Category Archives: Adoption

Visiting Ghosts

ghosts

 

“We are the ghosts of the children no more. We lay in the graveyard of the home for unwed mothers, next to the church with the beautiful rose window, underneath the disturbed soil of Ireland. Our mothers came here, sharing secrets, being quiet, toiling and attending Mass with each other, though they never shared their true names. There was a momentary sisterhood, it seemed, and we thought we might one day live here, and be happy…” – Gavriela Maxime Ze’eva Person, Ghosts

 

Our two week journey began in typical American fashion: sitting at the gate in Newark, delayed by a line of thunderstorms.

Arriving NY from Ireland, 1961
Arriving NY from Ireland, 1961

The sit turned into four hours, as we were 40th in a line of equally delayed international flights, requiring refueling before even getting into takeoff position, and the wait was requited only by a cup of warmish water and a biscuit. Despite it all, we arrived into Shannon the next morning, Tuesday, only two hours late, released from our flying tin can disheveled and jet-lagged. My travel companion Cathy’s Kerry-based cousins graciously were on hand to collect and deliver us down to Cork, and by 1 pm, we were safely ensconced in our B&B in Glanmire.  Poor Cathy had been suffering from a stomach bug before we even left New Jersey, so she required a major nap/repair session as soon as we arrived. For my part, as is typically the case on arriving Ireland, I found myself too amped to sleep, so just powered through the jet lag. We made arrangements to meet up with two of the media crews in town to cover the mother-baby home scandals and interview mothers and adult adopted people.  The Rochestown Park Hotel, where media and others were staying, soon became ‘command central’, as we claimed a corner of their outdoor restaurant area as our own throughout the five-day stay in Cork. Food and drink seemed to magically appear as needed (I suspect a huge thanks is owed to some of our media friends for making a good bit of that happen!)

This little corner quickly became our haven – a safe meeting place where old and new friends met, hugged and chatted, shared our personal stories from a deep gut-level, dried each other’s tears and recovered ourselves when each day’s journey sometimes proved too much. The mix was eclectic: a renowned archaeologist and anthropologist well-trained and sensitive in the matter of infant graves in Ireland, Toni Maguire; international and local journalists; adopted people, mothers, siblings, spouses, partners, eyewitnesses and more. We were all there for one purpose – to investigate and validate what we knew were the true stories behind the Irish mother-baby homes, including the many who perished behind their walls and lay in unmarked graves across the grounds. It was a sobering mission, but in so many ways empowering as well. We could feel the ghosts of our lost mothers, brothers and sisters leading us forward and giving us strength.

Storming Normandy Beach
Storming Normandy Beach

Wednesday was D-Day: we met early at the Rochestown, scarfing down a quick breakfast and planning our reconnaissance for the day like Eisenhower going into Normandy. Toni was leading the charge. Ordnance survey maps were perused, privacy issues were duly considered and respected, notes were made and at last we set off for the Bessboro mother-baby home in Cork.

'Angel's Plot', Bessboro, Cork
‘Angel’s Plot’, Bessboro, Cork

Our first stop was a respectful visit to the designated ‘angel’s plot’, an odious term for what is really a twee faux cemetery, where only a few nuns and two or three babies were laid to rest. New memorials have been laid by grief-stricken families who still don’t know where their departed little ones or mothers were truly lain to rest. We suspected going in that far more lay scattered throughout the property.

Toni Maguire explains unsettled soil
Toni Maguire explains unsettled soil

We quickly learned the true meaning of Toni’s oft-repeated phrase about the immediate visual identification of unmarked graves, “The earth never truly settles over these spots.” Dips and swells, vegetation patterns and colourations – all proved to mark various spots surrounding the ‘angel’s plot’, including areas even outside the marked grounds of the Bessboro property, in an area recently brokered for sale. It wasn’t even necessary to complete ground probes or sophisticated radar and soil testing (although surely that will need to happen in the course of the Commission of Inquiry‘s investigation). The visual markers were all there. And the ghosts cried out to us. It is hard to describe the feeling of walking upon hallowed but unremarked grounds. Beneath us lay the tiny remains of children for whom life (if they even drew first breath) was all too short, but perhaps mercifully so in some cases. We all felt we had a duty of care to give these tiny ghosts a voice; to share their plight and the plight of those of us who dared to survive with the world. Life was not kind in these homes.

Bessborough
Bessborough

In 1922, Bessboro (Bessborough, or “BEZZ-bora” if you come from Da Real Capitol) House was purchased by the Sacred Heart Sisters of Jesus and Mary, a French-founded and London-based order, from the Quaker Pike family. History maintains the Pikes were not a very gracious lot, and treated those who worked for them in a quite unkind manner. Family members and the babies of workers there prior to 1922 would similarly have been buried on the property, creating even more mass or Cillini graves. The Sacred Heart sisters, upon local diocesan bishops’ invitations, came to Bessboro and later to Sean Ross Abbey (Roscrea) and Castlepollard (Westmeath) for the purposes of establishing mother-baby homes, ostensibly to replace the disease-ridden and harsh county homes or workhouses with “better” accommodations for unmarried mothers and their children. But witness this excerpt from the 1939 report of Ms. Alice Litster, inspector for boarded out children in the Department of Local Government and Public Health:

“The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers. I except the Manor House, Castlepollard, in which the infantile death rate is comparatively low. In theory, the advantage should lie on the side of the child institutionally born. Pre-natal care, proper diet, fresh air, sufficient exercise, no arduous work, proper and comfortable clothing, freedom from worry, the services of a skilled doctor, the supervision and attention of a qualified nurse, all should be available and should make for the health  of the expectant mother and the birth and survival of a healthy infant…Cleanliness, medical attention, dietetic knowledge, all the human skill may continue to preserve child life should be at hand. Yet any infant born in any other circumstances appears  to have a better chance of life. I have grave doubts of the wisdom of continuing to urge Boards of Health and Public Assistance to send patients to the special homes so long as no attempt is made to explore the causes of the abnormally high death rate The illegitimacy birth rate shows an upward trend. In 1916 it was 1530; in 1925 it was 1662. We cannot prevent the birth of these infants. We should be able to prevent their death.”

And witness these two shocking letters, transcribed from the Cork City Archives:

Found in LG 11 Box 91

"The Board of Public Assistance for the South Cork Public Assistance District. Secretary's office, Boardroom, Douglas Rd. Cork. 12th January 1945 A Chara Sacred Heart Home Bessboro Blackrock I wish to inform you that in a Circular Letter, P.2/1945 dated 10th January, 1945, Dr. Ward, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for local Government and Public Health, directs that, for the time being, no unmarried mother, or expectant mother should be sent to The Sacred Heart Home and Hospital, Bessboro’, Blackrock. Patients who normally would be sent there should be sent to the County Home

Mise le meas,

Signed, (unreadable)
Runaidho

To Dispensary Medical Officers, Medical officers, Matrons and Head Nurses of Hospitals, Assistance Officers and Superintendant Assistance Officers."

Why would they redirect mothers to county homes? Because:

"Evaluation to Ireland of Mothers and Children.

Copy Cork County Council. Public Health Dept 66 South Mall 17th August 1943

F Wrenne Esq. NA County Manager Courthouse.

