The best books about adoption, the Magdalene laundries, and other institutions run by Irish religious orders

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a novelist and poet from a working-class Dublin suburb. The small press I started at 18 published early works by Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin, Fintan O’Toole, etc. Because I felt that working-class life was not being written about, I became interested in hidden aspects of Irish society. Adoption was often kept secret when I was small. When I first wrote A Second Life, I was amazed by how many people told me how they were adopted but had never told anyone. I want to do justice to their stories and their mothers’ stories. Hopefully readers will think that, in some small way, my updated novel does this.


I wrote...

A Second Life

By Dermot Bolger,

Book cover of A Second Life

What is my book about?

When first published by Penguin in 1994, A Second Life was among the first novels to explore the secrecy around adoption in Ireland, and the obstacles stopping birth mothers and children being reunited. Following a crash, Sean Blake, a photographer, feels compelled to search – against walls of official silence – for the woman forced to give him up for adoption.

In 1994 Magdalene laundries survivors were just starting to find the courage to speak out. Hearing their testimonies, Bolger felt his original text didn’t fully capture this tragedy. Its characters haunted his imagination until, in 2022, he felt ready to retell their story in a totally rewritten text, based on facts now available. A Second Life is a completely “renewed” novel with a profoundly moving conclusion.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The God Squad: The Bestselling Story of One Child's Triumph Over Adversity

Dermot Bolger Why did I love this book?

This isn’t directly about Magdalene laundries but about the hidden abuse suffered by children in religious institutions. When Paddy Doyle’s parents died in rural Ireland in 1955, he was sentenced in a district court – aged four – to eleven years’ detention in an industrial school for not possessing a legal guardian.

Despite ending up wheelchair bound, he became a passionate advocate for survivor’s rights. His memoir, The God Squad, broke so many taboos that mainstream Irish publishers wouldn’t publish it. It opened the door for other memoirs.

My tiny publishing house released it in 1988. My late wife and I spent our honeymoon putting covers on it. We risked losing our home if sued. But the book became an international bestseller. A deeply warm and courageous man, Paddy died in 2020.

By Paddy Doyle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The God Squad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The past they tried to hide.

His mother died from cancer in 1955. His father committed suicide shortly thereafter. Paddy Doyle was sentenced in an Irish district court to be detained in an industrial school for eleven years. He was four years old...

Paddy Doyle's prize-winning bestseller, The God Squad, is both a moving and terrifying testament of the institutionalised Ireland of less than fifty years ago, as seen through the bewildered eyes of a child. During his detention, Paddy was viciously assaulted and sexually abused by his religious custodians, and within three years his experiences began to result in…


Book cover of Banished Babies: The Secret Story of Ireland's Baby Export Business

Dermot Bolger Why did I love this book?

This explosive exposé of an illegal trade that was hidden in plain sight was the first account of the lucrative practice of baby trafficking in Irish Magdalene laundries. It was run for profit by Irish nuns, administered by civil servants who doctored documents, and approved by bishops and politicians who kept it secret.

Mike Milotte’s exposé caused a sensation that was published in 1997. But, just like I felt about my book, he regarded the book as unfinished business. Therefore, in recent years he has published a revised edition incorporating many previously untold personal uncovered in the intervening period, as the full extent of his secretive child trade became known, with rich Americans visiting orphanages to pick babies to bring home with falsified documents, in exchange for generous donations to the nuns.

By Mike Milotte,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Banished Babies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of baby trafficking organised by nuns, sanctioned by an archbishop, administered by civil servants and approved by politicians who tried to keep it secret...

In this re-issue of the 2012 second edition of his highly acclaimed Banished Babies, Mike Milotte uncovers in vivid detail how the State colluded with the Church to facilitate the export of thousands of 'illegitimate' children in the 1950s and 60s, and how a black market existed in which Irish babies were bought and sold beyond the fringes of the official scheme.

Mike Milotte's damning expose was first published to critical acclaim in 1997,…


Book cover of Philomena: The True Story of a Mother and the Son She Had to Give Away

Dermot Bolger Why did I love this book?

This is a real-life account of how Philomena Lee was banished to an Irish convent after a teenage pregnancy and was forced to sign a document that gave the nuns the right to sell her child. She spent decades searching for the son who was searching for her: both being fed lies by the nuns.

The film version, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan is better known, but Martin Sixsmith’s written account of helping Philomena search for her son is more expansive and gives more detail about her son who enjoyed a career in American politics. Philomena Lee is a classic victim of the illegal trade that Mike Milotte has described in his exposé.

By Martin Sixsmith,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Philomena as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inspiring the film starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, and directed by Stephen Frears, Philomena is the tale of a mother and a son whose lives were scarred by the forces of hypocrisy on both sides of the Atlantic and of the secrets they were forced to keep.

