In 2017, then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny declared in the Dáil that all of society was responsible for the “chamber of horrors” revealed in the Bons Secours mother-and-baby home in Tuam. Acknowledging the harm done by orders of the Catholic Church – and the work of historian Catherine Corless in exposing it – Kenny nonetheless insisted on apportioning blame much more widely. “No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children,” he said. “We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns’ care. We gave them up maybe to spare the savagery of gossip, the wink and the elbow language of delight – in which the ‘holier than thous’ were particularly fluent. And we gave them up because of our perverse, in fact morbid, relationship with what you call respectability”.

Caelainn Hogan’s new book documents the system that Kenny hinted at in his speech, that of mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries, a system she refers to as the shame-industrial complex. This system reached into every nook and cranny of Irish society and was held in place with the unshakeable glue of social shame, promoted and maintained in classrooms, churches, parlours and the institutions themselves. As inquiries and redress schemes falteringly tackle the hold this system continues to have on our society, Hogan wonders, where did the shame come from?

Republic of Shame anatomises the society that for so long sustained the shame-industrial complex. It depicts the totality of that complex, and very occasionally sheds light on those who managed to resist or reject it. Hogan argues that the system of institutionalisation was neither inherently Irish nor Catholic, although it cannot be denied that it was profoundly inflected by both elements. Scholars of postcolonial nation-building have shown across countries that national identity is often staked on female virtue, defined in the Irish case by Catholic teachings. If Irish women were the bearers of the nation’s virtue, what was to be done with those who were not virtuous? Under British rule, the Brits could always be blamed; no such excuse was available to morally righteous Irish leaders of the twentieth century. The women themselves, those whose extra-marital sexual activity had got them into trouble, would have to be removed. It was of course for their own good.

Chapter by chapter, the book shines a forensic light on different elements of the shame-industrial complex. There is a clear moral commitment to the centrality of the voices and testimonies of institutionalised women themselves, but the book spirals out to encompass a world of actors. It includes the families who placed girls in homes, or who did not even know they went. It describes the children born to institutionalised women, who searched for them and supported them; and also the sisters of religious orders who policed them. Through archival work the book introduces the officials and politicians who financed and structured the institutions and argued for their continued necessity (and very occasionally against it – take a bow, uachtaráin Michael D Higgins and Mary Robinson). Finally, it describes the Churchmen who defined the moral economy and patrolled the social norms which kept the whole mass-delusion in place. It does not linger on the hypocrisies of those Churchmen, but nor are they ignored. It was only when the authority of the Catholic Church began to collapse that everything else became visible for what it was: a system of mass incarceration of innocent people and forced manipulation of families, predicated on the rock-solid social convention by which pregnancy and childbirth were only acceptable within marriage.

The book reads like a travelogue of places you only visit if your aunty lives there. We traverse many corners of Ireland in the company of this charming, erudite writer who manages to be both of the society she chronicles, and profoundly outside of it. She observes the situation with the curiosity and insight of an ethnographer, but constantly brings it home, reflecting on her own mother’s experiences growing up in the Republic of Shame, giving birth outside of wedlock and refusing to be belittled for it. For Irish millennials, the architecture of institutionalisation and shame is both written in their bones, and utterly alien. Hogan has a deft ability to describe this uncanniness, the familiarity and the alienation.

Appropriately for a feminist chronicle, Hogan’s embodied self is ever-present in these pages. Unusually tall and apparently a non-driver, she roams the country trying to coax the uncomfortable truth out of people twice, three times her age. We accompany her on buses and in lifts scrounged from sources, grabbing a hasty spice bag at the end of a day spent at a prayer vigil, sleeping in hostels. She traverses the whole country, opening the book close to her childhood home in Dublin’s wealthy suburbs, before going on to meet adoptees and ex-inmates in coffee shops and shopping centres, at community consultations, and in church buildings.

Tuam occupies the book’s geographical heart – not just a place, but an event which reverberates effectively through the contemporary time of the book, the real time in which Hogan is researching and conducting interviews. It serves as a collective reference point: at moments on the home turf of church volunteers or religious youth, Hogan will seize the opportunity to ask her interlocutors what they think “about Tuam” – and it is wordlessly conveyed that what she means is what they think about 800 babies in a septic tank, about lies and cover-ups, about national scandal. It’s a good question, and one that requires the book to take us repeatedly back to that dusty Galway town. Indeed, the book’s only joke takes place in Tuam, when Hogan goes to Sunday Mass and considers wisely the small attendance: ‘I was musing about how people had abandoned Mass because nuns had buried children in septic tanks’ – before realising that she has fetched up in the Protestant Church by accident. The Catholic one, at the other end of the town, turns out to be packed. The penny drops when she is invited by the Protestants to tea and sandwiches. In this too she is like an ethnographer: familiar with the codes, yet wide-eyed and helpfully clueless at the same time.

