Margot Gayle Backus
University of Houston

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Republic of Shame: How Ireland Punished “Fallen Women” and Their Children (2021)

As Angela Bourke observes, in traditional Ireland, an array of folk beliefs and practices handled “social deviance and stigma, [using] a vocabulary and a system of metaphor through which to contain the sort of tensions that Victorian administrators preferred to house in grim four-story buildings” (580). Caelainn Hogan’s Republic of Shame describes the convergence in modern Ireland of certain grim Victorian buildings and institutions with traditional vocabularies of deviance and stigma which gave rise to the network of orphanages, mother and baby “homes,” industrial schools, and Magdalene laundries she terms the “shame-industrial complex” (19). Hogan’s interwoven accounts of specific institutions from various vantage points – of the religious and lay people who worked in them, the mothers and other family members who willingly or unwillingly surrendered children to them, of adults unable to trace their own origins, and of children and adults who never left them – fill heretofore undetected gaps in our understanding of these institutions.

In a concise rationale for her approach, Hogan identifies what has been missing from the existing journalism, research, and reports that have sought to expose, explain, or quantify these “institutions and the culture that produced them.” “The moral judgment” of the institutions, she points out, “is the easy part.” In this book, Hogan is undertaking what she terms, the “hard part”:

to enter into the mindset and methods of the nuns who created and operated the institutions, the churchmen and politicians who supported them, the public servants who compiled reports about them, the doctors, priests, and social workers who referred women to them, the families that sent their daughters to them, and the women and children who spent time in them. (7)

Hogan pieces observations, memories, and statistics from interviews and archival research into layered accounts foregrounding particular institutions. These accounts are enriched as she revisits particular institutions across chapters serially organised around specific perspectives: those of nurses, domestics, and nuns who worked in the institutions; the priests and professionals who oversaw them; their inmates; the children of inmates; the families of inmates; and those residents who lived side-by-side with these institutions. This elegant and eloquent schema places post-Treaty Ireland’s institutionalisation of women and children in a newly comprehensive framework, one that is subjective, but not sensationalising, and rigorous, but not sanitising.

As Hogan points out, the “building blocks” of independent Ireland’s church/State infrastructure were neither “intrinsically Irish” nor “intrinsically Catholic” (29). These building blocks include “the United Kingdom’s Poor Law system, and the network of workhouses established under it”; the Protestant Magdalene Asylums, the first of which was established in Dublin in 1767; and the laundries that “started as halfway houses run by lay people at a time when the State’s own approach was to incarcerate the vulnerable, poor or morally contagious” (30). This holistic account of the multifarious origins of Ireland’s shame-industrial complex may have important implications for a broader understanding not only of modern institutions, but of what material and intangible benefits they produced for various groups, and how these came, in modernising society, to outweigh any ethical responsibility to one’s neighbours. If Ireland’s shame-industrial complex was not the product of any one institution or organisation, neither did it serve the interests of an all-powerful oligarchy. Rather, as Hogan makes clear, these interlocking institutions were so powerful and pervasive because they appealed to the self-interest of virtually everyone with any reason to know about them, with the exception of their inmates (37).

Hogan’s bird’s-eye view of “Ireland’s architecture of containment” allows us to see across spatial, temporal, and social opacities that have limited our ability to view forms of institutionalised cruelty and neglect in twentieth-century Ireland even across specific institutions, let alone in any broader context.[1] Unquestionably, moral and religious beliefs rationalising cruelty, punishment, and neglect drove the institutions of other modernising societies, as Angela Bourke reminds us when she uses “Victorian administrators” and “grim four-story buildings” as metonyms for British modernity. Yet beliefs, practices, and institutions identifiable in modernising societies around the world have seemed anomalous when encountered in the context of “independent Catholic Ireland’s” belated and “disorientingly rapid” modernisation, where they attained, in Hogan’s words, “a sort of dark perfection” (29).

