Brigid, Magdalene, My Mother, and Me

Carmel Mc Mahon contemplates the legacy of trauma passed down through generations of Irish women.

Carmel Mc Mahon | Longreads | November 2019 | 13 minutes (3,226 words)

The body of a young Irish woman was found outside Saint Brigid’s Church in Manhattan’s East Village. The city had not yet awoken on the frigid Sunday morning of February 20, 2011. Earlier that month, on St. Brigid’s feast day, she had turned 35 years old. The news reports cited alcoholism, homelessness and hypothermia as contributing factors in her death. They said she wanted to be an artist. They said her name was Grace Farrell.

Grace. Origin: Middle English via Old French from Latin, gratia, from gratus, meaning “pleasing” or “grateful.

The following week, I met “Dublin Kevin” at the AA meeting on East 10th Street. “Did you know her?” he asked. We’d left Ireland for New York when she did, in the mid-’90s, right before the economic tide turned. The background noise of sectarian violence, mass unemployment and rising emigration got dialed down. But there remained other things, muted maybe, things that take generations to rise up and reach the throat.

We ran away with a few hundred dollars and a few vague connections to join the lineage of emigrants from Ireland. People used to say, “Could the last one to leave, please turn out the lights!” A joke to lighten the burden of history. In New York, I gravitated to the East Village to be with the other immigrant kids who were writing poems and working in the cafes and bars. I knew, or half-knew, the ones from home, so how did I not know Grace? And how could this happen to one of us, in our own back-yard, at a church built by our own ancestors?

In an Irish radio interview, a cousin says Grace came to New York to find her mother, who had emigrated shortly after her birth. The young parents were not married in the Catholic and conservative Ireland of the 1970s. Grace was given up for adoption; she spent her early years in foster care, and later, in Saint Vincent’s Children’s Home in Drogheda, County Louth.

I do not know the particulars of Grace’s mother’s situation, but I think about her, and my mother, and their mothers before them. The general climate of Ireland was hostile to women. Divorce, abortion and contraception were illegal. Married women were sometimes not permitted to work, and they had no rights to property in a marriage. There was no such thing as marital rape, and the choice, in cases of abuse, was either to remain with their abuser or become homeless. This is the world we were born into. This is the world that shaped us in ways that are continually being revealed.

***

Time, evolution, history, genealogy, etymology. If we carry our ancestors inside us, where does the story begin?

Does the story begin when the new Irish state amended its constitution in 1939, to reflect its strengthening church/state partnership? The institutions of social welfare were outsourced to the Catholic Church. I have difficulty reconciling their purported mission of care with the facts of their systemic violence. I have even more difficulty accepting the fact that the average person was in collusion: people like us, our parents and grandparents, our neighbors and friends. We believed the body of an unmarried, pregnant woman bore an unbearable brunt shame, even if she was the victim of rape, abuse or incest.

I do not know the particulars of Grace’s mother’s situation, but I think about her, and my mother, and their mothers before them.

Women and girls could disappear — gone to visit an aunt in the country — code for being incarcerated at a Mother and Baby Home or a Magdalene Laundry. Some had their clothes taken, their heads shaved, and many were given new names. Outside, they were known as “The Maggies.” Babies were removed at birth or shortly after. They were put up for adoption, placed in the foster system, or, in some famous cases, sold to wealthy Americans. Despondent mothers might be detained for an indeterminate amount of time. They did laundry from morning till night interrupted only by meals and prayers. Their payment, for which they were expected to be grateful, was the opportunity to wash away their lustful sins.

In the 1980s, I took a bus into Dublin to go to secondary school. I often walked past the High Park reformatory and laundry, which was run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. There was an iron gate through which you could see the austere buildings beyond. I never saw a single soul, but on some level, I must have known what was happening there.

