Season 5 Episode 2 ‘Breaking Secrets and Silence’
What happens when your private family story, your deepest secret, is also a national secret of shame and silence? Caelainn Hogan author of the ground-breaking ‘Republic of Shame’ is the guest of Panti Bliss in this episode and she’s joined by singer Jess Kavanagh, whose mum was born, black Irish, in a mother and baby home, and film-maker Paul Duane, who was himself born in Sean Ross Abbey, the home depicted in the film ‘Philomena’.
Welcome to Pantisocracy. And this is your host, Miss Panti Bliss.
Well, hello and welcome to Pantisocracy. My little parlour of conversations and song.
And for those of you who haven’t been with us from the beginning. Welcome. Where have you been? And yes, Pantisocracy is a real word. You can look it up. It means a society of equals.
And I guess in a way, that’s what we’ve been trying to fashion here. A soiree, a place where we can all come together, even in these Covid 19 times and share stories with and about contemporary Ireland.
So today I have got three good people with me, a writer, a filmmaker and a singer of songs in a show that we’re calling Breaking Secrets and Silence. But perhaps there’s another “S” in there too, shame.
And it’s been inspired by powerful book by my guest, Caelainn Hogan, called Republic of Shame, about the stories behind Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes.
And with Caelainn are two folk who I got to hear about through the book, singer Jess Kavanagh, whose mum was born mixed race in one such place. And film maker Paul Duane, who was himself born in the Sean Ross Abbey Home, a place featured in the film Philomena.
But before we get into all of that, first of all, I’d like to take the floor and say something because I can. You know, queer people like me, well, we tend to have a lot of experiences in common. It’s one of the things that makes it possible to forge a community from a disparate group of people that in so many other ways are often the unlikeliest of comrades. Some of these common experiences are painful ones. You know, the kind that leave a lifelong mark on you, a stubborn stain.
And we recognize that stain on each other because we have that one, too. And these marks, well, they cut across all other boundaries, boundaries of class, age, education, income, culture, language, you know, boundaries that might otherwise keep us apart.
It’s why the two old pals propping up the bar in any gay bar are just as likely to be a barrister from Killiney and a plasterer from Dolphins’ Barn as they are to be two dentists from Trim, God forbid. One of those painful experiences, one that pretty much all queer people go through, and indeed some never escape, is one that we tried to make light of by giving it a harmless, almost silly sounding name, The Closet.
Being in the closet isn’t silly and isn’t harmless. It’s lonely and torturous. It’s an existential crisis, you know, usually landed on people who are way too young for existential crises. No one escapes the closet unmarked, but some don’t survive it at all. They can’t live in it, but they fear coming out of it so powerfully that they can’t imagine living outside of it either. So they decide to do neither. The closet is built of shame and held together by secrets, a brutal and sometimes lethal combination and a heavy one.
Secrets and shame weigh heavily down on you constantly, never getting lighter and you never get a rest. Because that’s the thing about secrets. They’re patient. They will wait and they wait for you to relax because that’s when you let your guard down and something slips out. Secrets and shame have all the time in the world.
So they’ll keep waiting. Five years, ten years, 50 years, a whole lifetime spent on edge, afraid to relax, never letting your guard down. I hated the closet, too, because it was turning my family into acquaintances. I find myself lying to them about tiny things and about big things. And I was keeping a fundamental part of myself hidden from them. It was getting so that they didn’t know me anymore. They only knew a fake facsimile of me and keeping up that facsimile was exhausting, so I let them know me.
Years later, I was diagnosed with HIV and it was at a time when everyone was absolutely terrified of people with HIV. They thought they’d catch it and die if they so much as past you in the street. And it was a shock, you know, the diagnosis. Ten minutes after I’d left the doctor’s office, I told two friends about it. Then I told all my other friends about it. And soon I’d told everyone except my parents.
I waited about a year until I had learned everything there was to know about HIV at the time before I told them so that I could answer any and all questions they might have. Occasionally, someone will accuse me of bravery. It was brave of me to be so open about living with HIV right from the start, and at that time.
But they give me much more credit than I deserve because I wasn’t being brave. I have a big mouth, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep the secret anyway. But I was also just doing what I knew I had to do to survive. Thankfully, I hadn’t spent very long in the closet. But it was long enough to know that I didn’t want to go back and I couldn’t go back. And I didn’t want to turn my family into acquaintance’s again.
And when you’ve just been diagnosed with HIV in 1995, you need your family. Thank you.
So welcome all, and I guess one of the things that we are going to explore here today is the power of secrets to silence us. And in a way, how it’s often shame that keeps those secrets locked up. And, you know, I have my own experience with those things. But, Caelainn, what brought you to the book in the first place?
I started reporting this in 2017, which was this really pivotal time. It was a few years after the marriage equality referendum. It was looking ahead to the referendum on repeal. And all these stories were coming to the surface about how the church and state had treated women in Ireland over the years, how pregnant women had been treated.