Dear Mr Wrenne Bessboro Maternity Home With reference to the high rate of infant mortality in the above named institution as drawn to your attention recently by LCD (?) this matter has been investigated by Dr O Briain assistant (HCH?) who reports the following terms: 

Bessboro Maternity home and High Infant Mortality
I investigated this home and figures obtained were Deaths 68% sixty eight of the births. Diagnosis in most of these cases was Debility some were given as gastroenteritis and a small number as prematurity Most of the deaths were from 2-3 weeks to 3 months. This is the period they leave the Maternity Hospital for the home. The sister in charge has no Hospital training in infants and children apart from 2 months in Temple Street Hospital Dublin. This may or may not be a cause but I suggest a specially trained qualified in infant feeding should be appointed for 6-12 months. The figures could be then compared with the previous term Signed, D O Briain Asst Co H O H"

Moreover, spokeswoman for the Sacred Heart Sisters, Sr. Julie Rose, to date cannot even publicly confirm if children were buried in proper coffins or simply buried in shrouds/bags at Bessboro. We’ve spoken with several mothers who lost, or were told they lost, children at the home. In one case, the mother went back to reclaim her son, born in 1979, only to be told (by a nursery nun, not a social worker) that the months-old baby had died of ‘congenital heart failure’, despite that he was a healthy, nursing infant when his mother was there. When confronted with this horrifying news, the young mother was offered no cup of tea, no sympathy, not even a moment to sit down and collect her breath. And chillingly, no death cert exists for this child.

Heart-wrenching memorial for a deceased infant whose true burial spot remains unknown.

In another case, the mother and her son were both infected by a dirty needle during childbirth (no explanation for the use of said needle has been given, considering the mothers received no pain relief during labour during this mother’s time, 1960). She and her infant son were stricken with septicemia, and despite her pleading with the nuns to seek medical treatment for her son, he was taken too late to nearby St. Finbarr’s Hospital and died. The mother herself barely survived, and continued to be afflicted by her infection long after she’d left Bessboro and resettled in the UK. Yet her discharge papers show her in “good health” upon leaving. She begged to know where her son lay buried, but was merely shown a weedy, overgrown patch well beyond the defined ‘angel’s plot’. Hardly a fitting resting spot for this poor infant. To say this knowledge added to the solemnity of our work on Wednesday would be understatement.  And still more stories came.

Remembering Bessboro Babies Ceremony
Remembering Bessboro Babies Ceremony

We met with individuals who would have deep historical and firsthand knowledge of events and records at Bessboro. Their testimonies were equally harrowing and disturbing. It’s a small wonder any of us survived, and that theme of survivors’ guilt continued to plague many of us throughout the visit. We were physically and emotionally wrecked by the time we returned from our day at Bessboro. Why was it we mattered so little? How on earth could anyone have deemed it an acceptable ‘solution’ to incarcerate women for the ‘crime’ of a non-marital pregnancy, and then forcibly (and often illegally) separate them from their children? What sick god would sanction such an act of ‘Christian charity’?

On the 8th of January, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Inquiry will be released. The little ghosts are waiting, watching…and so are we, their living, breathing brethren.

The Last Piece of Dirty Carpet: Adoption in Ireland

9
Bessboro, Cork, 1961

The tides are finally turning…

Twenty years I’ve been at this, promoting and advocating for the rights of adopted people in and from Ireland (and in the US). We’ve talked, cajoled, written, and held countless meetings with successive governments in that period.  A small but fearless band of us connected in the early days of the Internet, spanning the Atlantic. It was the first time I’d ever spoken with people adopted in and from Ireland in my life.  We eventually began a Yahoo! group, which even today continues to receive members and posts. Some of us who had been ‘banished’ to the US, particularly in the Northeast, formed a small group (Adopted Citizens of Eire).

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Solidarity for Magdalenes, 2009

The topics have certainly been well-covered, even internationally. In 1989, activist and survivor Paddy Doyle led the charge with his excellent The God Squad. In 1997, former RTÉ journalist Mike Milotte researched and published his results on the trafficking of children from Ireland to the US in his seminal Banished Babies (updated in 2012). Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan had written Suffer the Little Children on the heels of Raftery’s award-winning three-part series States of Fear on RTÉ in 1999.  Stephen Humphries produced an excellent documentary on the Magdalene Laundries, Sex in a Cold Climate, in 1997 and it eventually became the basis for Peter Mullan’s award-winning feature film The Magdalene Sisters in 2002.  BBC also released the documentary Sinners in 2002. The latest, and perhaps most widely-seen chronicle of Irish adoption, is the award-winning film Philomena. The film was inspired by Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book,  The Lost Son of Philomena Lee. And our heroine, the real-life Philomena Lee, has been playing a blinder as one of the most eloquent, gracious and courageous spokeswomen for Irish mothers of loss. Thanks to her good work, Adoption Rights Alliance has now partnered with The Philomena Project, and it set the cogs in motion toward the most recent explosion and revelation in Tuam.

Our merry band in Ireland, the US, and the UK eventually formed AdoptionIreland: The Adopted Peoples Association of Ireland and began the first full-throttle campaign to restore the rights of adopted adults. We were bolstered by a wave of adoption activism in the US, and particularly informed by the work of Bastard Nation.  Eventually, AdoptionIreland and those of us involved in it withered from burnout. Sometimes it becomes prudent to stop banging your head against a brick wall, hide behind the sofa and take a break. But in the interim,  some of my intrepid colleagues and I, whose mothers had been in Magdalene Laundries in addition to the mother-baby homes, found the energy and impetus and decided to fight the cause of the Magdalene women. We founded Justice for Magdalenes (now JFM Research) in 2003, and began a long campaign to seek restorative justice and redress for those women. In 2008, some of our original AdoptionIreland core group were rejuvenated enough to resume battle, and Adoption Rights Alliance was formed, quietly but diligently working with a small group to foment change at the legislative level.

Philomena Lee at her son Anthony/Michael Hess’ grave, Roscrea, Tipperary, January 2014

Throughout this work and the long campaign for adoption rights, we’ve often talked about the children left behind, buried in mass graves on the properties of many of the mother-baby homes in Ireland, or at the Angel’s Plot in Glasnevin and Mt St Jerome’s, Dublin.  Shortly after Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s arrival in Dublin in 2004, appointed as ‘cleaner extraordinaire’ by Rome to deal with Ireland’s many problems of child/women abuse and rape, two of my JFM colleagues, Angela Murphy and Claire McGettrick, met with him to discuss the Magdalenes, mass graves and adoption rights issues. None of this is new.

We saw a glimmer of hope in 1999, when the Irish government finally decided to lift the lid and investigate industrial schools, residential homes, mother-baby homes, vaccine trials and Magdalene Laundries. But it was too much — too massive a horror — for them to cope with. So sadly, the mother-baby homes, those of us subjected to illegal vaccine trials, and Magdalene Laundries were left behind in that investigation. More than ten years passed before we were finally able to achieve a small measure of justice for Magdalene survivors.

origcert
Original Irish birth certificateThere is no doubt some of the reticence to peek into the dark past of Ireland’s history of adoption involves the fathers. Oh yes, those daddies. Frequently known as “Mr. Diagonal Line” for those of us with dodgy birth certificates. Some (or perhaps even many – we’ll likely never know) were men of standing: government officials, the clergy, prominent businessmen. So of course we can’t sully their “good reputations,” right? But the scab of that “old boy club” secret has finally got to come off, however painful. Ireland must finally deal with and it appears the collective will of the public demands it.

