Clíona’s* Wave, by County Clare author Donal Minihane, is the story of the O’Donovan family – parents Seán and Maeve, daughters Bridget and Neasa, and baby son Seán Óg – living in the fishing village of Union Hall, County Cork in the 1940s.
The main story spans three or four years, but there are references to the civil and world wars twenty years before this, as events of that time have a big influence on the family in the book’s present. We learn about these largely from Maeve’s estranged mother, who talks to and counsels Bridget, telling her about Seán’s IRB and IRA past (considered glorious by some and despicable by others), and explaining how lifelong friends became enemies, brother fought brother and families divided.
Another huge influence on the family and the story being told is the Catholic Church (in this instance not to be confused with the Catholic religion): on Seán, as he feels he was badly let down by the Church’s representatives, and by Maeve and her daughters as they are regular mass goers and largely in awe of the parish priest. But it is not until near the end of the story that the true power of the Church’s rule is shown, in shocking scenes that are disturbing in their brevity and rawness.
The main part of the story narrates events leading up to Neasa becoming pregnant, and Bridget’s determination, in the absence of her father who is working away, that her younger sister won’t be sent to a Magdalene laundry where “fallen women” often found themselves at the behest of the family, Church or State, and where there was no comfort and little chance of escape. The babies born there were usually given up for adoption – as was Neasa’s – their mothers left in despair to “repent” and be punished.
The family’s life is hard, but largely happy, and the girls and their baby brother have little to be afraid of, until tragedy strikes and their individual paths change course with devastating consequences.
The story is not uncommon in Ireland’s past, and it is told here with an insight into Ireland’s history and folklore, the Church’s rule and religion’s fervour, a sister’s love and a family’s anguish. This is a novel that informs and shocks and makes you think. It is written with compassion and great feeling, and an insight into what motivates people. It is “one girl’s discovery of what’s buried inside us all”, and in wider scope it is “a story about Irish Society and our collective responsibility for the evils of the past”.
Donal Minihane says the novel is “loosely based on a family story”: His great-aunt Tess, his grandmother’s sister, became pregnant when she was a teenager and was taken to the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Cork City where the baby was born and then taken from her and put up for adoption. Tess spent a time in the laundry before she was let out and moved to England where she lived the rest of her life, a “non-person” to the family she left behind in Ireland. It wasn’t until her funeral forty years later that the younger members of the family discovered she had a son, who had only recently met his birth mother. In contrast, Donal’s grandfather’s sister, who was the same age, grew up in the same village and went to the same school, became a missionary nun and spent her life working in a convent. Donal says, “It just struck me that these two girls, friends from the same village both ended up in convents, one by choice and one coerced.”
The big question asked in the book, as it was throughout Ireland when the scandal of the Magdalene laundries broke, was “How could such things happen?” The question will be asked for a very long time to come.
Cliona’s Wave was a winner of the 2013 Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair. Donal Minihane was shortlisted for the 2014 K Award for short fiction for his story “Dead Priest’s House”, and is the founder and director of the Doolin Writers’ Weekend, held at the Doolin Hotel, Doolin, Co Clare.
* Cliona is pronounced “Cleena”.