And I knew about the Magdalene Laundries growing up, in a sort of distant, vague way. But I’d never spoken to anyone who had firsthand experience. So I began to talk with people who were survivors of the institutions. And as soon as I did, I realized how close to home it was. I had friends whose mothers were born in the institutions, who were adopted from them themselves. And it was my generation who was actually affected by these institutions.This was something.
Some of these stories are kind of wild. And now in retrospect, it just seems hard to imagine that it’s not that long ago. And Jess, your story is pretty wild. Do you wanna tell us about that?
Yeah. Yeah. So I found this out when I was about 13. That my very overly affectionate grand aunt, was actually my grandmother. And so what had happened is that my biological grandmother had fallen pregnant, as they used to say.
I love that expression as if she tripped and fell on a penis.
And it was completely only her fault. But yeah so she had become pregnant and the child was mixed race and she was sent to the country, which we found out, Caelainn had helped me find out, was in Castle Pollard in Westmeath.
And what year was this roughly?
My mother was born in 1956, so we’re talking 1955 or so. And so her sister at the time kicked up a big fuss like, you know, you can’t do this. You know, this is a member of our family. And, you know, it was also the 1950s and she was a woman, so nobody listened to her. And so what she did is that she became very close to ringing her sister kind of almost every couple of days and became very close to the nuns as well within Castle Pollard.
And she was married as well. So it was kind of perceived as she was kind of this kind of good, God fearing, kind of married sister who was kind of ringing her, you know, sister every day to make sure she was all right.
Checking up on the fallen sister.
Indeed. Yeah. Yes, exactly. And what she was actually doing was she was gaining intel from the nuns to find out where my mam was being sent to after she was being born. So she found out. Now, once again, these are all stories and it’s all hushy and whatever else. But as far as I know, my mother was then sent to Blackrock, and she adopted my mother directly out of that place.
Yes. So the that gets a little complicated when you hear that story. So your great aunt adopted your mother.
Yes. So, yeah. So it’s quite complicated. So basically what happened is that her sister adopted the baby back into the family because she was married and she could. So my Nana Betty, I found out, was actually my grand aunt, and my grand aunt, Auntie Kay, was actually my grandmother.
And the whole family knew the truth.
And was that truth hidden from your mother as she was growing up or?
As far as I know, my mam didn’t find out until she was fifteen. Yeah. So it was very much hidden. It was very like. Yeah. We didn’t talk about it. And there was a lot of secrets and there was a lot of, you know, well look, that happened and that’s done and that’s in the past and nobody speaks about it. But it was very interesting as a young child growing up with a mother who was black, aunties and uncles who were black and then having like white grandparents. I’m kind of are they expecting me not to
Yes. How did they explain that away? Yeah.
Oh, yeah. They kind of just expected me not to ask questions, which I thought was really funny. And when I began to write this poem for Caelainn’s book launch. One of the first things that kind of came to mind was kind of, I used to go to Mass with my Nana Betty. And I remember being in the back of the car and kind of like piping up in this rare like, I have a fact and I’m a child, being like I found out mammy was adopted and she just swung back and she was just like, why did she tell you that?
You know, and I immediately I was like, oh, no, I’m in trouble. I shouldn’t know this. You know but she, even at that age and even though it was obvious that my mother was adopted, she didn’t want us to know and she didn’t want us to discuss this.
Well, that whole thing of, you know, sisters being mothers and that all being a sort of an open but hidden secret is actually much more common than I ever realized. And one of my best friends, when he was 16, found out his sister was his mother. And the whole street knew but they always just kept a secret from him. Yeah, it’s amazing.
Extremely common.Yeah. Way more common than I expected. And obviously I’ve told this story a couple of times, and there’s still guilt there for even saying the story, especially because my mother and my grandmother have passed away. So I don’t necessarily have there like official thumbs up or whatever, but there’s still that kind of shame and that secrecy around it. And if it’s okay for me to discuss it but, and I have discussed it with people, a lot of people come up and go, oh yeah, I’ve heard actually a friend of mine or your sister or a friend or yeah. Quite common.
Yeah. And because your grandmother, she was sort of facing this double whammy of shame, really, because not only was she pregnant outside of marriage, but it was also mixed race. And at the time, although actually through doing the show I found out that if you were a foreign man that came to Ireland before 1965, you were having a good time. They were very popular.
Yeah, I’ve heard bits and bobs like from my perspective of my family I know that, who I would call my Auntie Kay, she moved back to England. And I think that’s a very common thing for people who had mixed race families or had interracial relationships. They didn’t stay in Ireland because there wasn’t a society that welcomed it. And so a lot of them did move. And it’s kind of one of the reasons why I had a bit of an issue with over the last couple years as I do kind of new Ireland.
Like absolutely it’s great that we have more an accepting for people of color and black people. But there is a huge generation of mixed race people who are my mother’s age, you know, who didn’t feel accepted. And so therefore they relocated, you know, or alternatively, they didn’t survive in the mother and baby homes.
Yes. Well, it’s so clouded and shrouded in so many layers of guilt and shame. To do with sex and race and all this. You mentioned the poem that you wrote for Caelainn’s book launch. And you’re gonna do that for us. What’s the poem called?