With a foreword by Judi Dench, Martin Sixsmith's book is a compelling and deeply moving narrative of human love and loss, both heartbreaking yet ultimately redemptive.

When she fell pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena Lee was sent to the convent at Roscrea in Co. Tipperary to be looked…


Book cover of Girl in the Tunnel: My Story of Love and Loss as a Survivor of the Magdalene Laundries

Dermot Bolger Why did I love this book?

After my struggles to find a printer for The God Squad in 1988, it is refreshing to see how receptive readers are to this brave memoir by Maureen Sullivan, subtitled “My Story of Love and Loss as a Survivor of the Magdalene Laundries”.

When twelve years old, Sullivan told a teacher she was being sexually abused by her stepfather. A day later she was incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry. The nuns promised to educated her. Instead she became their indentured slave, washing and scrubbing, with little food or water and subjected to beatings.

The title comes from how the nuns kept her hidden in a tunnel when government inspectors came. Novelists can try to imagine these worlds, but only a survivor (and campaigner for other survivors) like Sullivan can really capture that purgatory.

By Maureen Sullivan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Girl in the Tunnel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compelling new memoir by one of the youngest-known survivors of Ireland’ s infamous Magdalene laundries. Sullivan has been interviews extensively in the national media about her harrowing experiences. She discussed her ongoing fight for justice in RTÉ ’ s 2022 documentary Ireland’ s Dirty Laundry.


Book cover of Suffer the Little Children: The inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools

Dermot Bolger Why did I love this book?

I used my wages as an 18-year-old factory hand to establish the small press that published The God Squad. Forty-six years later, I’m still involved in publishing. In all that time, Suffer the Little Children (subtitled “The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools”) is the most important book I played any part in publishing.

It is the definitive history of all religious-run institutions. The forensic use of official documents and the diligent investigative work by the authors left no room for dispute about the cruel systems of control which religious orders exercised over women and children trapped in their care with the acquiescence of the state. It shows the world that my character, Sean Blake, is saved from by being adopted by loving parents and told nothing about his identity.

By Mary Raftery, Eoin O'Sullivan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Suffer the Little Children as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Up until the late sixties in Ireland, thousands of young children were sent to what were called industrial schools, financed by the Department of Education, and operated by various religious orders of the Catholic Church. Popular belief held that these schools were orphanages or detention centers, when in reality most of the children ended up at the schools because their parents were too poor to care for them. Mary Raftery's award-winning three-part TV series on the industrial schools, "States of Fear", shocked Ireland when broadcast on RTE in 1999, prompting an unprecedented response in Ireland - hundreds of people phoned…


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Dormice & Moonshine: Falling for Slovenia

By Sam Baldwin,

Book cover of Dormice & Moonshine: Falling for Slovenia

Sam Baldwin Author Of Dormice & Moonshine: Falling for Slovenia

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Why am I passionate about this?

I'm an Englishman who fell in love with a 300-year-old former sausage curing hut on the side of a Slovenian mountain in 2007. After years of visits spent renovating the place, I moved to Slovenia, where I lived and worked for many years, exploring the country, customs, and culture, learning some of the language, and visiting its most beautiful places. I continue to be enamored with Slovenia, and you will regularly find me at my cabin, making repairs and splitting firewood.

Sam's book list on books about Slovenia

What is my book about?

When two brothers discover a 300-year-old sausage-curing cabin on the side of a Slovenian mountain, it's love at first sight. But 300-year-old cabins come with 300 problems.

Dormice & Moonshine is the true story of an Englishman seduced by Slovenia. In the wake of a breakup, he seeks temporary refuge in his hinterland house, but what was meant as a pitstop becomes life-changing when he decides to stay. Along the way, he meets a colourful cross-section of Slovene society: from dormouse hunters, moonshine makers, beekeepers, and bitcoin miners, to a man who swam the Amazon, and a hilltop matriarch who…

Dormice & Moonshine: Falling for Slovenia

By Sam Baldwin,

What is this book about?

'Charming, funny, insightful, and moving. The perfect book for any Slovenophile' - Noah Charney, BBC presenter

'A rollicking and very affectionate tour' - Steve Fallon, author of Lonely Planet Slovenia

'Delivers discovery and adventure...captivating!' - Bartosz Stefaniak, editor, 3 Seas Europe

When two brothers discover a 300-year-old sausage-curing cabin on the side of a Slovenian mountain, it's love at first sight. But 300-year-old cabins come with 300 problems.

Dormice & Moonshine is the true story of an Englishman seduced by Slovenia. In the wake of a breakup, he seeks temporary refuge in his hinterland house but what was meant as…


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