The infrastructure of confinement was not just physical but linguistic: an entire taxonomy was required to support the institutionalisation of healthy young women, and Hogan demonstrates a keen ear for the uses of language to contain and constrain. Descriptions of the women of the homes pivoted between the paternalistic charity of the poorhouse and the normative shame of the criminal justice system. Women in institutions were variously described as inmates, offenders and penitents – the latter suggesting that they might somehow atone for the sin of their recalcitrant biology. The women were organised according to a hierarchy of blameworthiness, obviously inflected with class concerns. So Temple Hill mother-and-baby home was reserved for ‘expectant mothers of the better class’ – thus identified since they were ‘genuine first offenders of previous good character… daughters of respectable farmers and sometimes professional men’.  Such harmless tragic individuals needed to be protected from their own wrong-doing, and segregated from the contagion of genuinely deviant women, the ‘professional offenders’, ‘women of a wild and vicious nature’. Multiple pregnancies, especially on the part of girls of limited means, were regarded as evidence of an irredeemably depraved nature.

In all of this, little attention was ever paid to the other responsible party for the pregnancies. Few accounts are recorded of women who became pregnant as a result of violence or abuse, unsurprisingly, since all marital sex at the time was considered legitimate, and all sex outside of marriage illegitimate. In Temple Hill, Hogan observes the scant notes kept on inmates’ circumstances: ‘Putative father not contributing’, or ‘Putative father refused to help’. And in one case: ‘Putative father is uncle of girl’. In a master class of showing rather than telling, Hogan observes: ‘He was not named, and there was no reference to the gardaí being informed.’ She hears the story of Mary Merritt, sent at the age of 17 to High Park laundry in Drumcondra (today a family hub for emergency homelessness, run by the Respond housing association) for stealing apples. She escaped once and turned to a priest for help. The priest raped her, she became pregnant and was sent to St Patrick’s mother-and-baby home. The nuns instructed her to keep her mouth shut and took her baby to be adopted.

Jacinta Prunty, a Holy Faith Sister and historian, wrote about institutional care designed for girls and young women guilty of being ‘sexually involved’. Hogan quotes Prunty’s acknowledgement that girls were “held to be culpable for what would, in the 21st century, be termed child sexual abuse.” This book bristles with such tales of callousness and cruelty, and Hogan leaves us in no doubt that these harms were known at the highest levels. They were allowed to continue because propriety mattered more than the lives and well-being of the penitents and their babies.

In a warm-hearted and compassionate book, the greatest challenge is to bring insight into the lives of the most immediate enforcers of the shame-industrial complex: the nuns who ran the institutions of confinement. Hogan consumes many cups of tea trying to get close to nuns of the different orders, and to shed light on the inevitable dissent and struggle among those tasked with the confinement of mothers and their babies. Drawing on the memoir of Annie Murphy, the partner of disgraced Bishop Eamonn Casey, she describes a Sister Ignatius, who refused to bully and coerce young pregnant women. ‘That nun must have been under a Gestapo-like discipline for fifty years’, reflected Murphy, ‘and she had kept her freedom’.

Yet stories like Sr Ignatius’ elude Hogan, no matter how hard she seeks them. She describes leads, sisters who were willing to speak, but time and again they are silenced by their orders, showing up to interviews in the company of publicists and lawyers, or withdrawing from promised meetings. Confronted with this stonewalling, her descriptions of the elderly nuns are notably less generous than those of other women in this acutely-observed book, but this too seems fitting, since for so long nuns and religious orders controlled the public image of the women of the homes.

Hogan dissects a society that has changed in some respects beyond recognition, yet which lingers in our day to day lives. She is careful to draw attention to the continuing significance of the story she is telling: the women, many traumatised, still searching for truth and recognition; the family members and adoptees still encountering lies and misinformation; the institutions only closed in the last ten or fifteen years. The Ireland she describes, mile by mile, conversation by conversation, is the one that we all live in. As I write this, legislation is moving through the Dáil to seal the archives of various commissions of inquiry into institutional abuse. We have not yet shaken off the veil of secrecy, and its impact continues to have a grip on living people. Hogan describes how the emphasis of the moral crusade shifted from hiding and shaming inconvenient pregnancies to attempting to prevent abortions, not least by encouraging women into institutions to conceal their pregnancy without travelling for terminations, as late as the 1990s. As other countries move away from concentrated institutional settings, Ireland continues to open them: family hubs and direct provision centres. Towards the end of the book, Hogan reports on the experiences of adoptees trying to make sense of their own early lives and the intergenerational stories that create them. This chapter teems with young people, hip people, people just like Hogan herself, and yet tethered to the strange world that created us all, unable to escape the shame-industrial complex.

Of the emotion of shame, feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky notes:

‘The need for secrecy and concealment that figures so largely in the shame experience is disempowering … for it isolates the oppressed from one another and in this way works against the emergence of a sense of solidarity.’

With this book, Hogan makes a contribution to bringing the oppressed together, stripping their tales of shame, and enabling their solidarity. In this, she does a service to our country, and she also offers a fine, fascinating, distressing read.