The poem is called Four Girls in Blue. Four girls in blue faced four girls more and they shifted their shoes on a parquet floor. We ditched our classes, a laborious tomb to think of our future in assembly room. Two girls spoke of hostels where you go hang with boys. Two spoke of old women left with old toys. Now I wanted the fields where I got up to no good. Not a place with the auld ones where High Park stood
And the girls said it’s basically like hanging out with your friends. The old women are confused and they think they’re young again. If you bring them your makeup, your magazines and games, they think they’re like you, they think they’re the same.
Now, I was cursed with youth in my family we’re crippled with young deaths around me. I knew no elderly people. When I was 15, I thought maybe it’s normal to believe you’re a teenager it’s elderly turmoil. But it haunted me. And the story hung on from 15 to 33, a story 18 years strong. You see, I believe we are cells, a network of ancestral info and the story hit the bank in my brain and didn’t let go. Like stories of my Nana working as a cook in a laundry where she smuggled in booze, cigarettes and maybe money.
My Nana, who would stand up to a nun’s violent throttle, she kept St Bernadette’s Halo on a blue water bottle. She ran away from home before her church bells sang to the Isle of Man with a motorbike gang. Her sister Kay moved to England so she’d be a nurse and dated a black man.
To our family she was cursed, with a child unwanted a child out of wedlock and she’d be sent to the country developmental deadlock. Even now, I have nightmares of being abandoned, alone in some woods this pain transcended. When I was 13, I found my mother’s birth cert and I read out my grandmother’s name and my mam’s voice, curt said, Jess have a fucking think for a second what is Cathleen short for? Think of a nickname.
What are you staring at me for. Cathy, baby? I was bashful and ashamed and I wasn’t smart as my mammy. Insensitive to blame.
She shouted Kay, Jess. Auntie Kay is what’s written. Why do you think she loved you? She was smitten. So you see. Motorbike granny, My Nana Betty went behind her family’s back, adopted her sister’s baby. Then her and her husband, fearing my mam would feel left out adopted three other mixed race kids in 1960s Beaumont. Liz, Susan, Dermott Junior and Anna. I still have three, but not my mother. But, fuck me you should be there when the cousins scattered and afar, get drunk together, all beige and ambiguous. And we wonder what the fuck we are.
Padre Pio and rosaries and four black children, malevolence, generosity wielded the DNA of my family. Tragedy and circumstance, survivor mode, a state of mind an unshook permanence. Inherited anxiety, inherited rage, inherited rebellion, inherited wisdom and sage. Inherited connection to the women left behind in High Park with survivors skin and a teenage mind to a system against them, to a system, we are told that’s finished, irrelevant, but we know unresolved to the most powerful man in our state unable to spit an apology for families unstable.
To the girls in blue and to the women in black. To the women who still wake up feeling attacked. Know your sisters are close and we hold you while you sleep. That the known and the unknown, the memories we keep. And we will always hold you. We will hold your space for healing and love for peace and grace. And when those parquet floors are gone, I will sing our song. In my DNA, I know something went wrong and that will always drive me to do what’s right to the white, black, brown and blue girls. We have been born to fight.
That’s so powerful, wonderful, I think. Yes. Come on, back down. Join us. Relax. Put your feet up.
The thing about the whole, you know, what Mary McAleese called the architecture of shame. And Caelainn, you’ve described it so beautifully in similar terms. Is that I have discovered that it has touched nearly every Irish person in some way and me too in a small way.
When I was 17 in my first year in college with you, Paul, you know, my friend from home fell pregnant and she came and stayed with me for a short while in Dun Laoghaire and then she went to a mother and baby home and I went on the bus to the mother and baby home with her and left her there feeling really just devastated.
But it’s a complicated thing for me and here’s the other thing about this, we’re still friends, is that we have basically never spoken about it afterwards. I mean, I visited her there a few times and then we just never talked about it again.
And it has stayed with me all my life. I think about it, but it’s a complicated feeling for me because at the time we didn’t see the mother and baby home as some terrible institution that was going to do her wrong.
We saw it as a saviour because she was hiding it because of her father, who was a notorious man of temper and all that stuff.
So I have complex feelings about that in my life. Now, Paul, you know, I just touched off it along the way in my life. But your life began in this. Like, what are your feelings?
It’s very hard for me to know exactly what my feelings are about it because I didn’t experience it firsthand. My experience of it has been through talking to my birth mother.
So what is your story?
Well, I was adopted and I think probably unofficially and not through a kind of an agency or whatever. I think it was done through, you know, priests or connections. And I knew it, you know, but it was done in a very positive way. I mean, I was brought up knowing I was adopted. My parents, my adoptive parents were extremely kind and thoughtful and supportive. But it was always just this question mark you know.
And as I got older, I began to attempt to fill in the blank. And every attempt I made, I think I started when I was about 30. Every attempt I made was rebuffed. Just went into a vacuum.
Rebuffed where or by who?
Well, I didn’t know it was done through what’s now Tusla. But it was then I can’t remember the name it was a different agency. Because there was no there still is, I think, no active way for an adopted person to find their birth parents without their birth parents coming to find them or meeting them halfway. It’s still not allowed. So I was making the attempt and I kept trying. And I think over a period of almost 20 years, I kept trying sporadically, but having almost given up hope.