Central to this “dark perfection,” as most would agree, was a synchronisation of institution, stigma, affect, and subject formation brought about through the nascent Irish State’s alignment with a particularly shame-based, anti-sex, anti-body strain of Irish Catholicism. As Hogan demonstrates, however, shame was not merely the by-product of this synchronisation, nor was it merely an alibi for its operations. Rather, shame itself was at the system’s core. At the end of her first chapter, Hogan quotes Sister Goretti, an elderly nun, explaining that Irish families in earlier decades could not have borne “the burden of an unmarried woman and her child … because of the shame,” and responds with the question that will organise the book as a whole: “but where did the shame come from?” (10).

In her early chapters, Hogan identifies several tributaries that flowed into the shame-industrial complex, starting with a “narrative of the early decades of St. Patrick’s Guild,” founded in 1910 when a woman who ran a “home” for Protestant children in Dublin sought help from her neighbour, Mary Cruice, for “a young Catholic woman and her child.” Dublin diocesan archives suggest that Cruice was unable to find a Catholic organisation in Dublin “providing for ‘unwanted babies’” (11). This detail alone speaks volumes, since Catholic-run Magdalene laundries were already well-established, so that the absence of any arrangements for the infants of so-called penitents makes clear that their fate would have been dealt with on an ad hoc basis, with culturally normative outcomes ranging from infanticide to informal fosterage or adoption, and life trajectories for surviving infants ranging from remaining in the care of their extended family, to adoption, to institutionalisation. Thus, Cruice founded St. Patrick’s Guild to redress a pattern of infant abandonment and neglect that the Guild’s activities would serve to systematise and expand.

From the outset, Cruice’s organisation displayed many of the defining characteristics of what would become the shame-industrial complex. For instance, the Guild prioritised the physical restriction and cultural erasure of illicitly pregnant Irish Catholic women, some of whom were intercepted by a “network of informants” as they attempted to leave the country, and some of whom were captured in England and forcibly repatriated (14). These women’s infants seem to have remained an after-thought. They were put up for adoption, fostered out, or kept by Miss Cruice “until the child was three and could be committed to an industrial school” (16). Although the birth mothers (or their families) were obliged to pay for their child’s care, the range of outcomes—from de facto infanticide, to ad hoc fosterage, to adoption—remained the same. Perhaps unsurprisingly, rates of infant mortality remained high, and infant death was often owing to malnutrition (14). As Hogan traces strands of history littered with grim body counts, she repeatedly notes beliefs or attitudes rationalising or minimising the deaths of infants and children. In her account of the early years of St. Patrick’s Guild, for instance, she quotes a doctor’s complacent response to one year’s high mortality rates: “Our babies are of such a class as to be predestined to disease” (14).[2]

Having examined the founding of an early-twentieth-century Dublin Mother and Baby “Home,” Hogan reaches back into the more elusive origin of the embodied shame that both produced, and proliferated in response to, abuse and neglect in such post-Treaty institutions. She notes that Dublin’s “Foundling Hospital […] set up on the grounds of the House of Industry in Dublin,” over “a century before the Famine.” As with St. Patrick’s Guild, the central impetus of the Foundling Hospital was “saving illegitimate children from abandonment and infanticide” (20). In this instance, however, in addition to a staggering body count – in the decade from 1750 to 1760, “half of more than 7,000 babies admitted died in the institution” (30) – Hogan quotes a Victorian scholar describing the prevalence among the survivors of the Foundling Hospital he interviewed of a specific kind of shameful alienation that would become central to the workings of the shame-industrial complex. In an 1876 pamphlet on the history of the Foundling Hospital (which closed in 1835), William Dudley Wodsworth notes that these survivors all described a “feeling of painful wonderment and anxiety […] as to whom their parents might possibly have been” (29).