There is no doubt some of the reticence to peek into the dark past of Ireland’s history of adoption involves the fathers. Oh yes, those daddies. Frequently known as “Mr. Diagonal Line” for those of us with dodgy birth certificates. Some (or perhaps even many – we’ll likely never know) were men of standing: government officials, the clergy, prominent businessmen. So of course we can’t sully their “good reputations,” right? But the scab of that “old boy club” secret has finally got to come off, however painful. Ireland must finally deal with and it appears the collective will of the public demands it.

Obviously, dead babies lying in unmarked graves is nothing new in Ireland. Again, we’ve talked about this before, with the Magdalene cause, and certainly Toni Maguire’s (Queen’s University, Belfast) excellent work in uncovering and excavating the mass grave sites of Cillini (unbaptised babies) has been well known for some years. So what tipped it this time? Was it the horror of the phrase “septic tank” as the purported tomb for these infants just the final straw? Whatever the cause, we are grateful the world is finally seeing what we’ve known for many, many years. #800 babies is now catching fire in the way #200girls did a month ago.

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Sean Ross Abbey, Tipperary, 1950’s

Here are some of the gruesome statistics we’ve collated over the years, which bolster what the world has recently learned about Tuam, Galway:

In 1943, the birth and death rates for the three Sacred Heart homes were as follows*. This year is particularly poignant, because it is also the year former Chief Medical Office for Ireland, Dr. James Deeney, undertook an investigation of the Bessboro, Cork Sacred Heart home and discovered an epidemic of staph infection among the infants, witnessing nappies filled with infected diarrhea, babies with sores and raging fevers, etc.

Sean Ross Abbey births: 146
Deaths: 45
Mortality rate: 31%

Castlepollard, Westmeath births: 77
Deaths: 6
Mortality rate: 8%

Bessborough, Cork births: 106
Deaths: 60
Mortality rate: 57%

*Initial, early research is based upon available online (Mormon-held) records, and may not include some records, quarters or is otherwise missing data. Further in-depth research is ongoing to pull all actual death certificates and available archival records. Initial inspection of some death certificates indicates marasmus (severe/acute malnutrition) was a leading cause of death among these infants.

Two years later, in 1945, the Bessborough, Cork home was shut down for a year as a result of Dr. Deeny’s investigation. and care and treatment of infants and mothers began to slightly improve. But overall, marked improvements weren’t to be seen until the arrival of Cork-born midwife, June Goulding (author of A Light in the Window) in 1950-51. It is remarkable that in 1951, only one infant and one mother perished under June’s care. The picture of neglect and ill-treatment at the hands of the religious at these institutions begins to become quite clear when juxtaposed against these statistics.

The call is to now demand the government put in place a full, independent inquiry. This means it cannot be a case of the government investigating the government (and let’s face it, they’re even more complicit now than in the case of the Magdalenes – the State has always paid capitation grants to mother-baby homes, the equivalent of an industrial wage, for each mother and child). That would be like allowing the burglar who cleaned out your house to investigate the crime. It needs to be led by a completely independent chair/body. I would suggest someone on the order of a Felice Gaer, UNCAT; or perhaps Mary Laffoy, Ireland Chief Justice who valiantly did try to have our issues covered during the 1999-2003 Child Abuse Commission Investigation; UNICEF, Amnesty – other human rights groups would also be possible choices. But absolutely not the Irish government. That will get us nothing more than a retread of the Martin McAleese-led Magdalene “independent” investigation, and his subsequent white-washed report. The UN CAT stated that was not unacceptable, and we couldn’t agree more. The memorials and stones and gardens and what have you can come later…no memorials before true justice.

taken_adoptionLet’s rip it all up. It’s long past time it be dealt with. And let’s remember that it’s not just about 800 dead babies in Tuam, Galway, or the thousands more we’ve commemorated and honour in Dublin, Roscrea, Cork and elsewhere. But it’s also about the living – some 60,000 Irish-born adults who are still considered second-class citizens by virtue of our birth, and denied access to even the most basic information about ourselves.

For more information or to join relevant Facebook groups campaigning for justice:

Adoption Rights Alliance (website)
The Philomena Project (website)
The Philomena Project (Facebook group, open to all supporters)
Banished Babies (open to all supporters, those trafficked to the US and the wider adoption community)
JFM Research (website)
Justice for Magdalenes (Facebook group, open to all supporters)

Because personal and private information is shared, some of these Facebook groups and pages are only open to only those who are adopted, mothers/fathers of loss or those who have a family connection:

Adoption Rights Alliance
Sean Ross Abbey
Bessboro
Castlepollard
St. Patrick’s Guild
St. Patrick’s Navan Road
Justice for the Tuam Babies

Unicorns and Rainbows: I’m Okay, You’re Okay

unicorn

I recently came upon a discussion thread regarding an insightful post by The Humanist Adoptee. The post lists 13 Reasons Why Adopted Children Are Not Lucky.  The reasons listed by the author are not absolutes for every adopted person. But they are a pretty good summation for the vast majority of us, and certainly for a public that sees adoption as something completely different than what we’ve lived.

What truly fascinated me were the responses by some of those who didn’t agree with all 13 reasons, or at least most of them. These were from adopted adults who to a person stated they’d had “happy adoptive outcomes.” The fascinating part is that the adopted dissenters were posting on an online support group for adopted people. Yet saying over and over that adoption had in no way affected their lives. This begged the honest question: if adoption has in no way affected you, why join an online support group for adopted people? The responses varied from “I reconnected with my birthfamily and want to helps others,” to “I’m looking for my birthmother and just want to thank her for giving me a wonderful life,” to “I found my birthmother, thanked her, and my life is complete.”

None of those are invalid or false statements on their surface.  But digging a bit deeper, what becomes clear is these folks have still been affected by adoption, be it wanting to know more about birthfamily, wishing to connect with other adoptees and help them, or having already searched and found birthfamily.  And even having admitted that, still  maintained adoption had in no way affected their lives. The basic implication being that if adoption didn’t result in some negative outcome – be it abuse, neglect, feelings of inferiority, etc. – it didn’t have an effect at all. Therefore, they associated all of the 13 reasons as absolute negatives in adoptive experience and couldn’t bear to attach that to themselves or identify with it any way, for fear of pathologizing themselves.

So fearful were they of acknowledging the ways in which adoption may have marked us, that some stated their adoptive parents would be ‘extremely upset’ if they read the 13 reasons. A respondent to this notion posted, ” I think it’s very telling that two of the previous posters mentioned that they think their adoptive ‘parents would be very upset’ to read this ‘article’. This chills me.” It chilled me, too. It suggests that even discussing the possible ways we’re all affected by our adoptive experience is taboo, especially with one’s parents. I would think that any parent who loved their child unconditionally and adopted with no emotional baggage or notions of child “ownership” would be able to read every one of those points and not be upset.

But it once again serves to copperfasten the concept of the “happy adoptee” as the one who conditions himself to “fit in” and be “grateful,” or feels “lucky.” I would have thought that given the reams of information now available on the Internet – professional research white papers, studies, blogs, support groups, forum and the lot – we would long be past the myth of unicorns and rainbows when it comes to adoption. But there are still many out there who still hold fast to this idea that adoption has in no way colored the lives of those who live it. Perhaps they’ve just begun their journey and haven’t really taken a good, introspective look at the many ways in which adoption affects us. From lack of medical histories, denial of rights, or observing our own children as if they were new, alien species – we face hurdles every day that our non-adopted counterparts do not. To state it has had no effect, good or bad. is disingenuous and the ultimate act of denial.