In 1993, the nuns were selling a parcel of their land to a property developer. There was a mass grave on the site containing the remains of 133 women who died while “penitents” of the laundry. The grave diggers unearthed 22 more remains. Brigid O’Neill was buried as recently as 1987. Some of the women had no records or death certificates; others were listed under their new religious names, Magdalene of… Many of the bones showed signs of physical abuse. One was even missing a skull. An iceberg had breached the surface of our consciousness.

I read with horror of the mass grave found at Tuam, Co. Galway in 2014. It contained the remains of children ranging in age from 35 fetal weeks to three years. They died while charges of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home. Because they were seen as the product of sin, they were left to die of neglect and disease. Between the years of 1925 and 1961 they were dumped in the septic tanks beneath the grounds. There were 796 of them.

Women and children were not afforded the rights of citizenship, of subject-hood, of being. They lived with the possibility of being erased, hidden, buried. This is why my mother tells me haltingly, hesitating, that in her day it was the worst thing in the world for a girl to find herself pregnant, but worse again, was for her to talk about it.

***

My mother found herself pregnant in 1966. The skirt she picked up from the dry-cleaners was tight. She accused them of shrinking the fabric. She needed the pale, grey, wool suit for a job interview. A neighbor who worked for Aer Lingus said he could get her in there. She imagined herself an air hostess — the most glamorous job in the world. She wore the suit with white gloves and a pillbox hat. Everyone on the bus said she looked just like Jackie Kennedy. She got the job. Finally, her life was coming together.

It had been four months since her American fiancé had been to visit. He could not believe my mother’s family did not have a shower in their Harolds Cross council house. He could not believe they did not have hot running water. My mother had been organizing the wedding, but the Church insisted on completion of the banns of marriage at Sunday Mass, in front of the parish — over three consecutive weeks, a couple proclaimed their intention to marry as a way of ensuring there were no impediments to the arrangement — and he could not stay for the required time. They had met on an army base in Germany. He was a soldier and she worked the telephone switchboard. In the four months since his visit, the letters slowed then stopped. She wrote and told him she was late, but she never heard from him again.

When she arrived at Dublin Airport for her first day of work; she was shown to the workers’ cafeteria,where she was handed an apron and a hairnet. Broke and broken-hearted, she had no choice but to go to England.

To be clear, my mother does not speak directly of these things. What I know of her story, I have pieced together from fragments gleaned piecemeal over the years. I am careful in these moments not to seem too interested, lest she clam up and change the subject. Was she planning an abortion, or an adoption; was she lost and alone? But I need to hear her story so I can know my own. She just says that at some point, she began to love the child more than she loved herself, and so she was able to survive. A baby girl was born, and she was named, Michelle.

My mother met my Scottish father in Dublin a few years later. They got married and moved to County Meath to start a new life. My brother, Billy, arrived the following year, and Michelle, a black-haired 5-year-old, was delighted by the new baby. After school one day, Michelle was hit by a car and killed. My mother was pregnant with me at the time. She had six more children after I was born, a year or two years apart, and Michelle’s name was not spoken again in our house.

I am beginning to understand why we might, at times, imagine our silence will save us.

***

Does the story begin when I had my first drink around the age of 10? It was during the recession-wracked ‘80s, and my father did not have a job. That Christmas, Santa brought us all the same digital watch and an orange. We were not pleased or grateful. Poverty shrank us. We spent Saint Stephen’s Day at my uncle’s house in Dublin. The living room, where the adults gathered, had leather sofas and Lladro ornaments. The air was thick with cigarette smoke that got thicker, and laughter that got louder as the evening progressed. In the bedrooms, we scowled at our cousins who called us culchies, a derogatory term for a person from the country, and wouldn’t let us play with their Sindys and Scalextrics.


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Looking back, I recall the feeling of inferiority and shame; was it our old shoes, the way we talked, or the way we grabbed at the crisps and biscuits like the greedy animals we were? Or, was it something in the air that seeped into the porous borders of our bodies? Shame is a word I can use to name that feeling now. With the name there is context and clarity. Without it, the feeling rises hot and confused and choking.