As Hogan’s informants repeatedly observe, children whose origins are obscured through some form of church/State intercession remain bereft of a fundamental sense of belonging, and thus of any secure identity. The prevalence of such systematically broken bonds in Ireland helps to explain where the personnel who ran the Irish shame-industrial complex came from. One woman who served as a nurse at Temple Hill, a mother and baby “home” that grew out of Saint Patrick’s Guild, contends that among the religious sisters she worked with from 1958-1987, there had not been a single “normal human being.” The sisters, as she puts it, “lacked that connection”- the capacity to empathise or connect with others – though she is not sure whether it was “beaten out of them or whether they never had it” (22). Hogan’s informant describes her uncertainty about whether the nuns’ lack of connection resulted from physical abuse, or whether this pathology might have been innate. Thus, she raises the possibility that the shameful alienation that ideally suited certain individuals for work in the shame-industrial complex may have been passed down intergenerationally in socially-sanctioned families once it was instilled into infants and children of earlier generations.

For the first dozen or so years following the 1992 Bishop Casey scandal, the paradigmatic abuses of the mid-century Irish church/State theocracy were identified almost exclusively as those directed toward those women who were deemed immoral or to pose a risk to public morality. This focalising of women as the paradigmatic subject of Irish church/State abuses makes sense, given the church’s moralising focus on adult women in their sexual and reproductive capacities (12). Yet, this focus renders obscure or easily forgotten a vast range of appalling and systemic abuses to which children, the poor, and the disabled have been and continue to be routinely subjected. Hogan’s holistic exploration of Ireland’s various church/State institutions from an array of angles helps to make more fully visible the ways in which sexual stigmatisation and abuse not only robbed women of their most fundamental humanity, but also became the basis for a far-broader somatisation of all children who could be deemed the product of a given woman’s immorality, even if the woman’s only “original sin” was poverty or independent thinking. Ideologically speaking, and crucially, this continuing fixation on women’s immorality afforded post-Treaty modernity with a license to disqualify parents and break up families at will, effectively neutralising the sense of self from which human social agency springs.

As the rate of Irish modernisation accelerated, sexual and moral shame increasingly legitimated the exercise of church/State control over infants, children, women, and thus over biological and ideological reproduction itself. The embodied shame the shame-industrial complex instilled in its inmates, in turn, pervasively shaped Irish subjectivity in a manner conducive to the system’s further growth. By Hogan’s account, Ireland’s shame-industrial complex not only produced, but was also the product of systematic, mass-scale (dis)placement of infants and children into foundling hospitals, workhouses, orphanages, foster care, and adoptive families. Her work affords a new frame of reference in which to view twentieth-century Ireland’s seemingly anomalous interlocking institutions by tracing their origins to earlier colonial institutions that coexisted alongside traditional belief systems and arrangements they would go on partly to absorb, and otherwise supplant. Thus, Republic of Shame represents a valuable opportunity to reconsider the role of institutional incarceration not only in modern Ireland, but, comparatively, in modernising societies around the world. Schematically, Hogan’s emphasis on the role of Ireland’s shame-industrial complex in radically and rapidly foreclosing ad hoc community arrangements for the care of displaced infants and children suggests a broader correlation between industrial capitalism’s sanctification of the heterosexual nuclear family, with its strong affective bonds, and the rise of modern institutional machinery prioritising the severance of every bond connecting mothers, parents, extended families, and communities to all infants deemed “unwanted.” Surely the connections between the widespread success of the heterosexual nuclear family, and of the modern ideologies that declared that family synonymous with morality, are worth reconsidering in light of the role played by institutionalisation in eradicating all viable pre-modern arrangements for the nurture of infants and children.

[1] Jim Smith’s term “architecture of containment” more or less coincides with Hogan’s “shame-industrial complex.” I use the term here, and look forward to using both terms in the future, because Hogan’s schematisation of Ireland’s institutions allows us to work in more nuanced ways back and forth between the material, economic architecture of these institutions and their affective, ideological infrastructure.

[2] Catholic church/State oversight of the Guild was formalised in 1943, when Mary Cruice transferred control of St. Patrick’s Guild to the Daughters of Charity, whose work with foundlings dates back to the seventeenth century France, when the order ran a home for babies abandoned on the streets of Paris (29).


Works Cited

Bourke, Angela (1995). “Reading a Woman’s Death: Colonial Text and Oral Tradition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland” Feminist Studies, 21 (3): 553-86.

Smith, James M. (2007). Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.