“I was lucky – if my birthmother hadn’t given me up for adoption, we would have had miserable lives,” is the one old chestnut I find most egregious.

For me (and mileage may vary for others), I find trying to compare and contrast what sort of life I might’ve had in Ireland (or the UK, as my mum ended up there) versus the one I had here in the US is not only futile, it is nigh on impossible. We cannot guess how we would’ve been raised, what hardships we might’ve faced or what our outcomes would have been. I don’t consider that luck or fate. A State and religious institution colluded to create our fates and that of our mothers/fathers, so to attribute that to “luck” is disingenuous, I find. When a society or state fails to provide the necessary supports and resources to enable natural families to parent their children (which is acknowledged as the best outcome for a child, barring instances of abuse or neglect), it creates a power imbalance and leaves (especially) women with no power or choice over their own and their child’s outcome. It may be uncomfortable for many to look deeply at what was truly done to us – I get that. Complete introspection coupled with deep research of the history of adoption, and what it is/meant in Irish history, can be a bit daunting for some.

taken_adoptionThat power imbalance still exists today with intercountry adoption, and even with domestic adoption in the US particularly. I cannot just shrug off what Ireland did to my mother and to me, nor accept that it was simply my “fate” or “lucky” that I went to a decent family. For me, to do so would mean disregarding or minimalising the lack of power and choice my own mother had, including lack of access to safe abortion. I know too many people who went to the “wrong” families, and then later learned their natural mothers would have been perfectly fit to raise them (in fact, often went on to marry shortly after and led established, stable lives).

giftIf we accept that it’s okay simply because we weren’t abused or unhappy in our adoptive families, it leaves us open to suggesting that this practice of willfully separating children from their mothers because of factors like poverty, religious or societal stigma, or other pressures (outside of the aforementioned abuse/neglect) is okay as well, and we will have learned nothing from our history. This is not to suggest that adoptive parents are always colluders in this process as well – most are/were well-intentioned and often not aware of the background circumstances, or misled by agencies. But sometimes as a society, we grow too comfortable with the incorrect notion that children are “given” as a “gift” for adoption, and the whole practise is completely altruistic. It was and is not. Whenever I hear that well-used trope, I always ask the user of the phrase, “If adoption is such a ‘gift,’ then look around at your children and tell me which one of YOURS you’d be willing to give as a ‘gift’?”

So whether our outcomes/experiences were happy or not-so-great, it is dangerous to say that this means adoption didn’t affect us, and ultimately it is a form of denial. It also does not acknowledge the enormous trauma of loss – for both mother and child – and the abhorrent social mores that create/d that separation. That complacency can lead us down a slippery slope that will allow the practice to continue, with little regard to the rights of women and their children. I’m certainly not suggesting we all start flagellating ourselves or creating some sort of angst over our adoptive situations. I do urge everyone to think carefully about what adoption means not only to you, personally, but examine the hidden toll of the accumulated loss and trauma for all parties involved.

Dear Rosita: It’s Not About You

 

no-whiningIt is amazing the amount of print space, air time and political clout given to those who choose adoption (particularly of the intercountry variety) to ‘create a family,’ yet so little given to the adult voices of those who have actually lived and can speak to the long-term effects of the intercountry adoption experience. Over the last four months, Irish airwaves and numerous publications have extensively covered the impact of the recent Oscar-nominated film ‘Philomena’ and Ireland’s history of trafficking more than 2,000 of its own children abroad. Yet the Irish Times has remained curiously silent on the topic. Until this past weekend, when we were treated to Rosita Boland’s cringe-worthy lament on the ‘Kafkaesque process’ that she claims intercountry adoption to be in Ireland today.

Rosita, it’s not about you. Lost in this whinge-fest is the truth that adoption is supposed to be about finding homes for children who desperately need them, not about finding children for people like Rosita Boland who desperately want them. What Ms. Boland doesn’t seem to understand is that adoption, and more importantly, the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (to which Ireland is a signatory and ratified), is about the best interests of children – not the adults wishing to adopt them. Creating a family through alternative means when one finds oneself biologically incapable of doing so is not a Constitutional right. It is a privilege. And trying to create one by any means necessary, including by flaunting the basic human rights of natural parents and their children, makes for a playing field and supply/demand scenario ripe for fraud. If adopters like Ms. Boland truly want to make a difference in a child’s life, why not sponsor a child and his family? Or adopt one of the thousands of children in care (and, sadly, among whom are the cast-aside teens of prior Russian, Romanian and other intercountry adoption arrangements), of which according to recent HSE statistics, more than 300 are currently statused as tracked for adoption?

guatemala_cables

We’ve all seen the numerous recent imbroglios in which Ireland has become involved concerning intercountry adoption: Vietnam, Mexico, Tristan Dowse and other cases all stand as stark reminders to how corrupt this practice has become. The moribund, quasi-governmental body known as the Adoption Authority of Ireland has managed to step into one nasty quagmire after another in its quest to create bilateral agreements and satisfy the insatiable demands of prospective adopters. That it finally tried putting the brakes on some of these relationships is a small victory for best-practice adoption, although clearly it put a major damper on Ms. Boland’s hopes.

The underrepresentation of adult intercountry-adopted voices when it comes to intercountry adoption policy – be it on the board of the Adoption Authority, in the media, or at conferences concerning the topic – is staggering and concerning. In the US, a Bill known as the Children and Families First (CHIFF) Act, designed to ‘fast-track’ intercountry adoptions, is struggling to gain support. It is sponsored by senior Senator from Louisiana Mary Landrieu, whose own husband was trafficked from Ireland in 1949 – before a legal Adoption Act was even on the books. But that doesn’t seem to bother Ms. Landrieu one whit, as she herself played ‘white saviour’ and collected two children internationally, and touts her husband’s ‘adoption’ as something out of a “storybook.” His export from Ireland and adoption was and is illegal. She and the CHIFF committee make the odious argument that there are ‘more than enough [children] to go around,’ as if children were somehow party favours. Even more egregious, supporters of this Bill recently hosted a conference to which not ONE intercountry adopted adult was invited. When questioned about the lack of representation of those with lived experience on the topic by groups of Korean, Irish, German, Vietnamese and other internationally-adopted adults, CHIFF committee members told us the conference was geared toward the ‘legal aspects of the Bill.’ So there are no intercountry-adopted lawyers out there? Ms. Landrieu’s own husband is a well-known Louisiana attorney. But perhaps he remains ignorant of his own trafficked status, unaware that perhaps somewhere in Ireland there was or is a mother who lives devastated and grieved that her child was taken from her simply because of the social mores of the day.

