Book review: Sins of the Mother by Irene Kelly

Irene Kelly’s childhood was unremittingly grim and it took over 40 years to finally lay to rest the spectre of abuse and neglect which haunted both her dreams and her adult life.

Sins of the Mother by Irene Kelly
Sins of the Mother by Irene Kelly

Raised in poverty in Dublin in the 1960s, Irene and her siblings were shuffled off by their hard-drinking, depressive and heartless mother into one of the city’s much-feared industrial orphanages where they suffered a distressing catalogue of cruelty.

It was only after the revelations of the notorious Ryan Report and the formation of a Redress Board to compensate those who were abused while in Ireland’s state-regulated residential institutions that Irene and her family could finally start to come to terms with her shocking and hitherto hidden past.

Another step on the road to releasing Irene’s personal demons was putting her horrific experiences into words and, with the help of ghostwriter Katy Weitz, Sins of the Mother – a disturbing tale of inhumanity, loss, love and hope – gives voice to years of pain, suffering and redemption.

Irene was one of six children and it was clear from a tender age that her mother didn’t like her, nicknaming her the Bad Luck Child and lashing out at her on a regular basis. The children lived in a two-roomed flat with their mother while their absent father, they were told, ‘worked away in England.’

When Irene’s mother began frequently overdosing on booze and pills, the children were sent to a Catholic-run orphanage where the nuns operated a harsh and pitiless regime. ‘It gets worse if you cry,’ seven-year-old Irene was warned by a young girl on her first day.

Irene suffered beatings and was sexually assaulted during her time at the orphanage and when she was set to work in the nursery, she witnessed nuns treating the babies with horrifying cruelty.

As she grew up, these experiences continued to blight Irene’s life and when she fell in love with Matt, who was fighting his own demons, they moved to England to make a new start in Manchester.

The couple wanted their daughter Jennifer to have a better life but, in trying to protect her by hiding their past, they only succeeded in pushing her away. When Jennifer was a teenager she was constantly confused by her parents’ behaviour… her dad was sullen, secretive and uncommunicative while her mum was moody and too often filled with misery.


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But then one day, Irene had a phone call from Ireland and announced that she was going back to Dublin to face up to the things that happened in her childhood. It was the start of a new life for them all…

Sins of the Mother is testament to a generation of ‘lost children’ as well as a powerful and moving story of a troubled family whose love was tested but never broken and who finally found the strength to heal the past.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)