Clair Wills is King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge and the author of a number of monumental books about Irish culture and history, including That Neutral Island: A History of Ireland during the Second World War (2007). Missing Persons, Or My Grandmother’s Secrets is not only her most personal book, but also perhaps the most personal book ever written by a Regius professor at Cambridge. It combines scholarly rigour with memoir and a not inconsiderable amount of righteous anger to chronicle the silences and secrets that governed lives in 20th-century Ireland.
‘I think of history’, writes Wills at the beginning of the book, ‘as a long line of bodies, stretching back through time.’ The bodies she concentrates on are those of her grandmother Molly, Molly’s son Jackie, his lover Lily, and their child Mary. ‘It is an all-too-familiar story of desire, sex, illegitimate birth, institutionalization and emigration,’ writes Wills. ‘And it happened in part because of the actions of my uncle – who got his lover pregnant and disappeared to England, abandoning her and her child to a mother-and-baby home and an orphanage. And because of my grandmother – who didn’t say no.’
For keen readers of Irish memoir and autobiography, many of the details here will be completely familiar yet utterly shocking: the challenges of rural life, the indignities faced by immigrants in London, and the horrible facts about the state- and Church-sponsored homes, orphanages, adoption agencies and schools that were established