Which brings us back full-circle to the truth of Ireland’s own involvement in child trafficking from the 1940’s-1970’s. The last piece of dirty carpet remaining from Ireland’s history and culture of containment. Those of us whose identities, heritage and culture were stripped in that trafficking are now middle-aged adults: we vote, pay taxes, have children and grandchildren, have served in the US military, and yes, some of us are even attorneys. We have a voice and a story to tell. It is no mystery why the Irish State and former religious-run agencies would prefer this piece of carpet not be torn up. It will expose a half-century of fraud, corruption, illegalities and human rights violations that may well make the industrial school abuses and Magdalene Laundries pale in comparison. What is a mystery is why individuals like Ms. Boland whinge about the small number of children available to be adopted from abroad. We should be applauding those numbers and recognising that the best outcome for most children is to be raised within their natural families, within their own country and culture. Money and power should never be used as tools to subjugate women in other countries and strip them of their children. Implying that privileged white adopters can better raise a child is the worst sort of racism and classism, and does not represent choice or empowerment for women in underdeveloped nations or without resources to parent. And making it easier for that power imbalance to continue to exist is certainly not the answer.

The Hijacking of Narrative

trafficked

I am an adult. I vote, pay taxes, have raised children and grandchildren, drive, may legally have the occasional drink if I wish, and in my youth, was able to serve in the military. I am not a convicted felon, terrorist, stalker or miscreant. And yet the one thing I cannot do that all other citizens can (including the aforementioned felons, terrorists, stalkers and miscreants) is access the original documents of my birth, my identity and my heritage. I am one of more than 2,000 children trafficked from Ireland to the US for adoption. And I am weary of everyone from politicians and political pundits, to pro-life campaigners and religious think tanks, conveniently hijacking our narrative, our lived experience and using it to flog other issues or controversies. Yet I am the one who has been flogged clean of my rights, and seem to have no voice in my own narrative.

It seems unthinkable in a modern Ireland that this remains the case, despite that immediately across the water in the UK, citizens there have been able to access those same documents for nearly forty years.

fruit_salad

Likewise, in most European countries and five US states. I continue to hear The Taoiseach, Ministers and TDs elected by the people tell me that these rights, access to these documents, represent “complex Constitutional issues.” Nothing could be further from the truth. They are confusing issues involving basic human behavior and relationships, with issues involving rights.  My right to know who I am is a civil and human right, one enshrined in the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption and by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And yet more than 60,000 adopted Irish adults continue to be denied that right.

What may be considered “complex” is seeking out one’s family of origin and making contact with those individuals.

But thousands of Irish citizens do that every day, despite sealed records.

We are also told that natural parents (mothers especially) were guaranteed confidentiality and somehow are granted this extra layer of protection – a level of protection no other citizen enjoys. Nothing could be further from the truth: this myth of “privacy” has been trotted out ad nauseum by agencies with a great deal to hide, and it has increasingly become a dog that simply won’t hunt. No documentation has ever been produced to prove this. In fact, quite the opposite, mothers of loss have come forward with documents they were forced to sign, promising that they would not seek their children in future. We are also told that opening records will cause adoption rates to plummet and abortion rates to rise, yet in jurisdictions where records have always been open or were opened in the past, nothing could be further from the truth (Alan Guttmacher Institute: http://www.agi-usa.org/pubs/journals/3026398.html).The basic right to our identity is not mutually inclusive with search or contact.

Many adopted adults in open records countries/states obtain their original documents and never choose to trace natural family.

bad_seed

And at the end of the day, all human relationships are complex by design, whether shaded by adoption or not. In fact, most countries in the free world, including Ireland, have already enacted laws that protect individuals from unwarranted or harmful contact by way of barring orders, anti-stalking and harassment laws, digital privacy laws, etc. Why do our elected officials feel that adopted people must be harnessed by extra layers of protection against contact with blood-related individuals? One can only assume that our government believes us so pathologically unable to handle our interpersonal relationships that we are somehow “damaged” or “less than” because of the circumstances of our birth. And that is just plain discrimination. If we treated any other minority group in the same manner, the hue and cry would be earth-shattering.

So do we continue to believe lies designed to hide past bad practice, adoption fraud and a generational legacy of shame and stigma?

philomena_balm

Do we continue to allow mothers and fathers to live in pain, closeted by shame and stigma created by a nation caught in the stranglehold of outdated religious mores and control, and acted out by their own families and a State?

Or do we finally drag ourselves kicking and screaming into the 21st century, into the light of what we now know to be best practice as it applies to adoption and open records? Do we now finally acknowledge that we have spent the last half of the 20th century marginalizing, infantalising and discriminating against an entire population of adults?

A Modest Proposal

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TO: The Adoption Authority of Ireland
Shelbourne House, Shelbourne Road
Dublin 4
Republic of Ireland

RE: A Modest Proposal

Dear Chairman Shannon and Board Members,

It has come to my attention that the Adoption Authority of Ireland recently met with the U.S. Department of State with a view toward establishing a bilateral adoption agreement that would allow for the export of available U.S. citizens to Ireland for purposes of adoption, particularly from Florida. I understand this is in response to continued insatiable demand by prospective adopting couples in Ireland, who have been thwarted by now closed-off avenues such as Vietnam, Russia and other ‘sending’ countries.

I am aware that these avenues were cut off because of mounting cases of fraud, illegal and gray-market practice and inability to comply with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. And that’s as it should be. I am pleased that the Authority took such action to insure that adoption practice is always carried out for the right reasons and in the best interests of the child involved. Adoption should always be about finding homes for children who desperately need them; not about finding children for homes that desperately want them.

But now Ireland turns to the U.S. as a sending source. And while on the surface, one would imagine this to be an idyllic situation – after all, America is a developed nation, one of the ‘greatest’ in the world – unfortunately, as an adopted adult living in the U.S., I sadly know it is far from idyllic. Many U.S. states continue to abrogate the rights of adopted adults. Original birth certificates in all but six U.S. states remain retroactively sealed. And of those six states with some measure of openness, only three offer complete, unfettered access to the original birth certificate (Kansas, Alaska and Oregon). Moreover, adoption agencies in many U.S. states continue to violate the Hague, dealing in gray-market placements, coerced relinquishment practice, infant stealing and trafficking, and shoddy post-adoption services.

In looking to Florida as a potential sending ‘source’, one cannot find a more abhorrent situation. As a ‘border’ (water) state, Florida is a gateway to thousands of illegals entering the U.S., largely from Latin America. And a good part of that illegal flow is equally illegally trafficked children, often outright stolen from parents with little resources or understanding, from countries like Haiti, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile and elsewhere. Florida also has an abysmal placement record even among its own citizens and many agencies operating out of the state continue to use practices such as falsifying birth certificate, allow private, ‘sub rosa’ unregulated adoptions (c.f. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), improper vetting of prospective parents (resulting in poor placements which often leave children at risk for abuse and neglect) and, of course, sealing the original birth certificates of adopted adults in the state.

It is ironic, too, that Ireland would look to the U.S. as a sending source now, considering it has hardly dealt with the aftermath of its own export of children to the U.S. from the 1940s through the 1960s. The Adoption Authority recently reaccredited St. Patrick’s Guild, an agency notoriously involved in the past child export scheme and still currently involved in investigations concerning fraud (c.f. Tressa Reeves and other pending cases). St. Patrick’s, along with the Sacred Heart Adoption Society, St. Patrick’s Home (Navan Road) and others, sent thousands of Irish children to the U.S., often illegally (particularly those sent prior to the 1952 Adoption Act). Informed consent and signed relinquishments were given little thought in that time, and mothers were often cruelly unaware of where their children were being sent, or that they were giving permanent relinquishment. Concrete evidence exists that many of those children were used in unethical vaccine trials conducted by Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline); this investigation is still ongoing, despite recent attempts by the Oireachtas Health Committee to once again sweep it under the carpet.