And finally I managed to make contact. But before that I actually, to backtrack a bit, I’d actually gone to the records office down beside Burdock’s in the liberties where they keep all the birth certs, because I’d been told, you know, everybody’s birth cert is in there. You’ve got to look for one with your birth date with only a mother’s name. And I knew my birth mother’s first name. So I sat there for, like, two days and went through, like, something out of, you know, an old private eye movie, took down these big books and went through them with a ruler looking, you know, through every single birth on my birth date until I found the one that matched what I knew.
And then I found out I was born in Sean Ross Abbey.
Was that heart stopping?
It was, yeah. I still have my photocopy of my birth search on my wall at home. You know, it’s got a wrong name which when I show’d it to my birth mother she said that’s a name I never would have given you. I think it might’ve been assigned by the nuns or whatever.
And did you immediately recognize Sean Ross?
I knew what it was. I mean, the film Philomena is based around, you know, the famous Philomena story was all based around there. And it actually met Philomena at the IFTAS. I had no idea at that point that there was that connection between us, that my birth mother and her were both in the same place and probably roughly at the same time. Although I don’t know when, maybe a bit before.
And how long from finding the birth cert to actually getting in contact with your birth mother.
Very soon after, but there was no connection it was just that the breakthrough happened. It turned out that the problem was that my birth mother had was in a relationship, was married and didn’t dare rock the boat. I mean, her husband knew, but. So her circumstances have changed. She was basically able to contact me without fear of upsetting, rocking the boat at home. And she did. And it was an extraordinary experience. But one of the things about it was just getting the blow by blow account from her of what exactly it was like to enter the mother and baby home at the age of I think she was 17 or 18.
And she’d very innocently had a holiday fling working in a holiday job when she’d just left school with a chap who was slightly older than her. Neither of them having the slightest idea of sex education, what was going on. And heartbreakingly, she said she was just craving affection. She just was never hugged, was never held, was never, you know.
And so it was a huge thing for her to fall in love for the first time. And then from that, a couple of months later, to being driven to the door of the mother and baby home by her enraged father and left there to give birth. And as she told it, without anesthetic or medical attention, and she had an epileptic seizure in the middle of giving birth. And it was deliberately enforced, that treatment was enforced to teach her a lesson, that was the way that she phrased it to me.
The girl’s maternity was used against them to inflict pain and suffering on them, to show them not to do this again. And, you know, the most heartbreaking thing was that she suffered from survivor’s guilt all these years because she was able to walk out the door. She didn’t have to stay.
How long was she there?
Only a matter of a couple of months, I think, you know. But I mean, the term generally was much longer than that wasn’t it, women who went in there who were working class, were expected to work.
That’s one of the interesting things, because your mother was from a middle class background and I don’t know whether the family paid money or but she was treated differently because of her class background.
She said that because her parents had a business the nuns treated her as a respectable girl, you know, and she saw all the other women in there, the young women, and knew that they were going to be there for maybe the rest of their lives. And also they were compelled to look after their children to the age of two in most cases, I mean, you know, before they were taken. So she didn’t have to. I mean, it was traumatic, very traumatic for her.
She gave me up at, you know, a week old or whatever. But the idea of having to look after a child you’d given birth to until they were two years old and then give them up. It’s sadistic, you know. So, yeah, I mean, the whole thing shook me quite a lot. And the fact that she was so, it left such a scar on her that she spent the rest of her life trying to make up for it and for years kept a room in her house where she put up young women who were hiding it from their parents, basically who pretended they were away in England working were as they were actually coming to term and giving up a child and then they’d be able to go home without having, you know.
So she kept this room where these women, again I’m conflicted about it because this is the Catholic Church doing this. They were bringing these girls to her and they were then allowed to. But it was better in her mind. It was better than consigning them to a home, you know. So she spent a lot of time kind of almost making up for it, and she had nothing to make up for, for God’s sake. But it was just this guilt.
But so her other family still don’t know. So you’re in this kind of weird position where you know about half siblings and.
Well, you get the thing is, it brings home the double standard very strongly, because when I contacted, I was able to find out my birth father’s circumstances from my birth mother. He’s unfortunately dead. But I contacted his family and they were delighted because in a way, to be the father of an unwanted, illegitimate child or whatever is not as bad as being the mother.
So I was totally accepted and introduced to everybody in their family, whereas on my birth mother’s side, the shame exists, you know. She’s 70 odd now, you know, and she’s still scared to admit that she had this indiscretion, this kind of mistake in her youth that, you know, cause she’d lose face with other members of her family.
Yes, incredible. It’s really embedded deep.
Caelainn how common is this kind of story?
So common. There are so many women in Ireland who are keeping these secrets. And I think the weight of those secrets, it just is such a burden for people to carry. Keeping it secret from their own families, from their husbands, and the fear of it being found out. And I think, you know, it’s the fear of people finding out that they had a baby, that they, you know, had sex outside of wedlock.
