Finding a friend for Emmet

I carried Emmet in my head for years before I began writing ‘Emmet and Me’

The character of Emmet had formed very clearly in my mind after I’d read the extremely moving memoir ‘Founded on Fear’ by Peter Tyrrell, which tells of a harrowing childhood in an Irish industrial school.

I knew I wanted to write about Emmet, but I was also certain I wouldn’t write the story from his point of view. There are memoirs that recount life in Ireland’s institutions, and these convey survivors’ first-hand experiences so movingly and with heart-breaking honesty. I would never assume I knew even a fraction of what it would be like to actually endure such trauma.

So I decided that if I wrote about Emmet, it would be through someone else’s eyes. He’d need a friend who didn’t live in his orphanage, someone he could confide in. But how would he meet a character from outside his tightly controlled institution? It was a dilemma I couldn’t solve, so I imagined Emmet would simply stay in my head forever.

On a March evening in 2017, I was in Dublin and watching the Late Late Show. Ryan Turbridy’s guest was Catherine Corless, a local historian from County Galway who had discovered an extremely disturbing history at Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Initially, she’d been interested in looking into the Home’s records because she clearly remembered older children from there attending her primary school. Years later, when she took a course in researching local history, she thought of those children again, and decided to research the Home.

What Catherine Corless uncovered shocked not only Ireland but, as the story hit global media, it shocked the world as well

She discovered almost eight hundred death certificates of babies and young children. All of these children had died at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. And what was more, many of them had been ‘buried’ in the disused septic tank in the grounds.

In the audience of the Late Late Show that night, were people who’d had family at the Tuam Home – siblings that had disappeared and whose remains had possibly been placed in the septic tank. At the end of the show, Catherine Corless received a spontaneous standing ovation for her tireless, investigative work.

It was an incredibly moving moment

That night, I couldn’t get thoughts of Tuam Home out of my head, and the terrible pain and suffering that had been caused to the women and children there. I also remembered what Catherine had said about the children from the Home – how they’d attended her primary school in the town. I realised that perhaps there was a way to write about Emmet after all, that he could make a friend at school, a friend outside his orphanage.

Watching Catherine Corless on TV that evening is etched on my memory. I’m sure I’m not wrong in suggesting that it’s etched on the memory of very many other viewers too. She came up against resistance from the Church and some members of her community when she tried to reveal the truth, but she persisted. She is a brave and determined woman. There’s much more about her inspiring work, and about Tuam Mother and Baby Home generally, in the Radio 4 podcast by Becky Milligan, The Home Babies. I thoroughly recommend it.

Thank you for reading!

Sara x

Publishing May 20th

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