Emer Gillespie
Fallen Women

“Single mothers are fallen women and grave sinners, whose children are the product of wickedness” – Father Cecil Beaton, Head of the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau, 1952.

The severe and judgmental attitudes towards women who became pregnant outside of marriage permeated the ethos of virtually all Church and State agencies in 20th century Ireland. Church and State were bound in their conceptualisation of unmarried motherhood as degenerate and sinful. The tragic outcome of this is that generations of mothers and babies were forced apart.

As an unmarried mother at the age of 21 in the Ireland of 2002, I had the choice to keep my daughter. But in 1975, for my mother, then aged 20, there was no choice and she was forced to give her son up for adoption shortly after his birth. A similar story can be told of two more of my aunts, one as recently as 1985. Stirred by the secrecy and concealment of these events within my family, and inspired by an emerging familial and societal consciousness of the experiences of unmarried mothers and their children, this project seeks to recognise, respect, listen to and hear from those women our society so entirely failed.

The control of sexuality by the Catholic Church and the State in 20th Century Ireland was a powerful barrier to a woman’s ability to make choices about her body and about her newborn child. Soon after the establishment of an Irish free state in 1922, “Mother and Baby Homes” began appearing to house and hide unwed pregnant women and facilitate the adoption of their children into ‘proper’, catholic marital homes. Religious orders claim that the newly formed Irish government invited the Church to deal with the growing ‘problem’ of single mothers. In the adoption process, birth mothers were silenced, restricted from information and generally excluded from participation to the greatest extent possible. Illegitimate pregnancies, births and resultant adoptions were most often treated as shameful family secrets. Many of these homes are infamous for their cruel treatment of unwed mothers.

As a result of the morally damning attitude towards non-marital pregnancy, these mothers were never given permission to grieve. Their stories, accounts, experiences and treatment unrecognised and unheard.

Today with cultural change and the weakening grasp of the Catholic Church on the Irish State and society, these women are beginning to speak out. My ambition for the project is to highlight the position and experiences of birth mothers within this emerging social dialogue. The primary engagement with the women is through recorded interviews, supplemented with portrait photographs of the birth mother and documentation of any photos/materials they bring with them. I have visited as many of the mother and baby homes as possible. Some still stand, some images are simply the space where they stood. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault discussed the act of archiving as the practice of learning about the past through its material remains. I have found records, letters, handwritten notes and relevant historical newspaper clippings which also play a part in this project. I am editing groups of images together, developing my style of working in diptych form. In essence this project is an archive of imagery and historical references.

As the Irish State announced its term for a commission to investigate the conduct and operation of these homes , this project facilitates birth mothers in reclaiming their memories and dealing with past events by means of modern photographic documentation and archival practices.


Emer Gillespie is an Irish artist, currently living in Brighton in the UK. Graduating with an MA in Photography from the London College in Communication in 2009, her work is personal in nature, examining issues around motherhood, alternative family structures and the role that the subject and photographer play in creative collaborations. Her most recent project, Fallen Women, is a personal and emotive look at forced adoption in Ireland in the 20th Century, inspired by her own experience as a single parent and her mothers and aunts experience of coerced adoptions in catholic controlled Ireland. Her work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally including Love will tear us apart, Centre Photographic, Claremont-Ferrand, France, How One Thing Leads to Another, Critical Mass, Houston Centre for Photography, She loves me, she loves me not, Encontros da Imagem, Portugal, Family Narratives, RUA RED gallery Dublin, FFWE, Photographers Gallery, London, Altered States, Foley Gallery, New York, Shifting Perspectives, OXO tower, Southbank London and The Space Between at the V&A Museum of Childhood, London.

Most recently, ‘Fallen Women was awarded a Solas Ireland award and was exhibited at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin in December 2015 and in Gallery Fotohof in Salzburg. She works as a Photography lecturer in the UK.