I was one of Ireland’s original ‘Banished Babies.’ And I have a modest proposal for the Irish Adoption Authority. Rather than risk the potential for fraud, corruption and violations of the Hague Convention and take a chance on ‘unknown’ U.S. children, why not choose a ‘known quantity’?

I would like to offer myself for placement with any Irish parents seeking to adopt from the U.S.

I already possess Irish citizenship rights; am toilet-trained and easily adaptable; speak English well (albeit with an American accent); I get along well with others; and most importantly, I come unfettered as my mother long ago gave up rights to me, is more than likely dead, and even if still alive, because of the shabby, post-adoption trace assistance offered me by my original placing agency in Ireland, I am unlikely to ever find members of my family of origin. I could even pay my own way over. I can cook and clean, drive my new family around and be quite useful.

I promise not to be ‘ungrateful,’ whinge over my circumstances or create a nuisance for my new family. I’ve already been broken of those ‘bad habits’ by my former adoptive family, agencies and the general public. All I seek is repatriation to the land of my birth and I can be whatever my new family wants me to be. I understand that being at least 50 years of age, I may be a bit ‘older’ than what my new family expects. But I am truly in need of a good home – a home in the land where I was born, before being cruelly ripped away from my first mother and shipped more than 3,000 miles away to a strange, new country at an age where I was already walking, talking and had a close, prolonged bonding experience with my first mother for nearly two years. But don’t worry – I’m over all that now, which is one of the benefits of advanced age. In another few years, I likely won’t remember it all. And the good news is, my new family won’t have to deal with me for long, or at least no more than 30-40 years, which is far less than what they’d have to contend with in procuring a newborn.

Most importantly, this proposal is quite a ‘green’ option: recycling citizens (particularly trained, working, tax-paying ones), rather than bringing in new ones to add to the already overburdened Irish economy just makes sense.

I do hope you’ll consider my proposal with all due seriousness. And if not, at least consider cleaning up the mess left by Ireland’s previous ‘export’ business before repeating history, only in reverse.

Sincerely yours,

Mari Steed
nee Mary Therese Fitzpatrick
or whatever new name you’d like to assign me…hell, I’m easy.

Our Lady of Nothing at All (Part II)

 

9Honora was the youngest daughter in a family of five, from a small village in Wexford not far from the port of Rosslare.  While her father and several brothers mostly worked quarrying rock, her own mother’s people were mostly seafarers.  Hardly prosperous, they at least managed a steady living and had survived the worst of An Ghorta Mor.  Honora was the pet of the family, an exquisite dark-haired beauty who learned early on how to wrap a man around her finger, starting with her besotted father.  By the time she was 16, in 1926, she had become pregnant by a local farmer’s son.  With Honora’s own charm, coupled with her father’s desire to do anything to keep his precious Honora from harm as well as his own local influence, they managed to keep the scandal quiet.  The resulting baby boy, John, was quickly hustled off to live with a pair of uncles in the next village over, and Honora resumed her normal life.  Disaster struck again three years later, when Honora managed to bewitch yet another local lad and bore him a daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

This time Honora’s aggrieved father shuttled her off to a small set of rooms shared by a bachelor and his sister in yet another neighboring village, but told her the child was now her own responsibility.  Honora’s mother by this point had lapsed into a near catatonic state over this flagrant family shame.  She would spend most days rocking by the fire, only ever asking if any of her three boys were home from work yet. Honora’s father did most of the cooking and cleaning, looking after his now witless wife as best he could.  What little spare time he had, he would visit Honora and the baby girl, Ellie, or go by and pick up baby John for a brief visit with his mammy.

 

 

 

 

 

On one such visit, not quite a year after Ellie’s birth, Honora’s father entered the small house she shared to find her retching into a basin.

 

 

 

 

 

—Honora, girl, what’s wrong with you?

 

 

 

 

 

Ellie was squalling on a cot in the corner, and as Honora’s father went to pick her up for a cuddle (he could resist his grandchildren no more than he could resist Honora, bastards though they may be), Honora wiped her ashen face and straightened.

—It’s happened again, Da.

—What’s happened again, lass?

—A fella’s been at me

—What?!

—Oh yes, that fine fella you begged me to take rooms with, Nick…well, he’s not such a fine fella is he?

—Ah jaysus, the fecker’s gone and knocked you up?

—Yes, Da…I swear I did nothing to encourage him, honest

—I believe you Nora, I do.  Men can’t help but be dazzled by you, sweet. I know.  But honestly, what are we to do now?

He sighed heavily and sat with resignation on a stool, scratching his balding head.  He knew in his heart his own budget, never mind Honora’s (which was only supplemented by the laundry she took in for neighbours) would never stand another babby.

—Nora, you know you’ll have to give this up…the county home will find the babby a good family.

—They won’t, Da!

Honora let out an anguished cry, but just as quickly clicked her own mouth shut, realising with an awful finality that she could not support another child.

And so, when this third baby was born, Martin, he was quickly christened and given over to the county home in Enniscorthy.  For agonising months, Honora and her father would make the long drive to the county home and visit with little Martin.  Each time they were assured that the paperwork was in process to find him a fine family. Finally, after a full year of such visits, Honora was told that a family was found and that she shouldn’t be bothered to visit Martin anymore — it would only upset and confuse him, trying to settle in with a new family.

Honora accepted her and Martin’s fate as best she could and went back to the sad house she shared (uncomfortably now) with the father of the child and his sister, who couldn’t resist making snarky remarks and darting nasty looks at Honora behind her back.  Her father promised to write to Honora’s older sister Anne, who was now married and living in Manchester, England, and see if Honora couldn’t come live with them until she could find suitable employment and (fingers crossed) a suitable spouse.  Arrangements were made and funds collected to send Honora for a short visit with Anne, hoping to lift her spirits and let her glimpse the joys of a stable marriage and family life.  The joys Honora glimpsed while in Manchester were evidently not quite what her father had envisioned.  She came back pregnant for the fourth time, this one resulting from a rapturous fling with a handsome, dark friend of her sister Anne’s husband Michael.

Her father was now convinced Honora was soft in the head, bewitching ways notwithstanding.  He could not believe a girl could be so daft as to not realise what had gotten her this way four times!  Enough was enough.  He sat her down in front of the fire and told her in no uncertain terms that this child was straight off to the county home, and no fond visits for a year.  Afterward, she would return to Manchester, to Anne and Michael (who would be under strict orders to keep her away from men, unless it was a proper, supervised courtship) and would not be bid welcome in Wexford again unless there was a ring on her finger and a proper husband in tow.

Honora was miserable…she loved her babies, including this unborn one. She loved the sex she had had with the men who’d produced these children, no matter what the Church and the neighbours said.  It was all just down to bad timing.  She’d believed her father could make everything work, but even she came to realise that the man was carrying far too much on his shoulders.  So when this last little babby girl was born, christened Philomena, Honora resignedly made the journey again to the county home for what she believed was the last time.

She had little Ellie and would occasionally see John, and now she’d be off to Manchester.  She tried to push the loss of Philomena and Martin, and her precious visits with John, out of her mind as she prepared for the journey to her sister’s.