It’s some people still feel the shame imposed on them from that. But also I think now I think there’s a feeling as well of, you know, well, I haven’t searched for my child, if women haven’t, you know will people judge me for that? How can they understand that I’ve kept a child secret all this time? And I think, you know, anyone I’ve talked to who has told their family, who has broken that silence, is often met with love and understanding, especially from their own children.
I think our generation has been talking about this and understanding it more, but there just are so many people who are still in silence and keeping it a secret.
Well, because it’s funny, this is going to sound unrelated, but what I’m a very keenly aware of. So I’ve been HIV positive since 1995 and I’ve been open about it since then. And at that time, people were terrified of you.
And every time I speak about being HIV positive in a public, like on the radio or something, I know that for the next few weeks I’m going to start getting emails and they’re from people who are down in Cahersiveen or Ballyhaunis or whatever, and they’re living with HIV and they’ve never told a single soul.
Nobody just they and the doctor know and nobody else. Never told a family member, never told a friend, never told a member of they’re football team or their choir they sing in or whatever. And this weighs it’s like a tonne on them. And it’s something that I treat so lightly, if I take this pill every day I can get on with my life and I don’t even think about it. But to them is this giant millstone. And it’s killing them, you know.
There was one woman I spoke to recently who I think she is in her early 80s, and she became pregnant by sexual assault, she was raped. And she has never spoken about it with her friends or anyone she knows. And she’s quite a religious woman. So she would have a church group. She’d go to church and she’d hear people from church talk about how the mother baby homes, oh, it’s all the media, oh it’s not true, you know, women were treated fine.
She was sent Sean Ross Abbey actually, and had to stay there quite a long time and has reconnected with her child but keeps it secret. And you just could feel the pain of it, you know, of people within her own church group telling her, oh, this is lies, they’re just they’re against religion, they’re against the church. And she’d experienced that herself.
And I think there’s so many people who are going through that. And neighbors keeping secrets from themselves and secrets kept within families. It’s had a huge impact on our society. I think the addiction rates in Ireland are a direct result of that institutionalization, that shame and that secrecy, it really is something we’re still working through today.
Yeah because one of the things that I’m constantly struck by is that how pervasive it was. And there’s a tendency, I think people say, oh, it was them, they did it, but everyone was involved in some way.
I think it’s so hard, though, for people in my generation to understand the power of the church at the time, the lack of choice. You know, and I think, you know, speaking with my friend, a lot of that coercion was more subtle than just having babies ripped from mother’s arms, which did happen. But it was this idea that they were selfish to keep their children and people internalize that shame. Mothers internalize that.
And I mean, it was just it was a system from the industrial schools to the magdalene laundries, the mother and baby homes, and it was often generational. So you’d speak with people whose mother had been born in a mother and baby home. They maybe weren’t adopted, sent to an industrial school and then, you know, came out at 16 as a young woman with no knowledge of their own bodies or sex education and would quickly get pregnant, and would be sent through the same institutional system.
It was cultural rather than purely religious in the sense that, you know, for example, my friend, her father was not a religious man, but he would have beaten her black and blue if he found out because it was the cultural shame of it, you know.
Jess. I want to talk to you a bit about your music and especially because you weren’t aware as a kid that you were mixed race in a sense because people didn’t tell you. Even though it must have been obvious but you know when you’re a kid. So, in a way, you came to that a little later in life but it’s very much part of the music you make and the sound.
I think for me, really what it was is I grew up with a diet of soul music because that’s what my mam listened to. My mam was big into her music. Also, my mam used to work in The Purty Kitchen and then after she worked at The Purty Kitchen, she worked in Whelan’s.
So I grew up in that scene, you know, when I was younger. So obviously my man knew Thin Lizzy and, you know, Phil I think hung out with my uncle and so on.
So music was always a big part of my life. And when I started singing, though, I noticed that my voice was soulful. Now, I would have gone to all the kind of gigs when I was, you know, 15. But a lot of the time in the early 2000s it was skinny white guys, you know, and that was the vibe, do you know what I mean. And so I was kind of getting up and I was like, this isn’t working for me.
And so I grew up with, like Aretha Franklin and I grew up with like listening to kind of classic soul music, but then big into like Erykah Badu and big into Janelle Monáe and kind of neo soul.
Your mother so she was half Nigerian. And she died in?
In 2006. I was 20.
And around that time, you were, in a sense, exploring that part of your identity.
Very much so.
And there’s a lovely thing about you trying to get your mother to go and get her hair braided.
That’s right. So it’s kind of it’s very bittersweet for me because now we’re looking at a Dublin and an Ireland that’s very different. That’s a lot more multicultural. We have a very strong black community and people of colour. And, you know, my mom was beginning to start to get a bit like, I might get some dreads, you know, and we were like yeah mam do let’s get you some dreads. You know what I mean.
And she was thinking about doing things that were kind of embracing her ethnicity. And we were really, really encouraging that. And then the knock on effect is I was very much embracing my ethnicity, but as a white passing, mixed race person, that was kind of treated a lot differently. That was like ah you’re showing off. And it’s like, well, no, I’m not showing off your kind of showing that you see blackness as a commodity so that’s your problem.
