One of the first SparkPress books in our Spring 2019 season is The House Children by Heidi Daniele, a YA crossover that begins in 1937, when Mary Margaret Joyce is born in the Tuam Home for unwed mothers. After spending her early years in an uncaring foster home, she is sentenced by a judge to an industrial school, where she is given the name Peg, and assigned the number 27. Amid one hundred other unwanted girls, Peg quickly learns the rigid routine of prayer, work, and silence under the watchful eye of Sister Constance. Her only respite is an annual summer holiday with a kind family in Galway.
At the tender age of thirteen, Peg accidentally learns the identity of her birthmother. Peg struggles with feelings of anger and abandonment, while her mother grapples with the shame of having borne a child out of wedlock. The tension between them mounts as Peg, now becoming a young adult, begins to make plans for her future beyond Ireland. Based on actual events, The House Children is a compelling story of familial love, shameful secrets, and life inside Ireland’s infamous industrial schools.
Below, author Heidi Daniele shares the story behind her research for this novel and the process of writing about characters who actually existed.
Writing The House Children required a lot of research and imagination. My greatest challenge was to give the readers a genuine feel for the era and the characters.
The story is about children being raised in an industrial school, an Irish institution, similar to an orphanage. These institutions were rarely spoken about in Ireland until they became a political issue in 2000. The result was a report published by The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which divulged many unknown facts about these facilities.
The internet also offered access to information that helped me with details about the location I was writing about. Old maps, photographs, and dated weather reports for Ballinasloe, Ireland were all available. Gathering this data allowed me to incorporate an accurate description of what the area looked like, along with the climate my characters lived in.
My desire to present the children in this institution as real people meant finding answers to many questions: Who were they? How did they get there? What was their experience?
I spent many months requesting records of former “inmates” (as they were called) from the many agencies that were involved in the lives of these children. The Sisters of Mercy, the Bon Secur nuns, the local courts, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Department of Education, and the General Assistance Department all played a role in overseeing their guardianship. The recordkeeping at these agencies was poor and the responses I received were often disappointing. Accidently, I discovered that submitting a request more than once could result in a response with additional or different information than I received originally—so I sent out my queries again and again.
The files full of data on my desk were getting thicker. The information was valuable, but it did little to provide me with the perspectives and emotions I needed to convey to bring my characters to life.
I began to seek out former residents of Saint Joseph’s Industrial School. Online message boards helped me make connections. I exchanged emails with daughters of women who had spent time there. Some of the women had emigrated to England, and some to the United States. One woman in New York agreed to meet me weekly for lunch to share some of her memories. The personal interaction peaked when three women agreed to spend a night at my home. It was a reunion of sorts for them, one came in from Boston, the other two, although both New Yorkers, hadn’t seen each other in years. Listening to them reminisce about their childhood in Saint Joseph’s provided me with the perspectives I needed.
I knew I couldn’t experience what they had been through, but I needed to get as close as I could to where they’d been, so I returned to Ballinasloe, where I’d first learned about Saint Joseph’s while attending a Golden Jubilee party to celebrate a family friend’s 50th year as a nun.
I did my best to walk in the shoes of the house children and tried to view the town from their eyes, while imagining it was the 1940s and 50s. I stood in front of the abandoned convent on Society Street and counted the windows. I hoisted myself up onto the wall and looked at the barren lot of land that was once the site of the school. I went into St. Michael’s Church, and when mass ended, I remained in the pew and imagined what it must have been like for those girls to come into this richly adorned place of worship. Before leaving the church, I pushed aside the red velvet curtain and stepped into the confessional. What sins could these poor girls possibly have committed? The sight of the Town Green reminded me of the stories the women shared about the one day a year of freedom they had—attending an annual fair, thanks to the generosity of Tofts Amusements. The townspeople were busy going about their business while I sat on a bench near the post office; I wondered how many of them remembered the house children.
Before leaving Ballinasloe, I met with the Sisters of Mercy. They kindly welcomed me into their home for tea. There were only four nuns there—long gone were the days of forty nuns living in the convent. Their willingness to share what they knew provided me with another dimension for my story.
A week later, I left Ireland, feeling I had what I needed to bring my characters to life.