While helping her mother work merchandise tables at some of Dublin’s most respected venues, Jess Kavanagh first got a taste for the music scene. When she started doing gigs herself — a petite singer with a belter of a voice — people would come up after to tell her she sounded “like a Black person,” the last words half whispered.
They were assuming she was white.
Ms. Kavanagh, a rising solo star in Ireland after years touring with acts like Hozier and the Waterboys, had to form what she calls a “linguistic arsenal” to express her experience as a mixed-race Irish woman. What drives her to speak out is a legacy of silence. As the daughter of a Black Irish woman who was born in one of Ireland’s infamous mother and baby homes, she is raising awareness about how those institutions hid away generations of mixed-race Irish children.
More than five years ago, reports that children were interred in a sewage system at a mother and baby institution in Tuam, in western Ireland, compelled the Irish government to open an investigation into the institutions, where unmarried women and girls who became pregnant were sent. They were run by religious orders.
The final report, published on Tuesday, confirmed that of the 57,000 children born in Ireland’s 18 homes over several decades starting in 1920, around 9,000 died.
Women sent to the institutions have spoken about “reject wards” for children deemed unadoptable, among them children who were of mixed race, disabled or Irish Travelers, an indigenous, nomadic people.
The Collaborative Forum on Mother and Baby Homes, a government advisory group of survivors, reported that children were “rated for likely intelligence based in part on the nuns’ assessment of the intelligence of the natural mother and how ‘Negroid’ the features of the infant were.”
As harrowing reports of suffering and neglect in the institutions emerged in recent years, Ms. Kavanagh became determined to seek answers about her background.
She always knew that her mother, Liz, was adopted.
“It was obvious,” she said. “My grandparents were white and my mam was Black.”
But there was “a huge amount of secrecy” about the circumstances of her mother’s birth, which led her to suspect that her mother had been born in one of the institutions.
Fellow pupils at school used to ask Ms. Kavanagh why her mother was Black. Her mother advised her simply to “tell them your grandfather is from Africa.”
When she was older, Ms. Kavanagh, who identifies as mixed race, found out that her mother’s adoption covered up a complex family secret. It was her mother’s “aunt” in England, whom she knew as Auntie Kay, who was Ms. Kavanagh’s biological grandmother.
While working as a nurse, Kay had a relationship with a Nigerian medical student, became pregnant and was sent “to the country” in secret. Kay’s married sister, Betty, adopted Liz as a baby through a religious agency. Betty then adopted three more children, all mixed race, through the nuns. The children became Ms. Kavanagh’s aunts and uncle, an Irish family with Nigerian, Filipino and Indian heritage.
Liz never knew her father’s identity. She died of cancer when Ms. Kavanagh was only 20 years old. A photograph of her mother accompanies a recent single by Ms. Kavanagh, released in response to the killing of George Floyd. The fond image shows her mother making a face and sticking out her tongue. Ms. Kavanagh remembers how her energy would fill a room.
Liz worked as a tour guide, surprising visitors with her Dublin accent and Afro. In daily life, she faced racism and being treated as a foreigner. She harmonized like a professional singer with the radio, Ms. Kavanagh said, but had stage fright and never performed.
When Ms. Kavanagh would ask family members about her mother, they said she was “adopted from birth, it doesn’t even count.” Adoptions carried a stigma of illegitimacy, creating a culture of secrecy that endures to this day, with people adopted in Ireland still denied their birth information.
I first met Ms. Kavanagh while writing a book about the mother and baby institutions. In January 2019, we went to the General Register Office, a dismal building behind a spiked railing and a vacant lot, near Dublin Castle’s cobbled courtyards.
Before the pandemic, people born in the homes went there to search through birth ledgers for their identity. Some had to go through thousands of names, with only a birth date to match. But Liz’s name was never changed. Ms. Kavanagh found the entry in a red ledger, handed in a form, and soon stood with a photocopy of the birth certificate in her shaking hands.
The document showed that her mother had been born in St. Peter’s Hospital, Castlepollard, in central Ireland, one of three mother and baby institutions run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Before families in the United States started making hefty sums of money in return for white Irish babies and many were sent away for adoption, hundreds of children died there, sometimes from malnutrition and untreated ailments. A mass grave lies down a lane from the convent.
Ms. Kavanagh sees herself as a generational survivor. She remembers a story her mother told about being brought to a religious-run institution in Dublin where babies were held for adoption. Her mother said she had followed a sound to a closet and found “a Black baby crying on its own in the dark.”
Ms. Kavanagh now believes this was one of the “reject wards.” The nuns said the baby would die but she became Liz’s adopted sister. Her mother, her aunts and her uncle survived that system of institutions.
The last mother and baby institution closed only in 2006, so people Ms. Kavanagh’s age were born within the system. Now in her 30s, she is also part of a generation shaping a new Ireland, breaking the mold of the de facto theocracy that her mother grew up in.
“My family sent my grandmother to Castlepollard, thinking she can have her Black child that can be sent off to an orphanage and we’ll never have to think about this again,” she said, referring to her biological grandmother, Auntie Kay. “Here I am, talking about it.”
During the 2018 referendum that legalized abortion in Ireland, Ms. Kavanagh appeared on the cover of the music magazine Hot Press, hair in a curly mohawk, hands over her naked chest, “MINE” written across her skin. Reproductive rights and racial injustice are two deeply personal issues she speaks out about as an artist.
Ms. Kavanagh’s father, a white married man from Dublin, was intermittently part of her life. But he kept his “illegitimate” daughter a secret until his death, when she was 13. The official status of illegitimacy continued in Ireland until 1987, a year after Ms. Kavanagh was born, effectively enforcing the stigma. The fact that the designation survived so long was called an “egregious breach of human rights” by the final report on the mother and baby institutions.
After Ireland’s first pandemic lockdown, Ms. Kavanagh went on national radio with a well-known drag queen, Panti Bliss, performing “Four Girls in Blue,” a spoken-word piece about her mother’s experience. They talked about how being mixed race, queer or an “unmarried mother” has meant feeling disowned by their country.
During her efforts to understand the endemic racism at the institutions, Ms. Kavanagh was disturbed by how religious agencies had advertised “slightly mixed-race” children with “coffee-colored skin” for adoption in newspapers. She also knew that not being adopted could mean a lifetime of being forced to work in religious-run institutions.
Ms. Kavanagh found court cases showing parents trying in vain to keep their children, including a Nigerian father prevented from taking his child home from an institution because of Ireland’s illegitimacy laws.
Ms. Kavanagh was guided by Rosemary Adaser, a founder of the Association of Mixed Race Irish. Ms. Adaser spent her childhood in religious-run institutions, made to do such things as unblocking toilets with her bare hands because of their skin color and told by the nuns that no man would marry her because she was Black.
Ms. Adaser campaigned for racial discrimination to be included in the official investigation. The final report documents the racial abuse of mixed-race children and mothers in the institutions, even as it describes as “unthinking racism” the systemic discrimination that robbed many survivors of their heritage. The state apologized to all mother and baby home survivors, but with the government controlling most of their records, many feel the reports and apologies ring hollow.
When Ms. Kavanagh found her mother’s birth certificate, there was only a dash for the father’s name. She might never learn who her grandfather is, or find her Nigerian family. Ms. Kavanagh can apply for her mother’s records, but the state could redact or deny information about her grandfather. She believes this must change.
“You don’t need to be a child of a survivor to know the importance of owning your own history,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “To know where you came from.”