Memory, empirical research and grand narratives

Published in Editorial, Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Volume 29


One of the perils of editorial writing, especially in a bi-monthly magazine such as this, is the risk of giving hostages to fortune. By the time you read this, the context in which it is received might have been altered by a breaking news story. Thus in my last I opined that ‘… the Irish people … despite many errors and failures along the way, managed to establish a stable independent state’. The recent publication of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has inevitably etched in sharp relief the ‘errors and failures’ (the latest in a long list) rather than the achievements of Irish society. The sense of collective shame is all the greater because what has been exposed isn’t ancient history; the victims in many cases (mothers and babies) are our own contemporaries. Not much to celebrate there.

It is also an interesting illustration of the complex relationship between memory, empirical research and grand narratives. (See Platform, pp 14–17.) Inspired by her memories of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, local historian Catherine Corless in the course of dogged research in libraries, churches and council offices uncovered the glaring discrepancy of c. 800 death certificates of children who died in the home but with no burial records. This eventually led to the discovery of physical remains in a disused septic tank, thus adding another Gothic chapter to the unfolding grand narrative of Catholic social repression in independent Ireland.

Meanwhile, independently, an equally dogged researcher, Niall Meehan, was carrying out a similar investigation into the unmarked graves in Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery of children who had died in the Bethany Home, a Protestant mother and baby institution. (See Letters, p. 12.) This, and revelations concerning other Protestant institutions, does not contradict or undermine the narrative of social repression but it does add nuance to the unfolding story. Let the research and reappraisal continue.

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