Bird of Passage: Writing About Difficult Things

Inmates of an Industrial School 
I'm reblogging this from a recent post for Authors Electric. It seems worthwhile extending the discussion a bit. 

I’ve just revised my novel Bird of Passage – published to Kindle some years ago - before releasing it to various other publishing platforms via Draft 2 Digital – no real changes, just a little bit of much needed editing and reformatting here and there. This was one of my earliest eBook publications and I’ve been aware that it needed attention for some time. I have plans for a paperback later in the year when an engrossing new project allows.

I revamped the blurb as well. And that’s what gave me pause for thought and the idea for this post. The background to Bird of Passage involves an issue or indeed a set of issues that are difficult to write about, problematic, sickening and to some extent neglected or even supressed. My second major professional stage play was a piece of ‘issue based’ drama so I know all about the problems and pitfalls. I’ve even run workshops on it for the Traverse in Edinburgh. But Bird of Passage is – and feels – very different.

Women working in one of the Magdalene Laundries.
A lot has been written about the notorious Magdalene Laundries but not so much about the Industrial Schools to which youngsters were ‘committed’ by the Irish state over a long period of time and – it has to be said – long after the UK had decided that treating vulnerable children in this way was a Bad Thing. The schools were run by religious organisations, and there was a capitation payment: a sum of money for each child removed from an ‘unsatisfactory’ parent or guardian and incarcerated.

You have to understand that although these were treated as young criminals that isn’t what most of them were. These were vulnerable children. Sometimes they were the sons and daughters of the women sent to those Magdalene Laundries on the flimsiest of accusations. They might be orphans. Or seen to be ‘out of control’ (which could cover a multitude of small crimes). Or just plain poor. Single parents and their offspring seem to have been fair game.

Once they hit sixteen, of course, the payments stopped, so they were effectively shown the door. But even then they were not exactly free. Thoroughly institutionalised, they would be sent to work on farms for low pay, under the impression that they must stay where they were sent. In some cases, the police were alleged to have conspired in this belief, returning escapees to the forced labour they were trying to escape. Eventually they would realise that they were free to go.

Industrial schools continued in Ireland until the 1970s.

But where?

These were often profoundly damaged individuals. The extreme physical abuse was at least as appalling as the sexual abuse but really it was all part of a regime of unrelenting cruelty and almost unbelievable sadism. One of the survivors has pointed out that it was the absolute randomness of the physical cruelty that was so horrific. There was seldom any connection between the beatings and any known misdemeanour. All of this is documented in various accounts as the survivors, even now, struggle to be heard and struggle for redress - although as I say, it's not widely publicised.

Some of them, unsurprisingly, turned to alcohol to drown out the pain. Some survived and made a good life for themselves against all the odds. Some – with few skills, because the ‘schools’ provided little in the way of real education – came over here and worked as unskilled labourers until they grew too old and too troubled to function properly.

Little boys seem to have been most harshly treated.
In Bird of Passage, Finn and his friend Francis are boys placed in the Industrial School system in 1960s Ireland. In the way of characters – well, the characters I write about – Finn and Francis took shape and form as I wrote. I didn’t set out to ‘make’ them victims of a regime of appalling cruelty so much as discover the truth about them. It seemed like a process of interrogation. Why were they as they were? Eventually they told me.

I read a number of accounts of the experiences of boys and girls in these 'schools' that were more like prisons and was moved to tears by them. I hope some of that horror and pity found its way into the novel. Of course, the novel is about much more (and also much less) than that. It’s a love story of a kind. It’s a story of obsession and damage and the destructive power of passion.

But the background is so appalling that I find it hard to write about it in any kind of promotion for the novel. It’s as though the fact that it is 'interesting' in the sense that these things should be known and discussed and brought out into the light of day feels somehow shameful. I’m invariably seized with a feeling akin to embarrassment. Within the novel – that’s one thing. It seemed all right and even desirable to write about it there. The characters felt real, and I felt the most profound sympathy for them as I wrote about them. Finn's story moves me - as I hope it moves the reader.

It’s when it comes to writing about the story that I shy away from saying too much. Perhaps it isn’t my story to tell. But then, there’s a part of me that knows these stories must and should be told. And sometimes writers have to try to speak for those who don’t always have a voice.

Difficult things. Impossible things, really. I wonder what other writers and readers think about this. 


Cover by Alison Bell



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