Billy was a year older than me, and we looked on while the younger ones laughed and repeated culchie words for the cousins: waa-ter, caar. We returned to the living room and began to clear away the used glasses from the coffee table as fresh drinks were poured. The adults said we were great little helpers. In the kitchen, we drank down the dregs of their beer, Bacardi and coke, Jameson and ginger ale, and gin and tonic until our borders disintegrated.

This is what that first time felt like: A warm, golden circle of light expanded out from the center of my being and connected me to everyone in that house, and I was filled with love for them. I knew we were part of the same story that reached back to the beginning of time, and I knew, too, that everything was related to every other thing in the universe. Nothing was separate or alone. I felt alright, like we were all going to be okay.

The general climate of Ireland was hostile to women. Divorce, abortion and contraception were illegal. Married women were sometimes not permitted to work, and they had no rights to property in a marriage.

The world was changed thereafter. I had experienced something beyond the chip-board and linoleum of our home, the bare bulbs and the bickering, the sadness and anger that moved around the house like a secret, and settled sometimes on my mother’s face, or ignited, suddenly, my father’s temper.

***

By the age of 35, I was on the treadmill of trying and failing to get my life on track: eat healthy, work out regularly, quit the smoking, cut down on the drinking, find a real boyfriend and a job that pays a livable wage, but between the drunkenness and the hangovers, I could get nothing done. And yet, there was the occasional radiance. That first-time-feeling had blasted itself onto my subconscious where it remained fresh and unaltered by time or experience. Where it remains so, even still.

***

Does the story begin with Saint Brigit’s Church? It sits on the east side of Tompkins Square Park on Avenue B and 8th Street in Manhattan’s East Village. It is known as the Famine Church, because it was built for and by the huge influx Irish famine refugees in the mid-19th century. The potato blight affected all of Europe, but government mismanagement resulted in catastrophe for the then British colony of Ireland.

Many emigrants were young, single women. Upon arrival in the urban centers of America’s east coast, they found themselves among the most vulnerable. The poorest people competed for physical and dangerous factory jobs. Many young women found, or were forced into, the sex-work trade.

Irish women filled New York hospitals, sick with sexually transmitted infections and complications from pregnancy. The bodies of these women brought shame to the Irish Catholic community, who were desperately trying to establish a foothold in an Anglo-Protestant dominant culture that despised them. The Catholic Church worked with charities to establish medical clinics, temporary accommodations, and job training for the women. They created an industry churning out domestic servants for positions that offered a shared room, food, and a small salary. In the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Irish immigrant women thrived under these conditions. Some used their jobs as a stepping stone to marriage or education. Others couldn’t hack it at all. Regardless of their temperament, or their dreams, or their names, they were made into a trope, and they were all called Brigid.

You needed a Brigid. You got a Brigid. You had a Brigid. You compared your Brigid with your friend’s Brigids. You laughed at their antics over luncheon. Such ignorant, willful, ungrateful girls.

***

Saint Brigid was born outside of marriage in Faughart, County Louth in the year 451 AD. Faughart is a 30-minute drive from where Grace Farrell grew up. Brigid was fostered out to a local druid and was educated by him, but Christianity was spreading, and she converted. She became a nun and established a monastery and Ireland’s first art school. Her hospitality was legendary; the monastery became a social and cultural center that hosted visitors from all over the world. In a poem attributed her, she dreams of getting drunk with God:

I’d sit with the men, the women and God

There by the lake of beer

We’d be drinking good health forever

And every drop would be a prayer.

At the time of her death, on February 2nd, 525 AD, (her feast day) she was the most powerful person in Ireland. She was eventually over-shadowed by her male counterpart, Patrick, and the Catholic hierarchy reduced this complex and brilliant woman to a kindly maid. But, with her mix of paganism and non-Roman Christianity, she remained in the hearts of Irish women, and emigrants carried her far and away with them. Today, as the Catholic church falters, devotion to this saint continues to flourish outside and beyond it. She is, among other things, patron saint of children born outside of marriage, fugitives and poets, and maybe this is why Grace Farrell sought her out on the last night of her life.

