This illustration was possibly one of the hardest ever for me to produce. It is not easy, specially working with a cheery, child-like style like mine, to create strong expressions of grief. But when Candlelit Tales approached me to illustrate a story about Brigid, I knew I was up to an artistic challenge as never before. Among other scenes, I was to illustrate Brigid inventing keening at the sight of her dead son’s body.
I had originally sketched Brigid crying in a very modern Western way, retreating into herself and covering her pain with her hands. But Aron Hegarty reminded me that the custom of keening was about showing the grief, displaying the pain, letting it be seen, unapologetically. And suddenly, I realised I was being asked to illustrate the pain of an Irish woman upon discovering that her son had been killed.
This was huge. “As a man, is it even appropriate for me to try and do this?”. Of course, I was thinking about that horrible chapter in Ireland’s history: The Mother and Baby Homes. That terrible, tragic time when an extremely corrupt political system allowed the unthinkable to be done to its own people. Like many other blow-ins, I was vaguely aware of the existence of the “Laundries”, and I had heard rumours of the horrors within, heard about the report, and about the outrage felt by so many of my sisters when they discovered that the government was diluting its own responsibility, putting it all down to “society being society”, oh well watch’a gonna do kind of way. But I hadn’t particularly dwelt on the topic either.
Not too sure what to do, I thought the responsible thing to do first would be to check in with an Irish Woman before attempting this. Happily enough, I had already crossed a few words here and there with someone who not only had worked for YEARS with the draíocht of Brigid, but was also at the fore-front of the fight for the recognition and remembrance of what actually went down in those horrific institutions, because her own story was intrinsically tangled with that dark aspect of Ireland. I am talking, of course, of the luminous Laura Murphy.
My conversation with Laura about this was an immediate understanding of intent and I felt instantly supported by her kind Self. Her magic mantra as Gaeilge, “Táim mo Chroí”, wrapped itself around me like a safety cloak, the wearing of which strengthened my trust and helped me believe I could actually pull it off. Her advice was very grounded: to responsibly, lovingly and carefully, try to summon that unspeakable grief onto myself. Like an actor preparing for a part, I decided to plunge myself into the myriad resources she kindly shared with me to imbue myself with information and impressions about the Mother and Baby homes. I am a man, we thought, so that affords a certain level of detachment. I am also a homosexual man, in touch with my feminine side, which may actually help me access deeper levels of empathy for the pains of my sisters than most of my heterosexual brothers; and maybe, if I survived the journey, bring forth something worthwhile, something healing.
To say the experience was jarring would be an understatement. When you spend time looking at a list of dead little baby names that seems endless, when you download the actual Report and read chunks of it, when you watch documentaries about it and see the look of disappointment in the eyes of the survivors when they say how nothing they shared about their own traumatic experiences had made it to the Commission’s Report, it takes a toll on you. To be faced with the stark reality of an evil system that went on for decades (the last institution to exist operated until well into the 1990’s) is never an easy thing to accept, especially for somebody like me who followed a Road of Rainbows and Jolly Shamrocks to live here from the other side of the world.
I am not writing this in order to linger in the horrors that I learned. All that information is there for whoever wants to find it, and people like Laura are hard at work producing cultural vessels through which this may be remembered. Rather, I want to highlight something extremely important that I learned through this experience: After I subjected my emotions to these feelings, after making myself aware of the level of evil that both the Irish State and Irish Church are capable of (it went so deep into me that I spent a full night literally sick to my stomach – vomiting for hours like a pregnant woman), I made it to the drawing board. This illustration up here is what came out.
Of course, like a proud Hero returning home from an intense dander through the Uncanny Valley, I showed the results of my exploration to Laura. She was extremely kind and pleased with the results of my work, but she also shared a poem of hers that stayed, and resonated, and opened up a whole new approach to the possible healing of the collective trauma of this country:
“OUR HEALING CAN COME
WHEN THE SUFFERING IS FELT
THROUGH THE HEART OF MAN”.
I don’t know if many other lads out there can really get the power of these words without having had some similar experience to mine, but to me, her words hit the nail precisely on the head. It has nothing to do with eye for an eye, it has nothing to do with making Men suffer needlessly, or revenge. But it is about compassion. It is about the willingness to share the load. It is about recognising that it was the women being put to work in inhumane conditions for the crime of becoming pregnant (not to mention having their babies taken away), not the men. It was onto them that the horror and shame of a sick, tired people was projected.
It is about us Men finding a way to UNDERSTAND and FEEL what is was for the Women. It is our responsibility as well to help clear this trauma, and accept our part in the machinery that allowed for something like this to happen. To ensure that never again na Mná na hÉireann (or na mná na domhan, for that matter) are made to feel lesser, or ruined, or shamed, for being who they are.
The Mother and Baby homes is a sickening aspect of Ireland’s story. But I for one, and especially as an immigrant, am extremely grateful to the Goddess for guiding me towards a better understanding, and feeling, of it. I cannot choose to only dwell in the fairy, light aspects of this island. I have chosen to re-root my life here, and thus I must choose every single aspect of it. The rainbows and fairies, but also the misery and the needless spill of innocent blood in the most cruel of ways. Only then do I have any hope of actually impacting anything, of contributing to this wonderful Island of Greens and Reds, of doing my bit to clean as much or as little of the shit around me as I can.
Thank you, Goddess, for allowing my Male heart to be a vessel through which even a tiny bit of healing can come through for the Feminine. Thank you, Ireland, for this lesson.
Táim mo Chroí
Táim i mo Chroí
Tá mo Chroí oscailte.