Do you know what I mean, like, this is me embracing the fact that I am, you know a person of colour. That my mother is mixed race. That my grandfather is Nigerian and I’m proud of that lineage. And it’s very much in the music that I write. And I hope in the way that I carry myself and the communities that I navigate within.
But was that a very you were consciously exploring that part of your identity or it just sort of happened through the music?
It was a mix of both for sure. What I would have gotten growing up, when I started in the industry, I would have had people come up to me after a gig and say, do you realize that you sound like a black person?
And they’d always come down in volume when they get to that bit. You sound like a black person.
And I’d kind of look at them and I’d be like, you know, sweaty and just off stage and I’d be like, yeah, yeah, my mom’s black. And then they’d kind of laugh and they wouldn’t know if it was a joke or not. And then I’d, you know, very quickly try and leave.
But it was a relatively regular thing, that I would have gotten. But I feel like when I went to London or when I go to the States, it’s just easy. People are like, oh, yeah you’re black, you know, and they just get, you know, they see light skinned, mixed race people a lot more. So I did immediately feel a lot more accepted. I’ve definitely found as I’ve gotten older, I have curated my community of people who are close to me and I have a lot more people of colour in my life, a lot more queer black people in my life. And that has allowed me to navigate those spaces in a way where I feel safer and more myself for sure.
And it’s an interesting time to be getting into all that because you know the Black Lives Matter and all of that.
Caelainn is it true that if you were pregnant with a mixed race baby, that you were really treated worse than someone who isn’t?
There was a double shame. You know, I spoke to a woman who was sent to the biggest mother and baby home in Ireland, St. Patrick’s in Dublin. And she was pregnant with, you know, a mixed race child. And it was this extra shame and it was very difficult as well, I think, for mixed race Irish children, because especially in the early years, they tended not to be adopted and many were institutionalized for years. So Rosemary Adaser, Association of Mixed Race Irish, who, you know, really fought.
There’s obviously a commission of investigation into these institutions. She fought for, you know, discrimination on the basis of race to be investigated. And that’s also discrimination against the travelling community as well. I spoke with people who were in the institutions and nuns would tell them, you know, we going to beat the traveller out of you type thing.
So it was, you know, discrimination was endemic in the institutions. And many mixed race Irish children were sent to the industrial schools, institutionalized for their whole childhood. And often then the minute they got out of those institutions just left Ireland because they thought they could never have a sense of equality or freedom because of what had been beaten into them in those institutions, so many left to the UK. And I think that was this form of erasure.
You know, we just weren’t aware of mixed race Irish people in the 50s, 60s. It erased a whole community and that was deliberate. That’s why there was this system of secrecy and institutionalization was to hide anyone who didn’t meet that ideal of what was Irish.
And you’ve actually talked very powerfully about that, growing up and feeling because you were gay, because those institutions were built to keep that definition of Irishness narrow. And we’re finally expanding it and embracing a much more inclusive.
Until the sort of late 80s, when then every mixed race Irish person was thrust onto television.
Now Paul, you’re probably very lucky to be adopted seeing as you’re ginger. (Laughter)
That is a terrible thing to say. My hair used to be auburn.
Listen I’m part of that, oh no it’s auburn, crew too. Yeah in the summer, my hair goes auburn.
I’ve been asked whether I identify as ginger before and I choose not to.
You create your own identity.
Paul, I was looking at you and I was like, I hope when I’m a big girl my hair looks like yours. It’s gonna be very similar to yours I think. We both have the grey streaks.
Paul so your films, I don’t want to throw them all into one, but they often focus on sort of outsiders or nuts.
Yeah. Grumpy old men I’ve read them described.
It’s a bit unfair. But do you think that your background has in some way played into your artistic endeavours in that way?
Possibly. I mean, you know, there may be some sense of I mean. My first film was about John Healy, the London-Irish wino, ex wino. Became a chess champion and a bestselling author and all that kind of stuff. And there was a few times where people said, you know, he looks a lot like you could be your dad.
But there was a certain odd resemble and weird fact is that his sister had given a child up for adoption. And at one point, I did think, hang on, maybe. Could that be. But it obviously wasn’t. But, you know, maybe there’s a sort of a father figure thing going on there. I don’t know.
Because I read a thing where you had said in a way you never really felt, you know, Ireland was home, a feeling that I could identify with at certain times. And but that it’s only recently since the sort of repeal and these kinds of things that you’ve begun to feel a sense of Ireland as home in a way that you hadn’t before. And well explain that to me.
I think growing up in the 80s, it was. I’m currently working on a project that’s set in the 60s in Ireland and it resembles a lot Eastern Europe, it resembles East Germany, when you look at it, it’s just that you swap out the communists for the Catholic Church, the same kind of authoritarianism, the greyness and the conformity was there. And I think growing up in that world, I felt very much like I didn’t fit. And it wasn’t a simple thing of identity. It just didn’t suit me.
And I think for a long time I found my place , I mean, I moved to London and ended up living in Soho and found that a very interesting place to be.
