children and illegal adoption from church-state institutions.

I’d like to be able to claim that, back in 1985, my cousin and I were laughing at the absurd contradiction of a group of people praying to the sinless (indeed immaculate) unmarried Mother of God while punishing the girls and women who were unfortunate enough to get pregnant without being married in Ireland — sending them to Mother and Baby homes, or to England, or leaving them to give birth alone. We knew something about this — or at least Caroline did. In 1980, when she was 19, she had come to live with us in Croydon for six months, while she waited for her baby to be born.

All that spring and summer, Caroline slept in the spare bed in my bedroom, and as we talked night after night I tracked the arc of her belly rising under the covers. We watched a lot of films on television, including Rosemary’s Baby, which was definitely a mistake. We lay about for hours on the lawn, sunbathing. We cooked experimental puddings with semolina and spices, and ate at odd times of the day and night. I accompanied her to some of the hospital appointments. The receptionist called her “Mrs” but in such a tone that I thought it must be obvious to everyone it wasn’t true. I don’t remember any talk about whether she would keep the baby, or what her options were — though it must have been discussed. What I remember is waiting. A kind of fatalist, resigned waiting. 

Why did my cousin come to live with us? The answer seems simple — extramarital sex and pregnancy were still sources of shame in Ireland. Contraception was legalised in 1979, but for “bona fide” married couples only. By 1980, the numbers of women travelling from Ireland to England for an abortion were averaging about nine a day (and the numbers steadily increased over the next 20 years). But for many people faced with a crisis pregnancy, even in the 1980s, the alternative was a relative in England or one of Ireland’s Mother and Baby homes.

Between Irish independence in 1922 and 1998, when the last home, Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Cork, finally closed, these institutions would host (at the lowest estimate) 56,000 unmarried mothers, ranging from 12-year-old girls to women in their forties, and at least 57,000 babies and small children. Many of the babies were adopted — often after extreme pressure on mothers, and increasingly, in the 1950s and 1960s, to the US.

There were similar institutions in the US, Britain and many European countries, but nowhere else were they still in use as late as the 1990s. The proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to these institutions was probably the highest in the world — and this is not the only Irish anomaly. Irish women also stayed longer in these homes than their European counterparts, with the longest stays in the 1940s and 1950s, when they averaged more than a year.

Children’s and babies’ clothes on a washing line against a grey sky
Infants’ clothes hung on a line in a vigil for the children buried in unmarked graves at the Tuam Mother and Baby home, August 2019 © Getty Images

Since the discovery of the bodies of nearly 800 infants buried in sewer chambers on the grounds of a former Mother and Baby home in Tuam, County Galway, the scandal over the institutions has featured persistently in Irish public debate. A government Commission of Investigation reported in 2020 on the dire conditions in the homes, the mistreatment and neglect of mothers and their children, the extraordinarily high death rates and careless disposal of bodies. Former residents have told of being punished for their sins by nuns who withheld pain relief, and of the long-term harms caused by coerced and illegal adoption. But the violence wasn’t secret down the years. The homes were a warning to girls of what would happen to them if they weren’t good, or at least careful. The writer Eiléan ní Chuilleanáin was at school and college in Cork in the early 1960s and she remembers the gallows humour of girls joking about boys they fancied: “I’d do Bessboro’ for him.” Everyone knew what it meant.

My bedroom in Croydon was a nicer place to hide a pregnancy than Bessborough, but the pregnancy was hidden all the same. Still, it wasn’t until 1989 or 1990, after I had given birth to my own first baby — who I also had on my own — that I discovered there was a further reason why my cousin had come to Croydon to have her son, rather than stay at home in Ireland.

I learnt from my aunt about another first cousin, Mary, whom I had never met. Mary was born in 1955 in Bessborough, the daughter of my uncle Jackie and his 19-year-old neighbour Lily. There was a crisis when the pregnancy was discovered and neither Lily’s family nor my own was prepared to support her; Lily went into Bessborough and my uncle disappeared to England. Mary was brought up first in the Mother and Baby home, and then later in an orphanage (or what was still known then as an Industrial School for girls) not far from the farm where I spent my summers with my cousins. She was the eldest of the group of us cousins by two years, but she was kept a secret from us. We thought there were 12 of us, but really we were 13.

The bit my aunt didn’t tell me until later was that in January 1980 Mary, who was then 24 and living in London, had discovered she was pregnant, and killed herself. A couple of months later, Caroline came to stay.

Two black and white photographs show, on the left, Peggy, Nolly and Philly, and on the right a family group standing in front of a house, grandmother Molly holding a baby
Left, Clair’s aunt Peggy; Clair’s grandmother Molly; and her mother Philly in the 1940s. Right, a 1966 picture taken in front of the farmhouse. From left to right are Philly, Molly holding Oona, Clair, Siobhan, Stephen and Bridget

It has taken me 30 years to come to terms with what I learnt in those conversations with my aunt and my mother in the early 1990s. I searched through public records and histories of the institutions, and I spoke to nuns who had known Mary, trying to piece things together. In the process I uncovered a whole series of extramarital pregnancies, hidden babies and dead babies, stretching back in each generation of my family from the 1980s through the 1950s to the 1920s and the 1890s. A timeline of women, heavy with child, finding solutions in the cracks and fissures of respectability.

But the story of generations succeeding one another in a neat and orderly line is not the whole story. I am sure that my aunt told my cousins and me about the circumstances of Mary’s birth, and death, because she wanted to bring the cycle of violence to an end. She wanted to believe in a different — kinder — future, in which sin and punishment didn’t feature.

By the 1980s that seemed to be the future at least some of us were living in. But it is also the case that my aunt would not, or could not, have told us about Mary until her story was at an end — because one of the things she was telling us was that everyone had been complicit. Everyone kept the secret of Mary’s life in the orphanage from the 12 of us. My grandmother and my uncle and all the grown-ups on both sides of the family had consented to and even defended a system in which one child was not allowed to belong, because she was illegitimate, and the rest of us were made welcome.

It was, and is, a story of unaccountable injustice. An anachronistic tale more fitted to the 1890s or the 1920s than the ’70s and ’80s, when I was seeing Elvis Costello at the Roundhouse and doing Mansfield Park and the Reformation for A-level. And the fact that it was happening in similar ways and at the same time in countless other families does not make it easier to bear.

Our laughter at the foot of the statue in Ballinspittle was the laughter of young women who knew our lives wouldn’t be irrevocably ruined by our sexual choices. Our parents were no longer prepared to consent to structures of power that once seemed immutable. By the beginning of this century, it really did look as though the EU, same-sex marriage and (eventually) the reversal of the 1983 abortion referendum through Repeal the 8th would save us. But the past wasn’t really over — it still isn’t. The complicity, the secret-keeping and the denial of the reality of women’s sexual lives have knitted loops and kinks of damage into that story of progress. We were laughing with the confidence of a liberal future in front of us, and the cruelty to our unknown cousin Mary haunts me still.

Clair Wills’ ‘Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets’ is published by Allen Lane on January 25

Copyright © 2024, Clair Wills. All rights reserved

The main image for this piece, ‘Bridget’s Story’, is a 2019 glass artwork by Alison Lowry currently on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. It depicts Bridget Dolan, the mother of Anna Corrigan, a campaigner who found out after her mother’s death that she had given birth to two boys in the former Mother and Baby home in Tuam, County Galway. Photograph by Glenn Norwood

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