Published: February 2020 by Hatchette Books Ireland
Category: Dual Timeline, Historical, Contemporary, Book Review
For almost fifty years, Katie Carroll has kept a box tucked away inside her wardrobe. It dates from her time working as a nurse in a west of Ireland mother and baby home in the 1960s. The box contains a notebook holding the details of the babies and young women she met there. It also holds many of the babies’ identity bracelets.
The Paper Bracelet is inspired by true events, namely the harsh way unmarried mothers were treated, not only in Ireland where this story is set, but further afield as well. For a long time nothing was known about the injustices and heartbreak women suffered in mother and baby homes, run by nuns for women, and sometimes including young abused girls, whose families didn’t want the shame or stigma of an unmarried and pregnant daughter. Rachael English tells this heartbreaking story extremely well and with empathy.
The story unfolds, alternating between ‘then’ and the young women, who are not even allowed to use their own names, in Carrigbrack, and ‘now’ when we meet Katie Carrol, a former nurse in the mother and baby home. ‘Patricia’ waits for the parish priest to transport her to the home, unaware of the fate that awaits her.
The questions, the looks zipping between her parents, her mother’s weeping, her father’s controlled fury; they’d all blurred together. She regretted not running away. She’d considered getting the bus and boat to London, but she knew no one there, and the few pounds she’d saved wouldn’t have lasted long.
Katie Carrol, nearing seventy, is grieving after recently losing her husband. She is at a loss what to do next as the friends and neighbours who have been there with help and support, move on with their own lives. Her niece, a box of tiny identity bracelets and a diary give her a purpose and a long overdue opportunity to help those adoptees who are interested in searching for their birth mothers.
That the story came from several perspectives—someone who worked in a mother and baby home, the mothers themselves as well as some of the children who were adopted—gives a rounded view of events and how they affected individuals. Treated like slaves by so called ‘Christian’ nuns, the women were forced into manual labour in the fields and back breaking work in a steaming laundry until they were about to give birth. To make a bad situation even worse, they had to stay at the home until they’d worked long enough to pay off their ‘debt’.
Even if a mother loved and wanted to keep her child, wishes and pleas were dismissed out of hand and children were taken forcibly and the mothers were warned of the legalities if they even attempted to find their children.
‘That’s a dangerous notion,’ said Agnes, a flare of anger in her voice, ‘and one you’d do well to forget. We can’t allow silly young girls to harm innocent children. As for earning a living: what respectable employer would give work to the mother of an illegitimate child? And what about the good Catholic couples who can’t have children of their own? Have you thought about them? Should they be made to suffer?’ She gave a brisk shake of her round head. ‘Tell me, where does a girl from a decent family hear such ludicrous ideas?’