But, you know, coming back to Ireland, my timing was immaculate, I returned to Ireland in 2007. But I do find that there has been something very interesting that’s happened since then. And a lot of the people that I kind of admire and find interesting culturally now are people who grew up after the Celtic Tiger and who grew up in a world where they couldn’t expect kind of anything really. And they’ve created their own kind of culture and they’ve created their own world. And I find myself much more drawn to that Ireland than I was to what was there before.
Well, what I do enjoy about this moment, post all that stuff is, there is a feeling now that change is possible and that young people feel that. Because I think during the Celtic Tiger young people were only interested in drinking Bacardi Breezers and bars with glass tabletops. You know what I mean? And you couldn’t get them to care about anything. And now it seems like young people spend every weekend out protesting and marching and it’s brilliant to see. That’s a big change.
It’s great though because, I mean, in the 80s, I was a big fan of, like, there was all this kind of political stuff happening in the U.K. with Red Wedge and, you know, groups that were, Rock against Racism. There was a huge amount of cultural involvement in politics which then fell away posts, you know, the kind of Thatcher era and all that. And I don’t think really ever existed in Ireland.
I mean, we had Self Aid and things like that, but it was very tepid, you know? I don’t think the culture really engaged with politics.
But we’re not very demonstrative in many ways unless we’re drunk or at a funeral, you know. Even our Catholicism was quite, you know, we were never evangelicals. That’s embarrassing to us or something.
And I mean something else, when Jess was talking earlier on I was thinking, I mean, when during the 80s, like The Commitments was a big thing. And I always felt very uncomfortable with that kind of appropriation of black. And I kind of wondered whether that was something that, you know, you kind of had to overcome or felt that it kind of impinged on your love of soul music.
I loved The Commitments growing up because I felt seen because I was like I wanted to play soul music. And so that was the first thing I got. Do you know what I mean. But I was young and I was innocent and I didn’t realize that Otis Redding existed. And so I moved on from that very quickly.
But now Jess I can’t help noticing that you are sitting there wearing your more blacks, more dogs, more Irish t-shirt. And you were wearing that same T-shirt on the Black Lives Matter protest and Caelainn I believe you were also
I was covering it. Yeah.
So you were there in a professional capacity. But that is interesting because first of all, I think the fact that there are enough people in Ireland who care about black lives at all is a sign of how Ireland has changed. We didn’t know anything about black lives. You know, when I was a kid, they were only people on the TV or something. That’s an interesting change.
And then, that is also tied in with this whole idea of change is possible. Young people feel they can change things cause they have.
And people feel like they could speak finally. There was just so much silence, you know. People were scared of what their neighbors, terrified of what their neighbors would think.
So many people said that to me. You know, I was sent to an institution because people were terrified of what the neighbors would say. We’re now trusting each other and speaking to each other. And stories are emerging and surfacing. And we’re also, like, proud to be Irish in a new way I think, you know. There was so much shame around, you know, in our society for so long.
And I think young people are finally reclaiming that pride in Irishness. And it’s a brilliant, inclusive, bold new identity.
Well, I honestly didn’t like being Irish when I was young. I remember working in Tokyo in my early 20s and was St. Patrick’s Day, which is nothing in Japan, absolutely nothing, but a group of Irish people we’re coming to the club that I was working and I went around to every staff member and went, do not tell them I’m Irish.
Because I didn’t want to have the oh well you’re from wherever because I felt no connection to them. Now, that has changed and now I’m delighted to be Irish. But, you know, at that time, I was sort of ashamed of it.
What I have found to be really beautiful about the Black Lives Matter movement in Ireland is that it has begun, not begun, but it has amplified the discussion in regards to to mixed race Ireland, you know, because there has been that, well Irish people aren’t racist, you know, we don’t have systemic racism in Ireland. And people are like, well, actually, no, we did and we did as far back as the mother and baby homes.
So this is the systemic you know, this is the system even that also was facilitating this kind of eradication of mixed race Irish kids. And so that has been there. And it still is there, you know, and now we have direct provision, you know, and the way that these these people are being treated in direct provision. So it’s allowing those platforms to be discussed in a really important way and I’m very, very grateful for that.
I imagine somebody in 20 years will be writing, you know, another version of the Republic of Shame about the direct provision system.
Well, this is a beautiful Segway into, Jess, the song you’re going to do for us. It is a Hozier song.
Because you have worked with Hozier and toured with his as a backing singer and weirdly, I have a weird little connection with this song because I am in the video.
You’re in the video.
Which was a fun and an easy thing to do. So, yes, and it’s. Well, you can tell us about the song.
Yeah. So it’s called Nina Cried Power. It’s an incredible song. And I was very lucky that I got to sing Mavis Staples’ part with Hozier two years ago at electric picnic. So I’m very, very grateful and I will sing it for you guys now.
Can I just say Jess, your voice is incredible.
Really really special.
Oh thanks Panto that means a lot.
So Jess, you are singing Hosier’s Nina Cried Power and you’re being accompanied here on piano at by Cian Boylan. Take it away.
Jess Kavanagh performs Nina Cried Power
Amazing that was very special. And I’m so honored at my little mention that you threw in there. Oh my god.
