At seventeen I thought I was in love. Contraception was illegal in Ireland and I became pregnant.
In 1979 in Ireland this was considered the ultimate disgrace. I was deeply ashamed.
My mother told me I was stupid and my father couldn’t bear to be in the same room as me.
They gave me no choice other than to get married. It was either that, or get sent away to some unnamed, but probably horrible place.
I felt lucky that the father of my unborn child agreed to marry me and saved me from wherever it was my parents had been going to send me.
I did my best with what I had for years and brought up my daughter as best as I could but I was too young. Far too young.
THAT HIDDEN WOMAN.
For years I felt I was living in a life that wasn’t mine. I felt there was another woman inside me desperate to get out.
But keeping up appearances to keep family and community approval, was more important than that hidden woman.
Besides that hidden woman didn’t know who she was either.
The price for pretense was depression and anxiety and I went through long periods of both.
I was never convinced that my husband at the time loved me. I thought he felt trapped. I don’t blame him.
The inevitable happened and the marriage broke up. My parents stopped talking to me for a year.
They turned all the photographs they had of me upside down and the photos that were hanging up were turned to face the wall.
My father refused to see me. My mother shut the door in my face and said she couldn’t bear to look at me.
I couldn’t bear to look at me either.
I had brought more disgrace to the family.
Those were horrible, confusing times for me and I felt even more lost. Shame is destructive – it gets into your bones.
As I write this the old feelings come up. I’ve kept my feelings about this secret for years.
Writing about it helps, it cleanses but the fear of judgement remains.
Will I be judged or mocked for writing this? You might be thinking I am ridiculous for thinking this, for writing this. But, 1970s Ireland was a different planet.
I spoke to a friend recently. She too had a forced marriage which broke up. She told me she also still felt the shame of bringing disgrace to her family.
My mother is now dead. I loved her and I miss her. She wasn’t to blame. Most people felt like she did then.
As for my father, well, we’ve never discussed it and never will. I don’t blame him either.
His generation didn’t talk about such things.
Shame is not something that can be completely erased, not while the memories remain.
Women my age have long, strong memories.
Now I can look back and see how different it is today. Nobody ‘has to get married’ any more.
The old Magdalena laundries are gone and there are campaigns to compensate the women who were forced into them.
It seems now that very pregnancy is celebrated. Whether or not the parents are married. The judgement is gone. With it, I hope, the shame.
Sometimes I think about contemporary women’s issues. Everyday sexism, the glass ceiling… Although these remain there is no doubt in my mind:
Women have come a long, long way.
Creativity and writing were the way out for me and you can read about how writing changed my life here.
Grace’s novel, Piggy Monk Square was shortlisted for the Commonwealth New Writers Prize.
Two girls know where but swear to keep the secret because the truth will destroy them.
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