‘Closed doors, closed files, hard, closed hearts’

Home: Part One, a response to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (January 2021) produced by the Abbey Theatre, Ireland (March 2021). Reviewed by Jennifer O'Mahoney and Kate McCarthy.

Mother and Baby Homes were Catholic-run institutions in Ireland where unwed women were sent to deliver their babies. In 2015 the Irish government established the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes between 1922 (the formation of the Irish State) and 1998. In January 2021, the final report detailed that around 57,000 children were born into these institutions, 9000 of whom died.

The report has been profoundly criticised by survivors, voluntary organisations, and academics (amongst others) for being much too narrow in its remit to examine only a small number of institutions involved; for not accurately recognising the duress experienced by the women and children; and for downplaying the forced nature of the adoptions which took place in these institutions without the consent of birth mothers.

Silence, secrecy, and shame has kept many survivors of the Mother and Baby Homes silent for decades. Home: Part One produced by the Abbey Theatre in March 2021 creates a platform that invites a virtual audience to listen to the stories of survivors of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes. As the testimonies evidence, their stories have been suppressed by various institutional powers and their narrators obstructed from telling their stories via ‘closed doors, closed files, hard, closed hearts’ (Mary Coll, survivor) in order to maintain ‘the culture of silence in our society’ (Margaret Wouters, survivor).  

Described by the Abbey as ‘readings’, Home: Part One is a three-hour production that involves the reading of testimonies from survivors and witnesses by 51 actors and public figures. The excerpts are interspersed with other sources and documents. These readings are complemented by filmed portraits of five survivors, and live music by Mary Coughlan accompanied by Johnny Taylor. The concept for Home was developed by Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, Directors of the Abbey, in collaboration with artist and Mother and Baby Home survivor Noelle Brown who curated the event with support from a six-person editorial panel (including archivist Catriona Crowe and Conall Ó Fátharta who has written about Ireland’s Institutions for over a decade) and dramaturg Louise Stephens.

The minimalist production design foregrounds the words and experiences of survivors. Each reader is dressed in black everyday clothes, glancing, when necessary, to a grey page upon which each testimony is printed. The lighting is functional – readers are spotlit centre stage facing outwards towards the auditorium. The readers exit the stage after each testimony concludes. These staging choices remove any sense of illusion and allow for direct address to the audience, a crucial mode of address when orienting the audience into a different kind of listening that encourages critical, reflective thinking: ‘can you imagine how I felt?’ (Philomena Lee, survivor).  

In response to Philomena Lee’s question to the audience, a review of Home cannot be addressed by ‘How good is it?’, but, rather, ‘What effect does it have on you?’ Watching and listening to the survivors tell their experiences is difficult, but compelling. It is fitting that the readings were produced by Ireland’s national theatre and first streamed on the Abbey stage on St Patrick’s Day. Sharing testimonies on the stage of the national theatre demands the attention of the nation as listeners. In this way, Home reflects the symbiosis between psychology and theatre where the audience and performers attempt to delve into the ‘psychology’ of the storyteller. In a series of readings using the verbatim testimony of survivors, Home speaks truth to power, confronting existing power relations between the Irish State, Religious Orders, and our most vulnerable citizens, contesting a hidden history.

Reviewed by Jennifer O’Mahoney (Lecturer in Psychology) and Kate McCarthy (Lecturer in Drama), Waterford Institute of Technology

Home: Part One is available to stream for free until 17 July from www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats-on/home-part-one/ and it is also available in Irish Sign Language signed by Amanda Coogan.

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