***

Ireland has changed so much since I left in the ‘90s. There is all kinds of diversity, there is marriage equality, and divorce and abortion are legal. The Catholic Church has lost its hold, but reparations and redress have been thin and late-coming. Given the current reckoning with our history, I struggle to understand how the state is able to enact old policies on a new and vulnerable population: asylum seekers. In Direct Provision — a heavily criticized system that provides temporary accommodation to asylum seekers — people who left broken and war-torn places speak of the sexual, physical, mental, and emotional abuse. They tell stories of lives lived out of time; years lost, curfewed, controlled, stunted. They have not been permitted to work, or until very recently, attend college. They speak of separated families and deep depressions. They speak of the 2019 death of Sylva Tukula, a South African transgender woman in her 30s, who was being detained at the all-male Direct Provision Center in Co. Galway. Sylva was buried in a pauper’s plot following an investigation into her death. Her family and friends were not notified.

***

On July 2, 2019, in the East Village I attended a protest against the US refugee camps. Stories of over-crowding, of children caring for toddlers, of no soap or water, no toys or toothbrushes. The protest was scheduled for 1:00 pm. Lunch hour. Slip out, do your civic duty. Post a pic on Insta. Slip back to work. This is how we live now. We do what we can. Someone passed around a roll of aluminum foil from which we tore little sheets to wave in solidarity with caged children huddled beneath aluminum blankets. There were the usual Fuck-Trumpers, as if this evil was the impulse of a single individual. What will we say to these children and their children who are already writing the poems about us?

***

Where does the story begin? Dr. Rachel Yehuda, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mt. Sinai’s Ichan School of Medicine, studies genetics and epigenetics. Her research shows how trauma transmits intergenerationally. It is a biological process. Genes can be influenced by behavior and environment. Dr. Yehuda studied two populations: a community of holocaust survivors and their children in Cleveland, Ohio, and women who were pregnant at the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In both groups, those who experienced the trauma directly, and their offspring, suffered from PTSD. Overwhelming changes brought on by trauma rearrange physical systems. She also discovered that stress and trauma beyond cataclysmic events can also be passed on biologically. Our experiences imprint physiologically. We carry our ancestors inside us.

Time, evolution, history, genealogy, etymology. If we carry our ancestors inside us, where does the story begin?

But, she says, we are not in biological prison; experiences and events in our environment can also make positive changes to our programming. We can move consciously toward healing. And we can begin by talking. There is restorative power in the intimate exchange of speaking, listening, hearing and being heard.

***

Saint Brigid evolved out of a much older pre-Celtic mother Goddess, also called Brigid. She is a member of the Tuatha dé Danann who were early inhabitants of Ireland said to have arrived in mist from heaven. They lived at the 5,000-year-old site of Newgrange, which sits a short distance between the towns where Grace and I grew up.

Brigid is the goddess of transformation, healing and poetic inspiration. Her feast is Imbolc, February 1st and 2nd (two days to include the full rotation of night and day). She celebrates the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the time of planting. Seeds take root in the dark and silent earth; they feed on the nutrients of their ancestors. The past, present and future flow into each other like lines of the triple-spirals carved into the stone of Brigid’s home.

When her child was killed in battle, Brigid invented keening, a low, wailing lament that rolled up out of her and across the land. When they heard it, the warriors laid down their arms. She invites you to join her if you have been blasted apart. From this mother, we learn the sound of our sorrow. We keen for our ancestors and for our children’s children. And this is where the story begins: when we lay down our weapons, open our mouths, and howl.

* * *

Carmel Mc Mahon is an Irish immigrant living in New York. She studies Biography & Memoir at the Graduate Center (CUNY).

 

Editor: Sari Botton