Thank you so much. I feel uplifted. It’s actually one of the great things about doing this show is that we get to see, like performers like that up real close and it’s amazing.
Hope it wasn’t too loud for you guys.
God no. I want to sort of come back finally to the sort of the idea of breaking these silences and sort of getting it all out in the open. Paul, what is it like your relationship with your birth mother like now?
A little arm’s length, but warm, you know. But not, not close. It’s just difficult for, I think once somebody has given up a child not knowing what’s happened to that child, you have to build a wall. I think internally there has to be an emotional distance that has to be constructed for you to survive.
And I think you can’t easily dismantle that. It’s just very, very hard for a woman to break down that internal well, once it’s been put up for very, very real reasons it needs to be there, you know.
Are your feelings in some way that even if the relationship isn’t, you know, the Hollywood one, that a circle has been closed or something?
Absolutely. Yeah, no, it’s incredibly important, I think, to you know, in the end, I don’t want to be dramatic, but you do kind of if you’re adopted and there’s a kind of a question mark and a vague area where your history should be, you wonder, is this some terrible story? I mean, you know, I grew up in the era of finding out about Father Michael Cleary and all these hideous, grim stories of rape and violation and and to discover that, you know, my origins, my birth was a very innocent kind of teenage romance was helpful and there was closure, you know, and a sense of kind of, thank God, you know.
There’s nothing, there’s no awful, you don’t want to discover you’re related to one of these grimm people in some non consensual way. So, yeah, I kind of there is closure and it’s fine. It’s good. It’s good to get it, you know. I mean, not everybody has a great relationship with their parents.
Yeah. Even if you have them all your life.
Even if you have them all your life. So yeah it’s fine.
And Jess how connected have you gotten to your Nigerian roots or have you at all.
I would consider my Dublin Nigerian family to be my surrogate. And so there’s a really nice Nigerian community in Ireland. And I feel very close to a lot of my friends who are Nigerian, of Nigerian background. And I’m kind of happy with the mystery. I have a lot of friends who have, like, encouraged me to go to Nigeria, go to Lagos. And it’s definitely something I would look to do.
What I’m really feeling grateful for at the moment is working on that semblance of kind of intergenerational trauma. You know, we’ve talked about the kind of trauma that these women and these people have gone through because these mother and baby homes, but also the severe lack of support the no lack of mental health, you know, not given the opportunity to get support or even articulate how they feel. You know, it’s all kept, it’s all internalized.
And so if I’m able to be that mouthpiece, if I’m able to talk for my granny to some extent, to talk for my mam, to some extent, and may that be through being involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, or may that be involved in, you know, talking about our background and hoping that other people connect through that, that to me is catharsis.
And on the positive side, if you had grown up with your Nigerian family, they would have made you become a doctor or a lawyer, very, very into their education. They would have made you study hard.
Then Caelainn so you’ve had this opportunity to have this sort of big overview on something that we think of as history, but it has so many tentacles in the present. Do you see sort of similarities, or threads between those two thing?
There are so many parallels with this system of direct provision where we’re institutionalising vulnerable people for profit and exploiting them again. And, you know, people that I’ve spoken to who survived the Magdalene Laundries who survived the institutions have said it’s very painful for them to revisit the trauma that they experience and tell their story. It’s not necessarily a cathartic thing. It’s very difficult. And many say they do it so that we don’t repeat that system again. And I think we are repeating it.
And we need to realize and I think these stories coming to the surface have been really important for people understanding direct provision in a new way. And and we just need more, you know, to make it okay for people to speak. And so, you know, just speaking to each other and realizing that we don’t have, that that shame isn’t ours. That shame that people have internalized, it doesn’t belong to you.
It’s not something you did. It was something imposed on you. And I think that’s really important to understand. And then just the rights to identity, you know, like Paul was saying, like having to go and search through ledgers, having no access to your own name, your own files, the fact that’s still going on in this country is shameful. And there is legislation being passed in our own names today that is continuing to deny that to people. The right to their own information, their own files, there’s attempts to seal records for 75 years, for generations.
The church is still remaining silent. The religious orders are still not speaking. We don’t know where hundreds of children who died in these institutions are buried. There are still mothers searching for where their babies are buried. We all need to speak about how we were complicit in the system and learn from that, so that we don’t repeat it.
Well, thanks for the book. I found it very moving and educational. Well, that’s it. Thank you very much all three of you. Well, I feel I have learned a lot from you three people. And so that is it for this episode of Pantisocracy.
My thanks to my three guests who I’ll just remind you, are Caelainn Hogan, Jess Kavanagh and Paul Duane. And to Cian Boylan I don’t know where he’s run off to and who accompanied Jess on Nina Cried Power. Thanks to Hozier too for agreeing to
Yes. Thanks Andrew. And of course, you can see all the videos of today’s bits and pieces, especially the performances online. At Pantisocracy.ie as always. And we’ll be back next week.Thank you.
Jess shares a poem she wrote about High Park, the Magdalene laundry in northside Dublin
Jess performs Hozier’s song ‘Nina Cried Power’.