But fate was not done with Honora yet.  Shortly before Christmastime, four-year old Ellie came down with a mysterious fever and blinding headache.  Nothing could console or aid her.  For two days Honora and her equally distraught father administered soup, water or anything they could to get the fever down.  But Ellie had lapsed into unconsciousness and they knew their only hope was to get her to the county home, which was the nearest place affording any class of medical service.

A somber resident paediatrician informed them that Ellie was suffering from meningitism.  Ellie’s vital signs languished to nothing overnight, despite fluids and what treatment was offered.  Four days after her illness began, Honora, her three older brothers, father and catatonic mother buried the little girl in the local cemetery.  Honora’s bitter tears flowed over Ellie’s small gravesite with the cold, December rain.  Something inside her hardened then, but made her resolved to always watch over her children, wherever they may be.

Three months later, Honora carried her grief and the secret of her children on the boat to Manchester.  She arrived at Anne’s doorstep weary and still somewhat in shock.  She had changed from the raven-haired, rose-cheeked, laughing beauty Anne had known as a girl.  Now a quiet, somber young woman stood before her.  Anne immediately folded her into her arms and set about restoring Honora into a marriageable catch.

Over the course of the next two years, Anne’s transformation began to work its magic.  Although Honora remained a quiet and sober woman, the roses did come back to her cheeks and evidently provided enough of a lure to attract a straight-laced railway worker she was introduced to at the local Irish club.  Anne made sure that Honora understand this was a fine man: God-fearing, a temperance Pioneer for many years, and exceedingly modest in his dealings with women.  Under no circumstances could Honora share any of her past — nothing about her children, living, dead or missing — to this man Tom, or he’d have nothing to do with her.

Tom seemed enthralled with Honora’s quiet way, taking it for modesty as opposed to some deep, abiding sorrow.  Within three months, he had offered her marriage and Honora’s entire family rejoiced.

Tom and Honora settled outside London, where work was more plentiful, especially for experienced Irish railroad workers, now stepping into the English jobs left vacant by World War II.  But that itself concerned Tom; they had three young children by the start of the war and he wanted his wife and children out of harm’s way.  So they were sent off to his father in Kerry, to a one-horse town where life seemed at a standstill.  Honora hated it, and disliked Tom’s taciturn father, who was forever ordering her around like some servant.  Her only relief was going into town to shop, where every male head would turn her way.  This barren outpost from the 18th century had never seen a woman the likes of Honora.  With her long dark hair flowing behind her and her imperial posture and direct gaze, she commanded men to their windows in passing.  But Honora was now a married matron and had no time for these staring ohmaudans.  She had another more important mission.

On occasion, Honora was able to convince Old Tom, her father-in-law, that she needed to go to Wexford to see her own family, usually because ‘someone was sick’.  She’d leave her three toddlers in Old Tom’s care (the foul old bastard was well able to look after them, and besides, that’s what a grandfather was for now and again) and hop the train.

Her first visit was to Wexford, where her oldest son John, now nearly 20, met her at the railway station.  She passionately embraced him, but was not surprised when his own embrace seemed a bit confused and stand-offish.  Poor lad hadn’t seen her in so many years, he’d probably forgotten she was his mother.  After a quick visit with her father, brothers and uncles (her mother had passed as quietly as she lived, in her own world, some five years ago — Honora and Anne had not attended the funeral), Honora made her way to the county home, now called St John’s.  Her mission was to try and learn where Martin and Philomena went and perhaps check in on them.  She was surprisingly able to follow their whereabouts, but no thanks to the staff at the home.  Her source was local gossip and it told her that contrary to what the county home had promised, Martin had ended up an ‘orphan’ in a local industrial school and Philomena was being raised by nuns at a girls’ convent school.

Honora arranged for further ‘day-trips’ from Old Tom’s place in Kerry and was able to slip by train to Kilkenny and Cork, to see Martin and Philomena.  Martin was a sad little fellow who seemed to want nothing to do with Honora, but the visits at least helped Honora to hold onto her sanity.  Philomena warmed more toward her, curling her small hand inside Honora’s as they sat in the children’s nursery together and tried to make conversation.  Honora did her best to explain her situation to both children, but they were far too young to grasp it and all she could do was try to cuddle them both and assure them she loved them.

The return trips to Kerry left Honora unsettled and empty.  She could never tell her Tom about these children, and yet she felt compelled to remain part of their lives, somehow. Her only hope was that she somehow wasn’t doing the children more harm than good with her sporadic visits and subjecting them to a life among strangers, in foster care and industrial schools.

Twenty-five years passed, bringing Honora another four children with Tom and a settled life in the London suburbs.  And although she occasionally saw her eldest son John, who was now married with his own son and living nextdoor to her sister Anne in Manchester, she had still not acknowledged her four Irish-born children to Tom and the younger children.  And on visits with her sister Anne or the requisite funerals and weddings where John was present, she was forced to pass him off as a “cousin” to her husband and children.  The pain and confusion that registered in John’s eyes on these occasions broke her heart.

She had also not set foot back in Ireland since the War years, and so could only follow Philomena and Martin’s progress through sporadic letters from her father, who didn’t know much about them himself.

One day a letter arrived, not from her father, but from one of her aging uncles.  Honora’s father had died, they said, peacefully in his sleep. She knew she would have to go back for this funeral.  So it was arranged that Honora would travel with her sister Anne.  She was shocked at what a small, sad place her family village in Wexford had become.  She and Anne tearfully buried their beloved father and Honora felt as if she was burying her last link to Ireland with him.  Except for the children — still out there, somewhere.  At the small gathering held in her bachelor Uncle George’s home, Honora struck up a conversation with a cousin, Biddy, who seemed to be in the know on everything.  Biddy also knew about John, Martin and Philomena and tactlessly asked Honora if she’d been in touch with them.  Honora sadly admitted she had not seen Philomena and Martin in over twenty years, and John only occasionally.  She was unprepared for the shock, then, when Biddy told her Philomena was still with the nuns, now in Waterford, doing sewing for them.  Honora had thought pretty Philomena would be lucky, and some nice family might’ve taken her in by now…or she’d by now be successfully married. Without hesitation, she hastily re-arranged her trip back to England, telling Anne to let Tom know she would be spending a few extra days ‘straightening out her father’s affairs’.

She wasted no time in traveling to St. Dominick’s, demanding to see her daughter when she arrived.  The nuns led her to an ornate parlor and she nervously sat waiting for Philomena, clutching her purse.  The spectre that soon appeared before her was shocking.  Now a grown woman, Philomena was still small, thin and had horrendous dark circles under her eyes.  The lively, sweet child Honora remembered had turned into a docile, resigned woman.  She didn’t know where to begin, so just stood up and hugged Philomena to her.  She could feel the bones in the girl’s back and was horrified.

— Oh my Phil, my poor, sweet Phil!  What have they done to you?

Philomena looked up into her mother’s eyes, a woman she barely knew, and felt nothing.  No sadness, no remorse, no anger.  Just a giant void of feeling.  However, that soon turned to relief when Honora announced her intentions to get Phil out of there.

They packed Phil’s meager belongings together and Phil noted the small wad of bank notes that passed between her mother’s hand and the sister who ran St. Dominick’s.  Honora hired a cab to take them down to Cork City, and soon they were settled in a small restaurant on Patrick Street, sipping tea and eating sandwiches.

—I know I haven’t been much of a mother to you — Honora hesitatingly began.

—Mum, it’s all past.  I understand.  John and Uncle George would send me letters and they told me about your husband and children.  I’ve been fine, really.

Honora eyed Phil suspiciously.  Her appearance told her otherwise, but for now, she was just glad to see and touch Philomena once again.

—Look, because of Tom, I still can’t be much of a mother to you, but I can do something.  Tom has a sister who is head Matron at a hospital in Dublin.  I’m sure we could find you a suitable job there.  Better than working for the nuns.  Did they even pay you for the work you did?

—No, mum.  None of us were paid.  We got our keep and that was it.

—Right.  Then that’s it…you’ll slave no more for the likes of them.

The two women finished their lunch in awkward silence, not knowing what else to say between complete strangers who hadn’t seen each other in twenty-five years.  Honora paid for lunch and called for a cab to take them to the train station.  Soon they were on their way to Dublin, and a whole new life for Phil.

Honora located them a small, reasonable bed and breakfast in the city and rang to make an appointment with Tom’s sister, the head Matron at Our Lady’s Hospital.  She was careful with her words, introducing Phil by phone as a “cousin” from Wexford, with solid training from the nuns. Tom’s sister happily agreed to meet them, and soon after their proper introduction, Philomena was welcomed to the small army of ward staff employed at the hospital.

Satisfied that at least Phil was rescued from a life of slavery to the nuns, Honora said yet one more sad good-bye to her daughter, as they stood in the staff dormitory.  Honora’s eyes filled with tears as she hugged Phil tightly to her.

—I wish things didn’t have to be this way.  I wish I had you near me every day.

—Don’t worry, mum.  I’ll be fine.  I’m a grown woman now.  And thank you for getting me out of St. Dominick’s.  I know I’ll love this job.  I’ll write as soon as I’m settled.  And don’t worry — I’ll write as your ‘grateful cousin’.

—Thank you for understanding, Phil.  I love you so.

And with that Honora turned and exited the dormitory.  Phil would not see her again until Honora’s death, some twenty years later.

Part I, Our Lady of Nothing at All

Our Lady of Nothing at All (Part 1)

img_02371277213625The first sensation Maura became aware of was a sort of sloshing, slurping sound. Other sensations seemed to indicate she herself was actually a part of this sound, like the tugging and pressure she felt on her tiny body. There was a sudden whack of something — air — assailing her nostrils, now open and no longer filled with fluid. The new air carried a strong Scent to Maura’s brain, something remembered, known. It gradually became identifiable as the Scent belonging to the Gentle Voice, the warm cavern that had held Maura for some time now. It was much stronger now, though. She could almost taste the scent on her rosebud lips and became excited to take in more of it. But that meant more of the sloshing and slurping and the tugging and pulling.

To take itself off the uncomfortable feeling of tugging and pulling, Maura’s mind reviewed her time spent in this warm world. She could hear the Scent singing to her, lulling her with soothing sounds like water running over smooth stones. The Scent was always singing to her, although sometimes Maura would catch sounds in between that seemed far more sad and troubled. The Scent would shudder slightly and Maura would feel a gentle pressure, a clasping of some kind, on her little sphere and body. And Maura would be aware that she, too, felt sad and unhappy. But the clasping part made her want to see more of the Scent.

At last, she made a decision to go with it and moved closer toward the strong scent on the new air, and with a final slurp, she entered this new world. What met her senses was a full-on assault. Loud noises, things clanging, voices shouting, and light — blinding light. Mixed in with the Scent she knew were other smells; harsh, acrid ones she couldn’t identify as belonging to the world she knew. It took some moments as her over-stimulated nervous system quieted and she was able to adjust herself to the new surroundings.

Her tiny nose and ears and body were picking up strong signals from everywhere, but her eyes, the weakest of her senses, couldn’t seem to adjust. Everything was fuzzy, distorted and very, very frightening. It was all mostly bright light, really, with odd, dark shapes moving in and out.

And worst of all, she couldn’t find the Scent — it was out there, but not as close now, she could tell. Suddenly, it was replaced by another Scent, not one she knew, and her whole body convulsed in response to it. The new Scent clasped her tightly (that part Maura liked), but just as quickly unclasped her and laid her on something cold. More sounds followed.

—She’s five pounds and fifteen ounces, what a mite!

—And cute as a button.

—Is the mother okay?

—Sure, but she’s taken it on the chin, poor dote. She’s exhausted.

—Right. Fingers and toes accounted for, check. Eyes responding and reflexes fine, check. Nice head o’hair. I’ll wager mammy was belchin’ and burnin’ up the oul’ gullet on this one!

The sisters gave Maura a thorough cleaning, then wrapped her in a soft blanket and placed her on a small, metal cot. For the next three hours, she felt very disconnected from her Scent and familiar sounds and world. She was very frightened.

She tried to emulate the sound of her Scent singing to her, thinking perhaps she could find the Scent that way. But what came out was more of a screeching, and it startled even herself.

Eventually, a sister came in and scooped Maura up. She was taken down a long corridor of bright lights, more acrid smells and jangly sounds. The sister opened a door to a room where three young women lay in identical beds. Maura was taken to the furthest bed, next to a window, where a small, dark-haired woman lay.

—Up now, Phil…here’s your darlin’ babby. Isn’t she lovely?

Philomena, the dark-haired girl in the bed, sat up painfully, minding the new row of stitches in her belly, and eagerly held her arms out to the sister. She settled Maura into them, holding her close to her breasts, and immediately began half-singing, half-cooing to her. Maura instantly opened her eyes and became acutely aware of comfort. The Scent was back! And closer than ever! She settled into her mother’s arms contentedly and closed her eyes, allowing the exhaustion of this startling, new world to take over. Soon all was dark and warm again.

Philomena was a 27-year old new mother, lying in a cot in a hospital in Cork, Ireland on the 8th of April, 1960. Until last night, she had been living for the past two months at a mother-baby home on the outskirts of Cork City along with twenty other young women. All of them were pregnant and not married to the fathers of their children. There were also the appalling whispers of fathers and brothers, cousins, and even a priest being responsible for some of these pregnancies. And that was the way it was in Ireland . If you made the fearful mistake of becoming pregnant outside of wedlock, no matter the circumstances, you did your time at one of these god-forsaken Gulags run by fearsome nuns who made you feel right shite every waking day.

But where else would Phil have gone? She had no family herself to speak of. Some dim memories would flit across her mind of the mother who would visit her on odd occasions, as she shuttled from one foster family to another, and then finally on to the nuns at age 15 to work for her keep. That was it. No real brother-memories or sister-memories — no sense of who her own father was. Just the constant rootlessness and dependency on others.

So she’d had no choice but to turn to the nuns when she discovered she was pregnant with Robert’s baby.

Philomena had been working in Dublin (her first, real on-her-own-job) as a domestic ward aide in a large hospital when she met Robert. She liked the work and was good at keeping her wards spotless, as well as giving the patients the benefit of her sympathetic and kind nature. Many of the sisters there encouraged her to pursue nursing, and Phil kept that in the back of her mind as her own private dream.

She also liked the other girls she worked with and struck up easy friendships with many of them. All the ward aides roomed together in a section at the back of the hospital for staff. It was certainly no worse than anything the nuns or foster families had offered her as hospice over the years, and it was enhanced by the fact that the girls could pretty much come and go as they pleased within curfew.

So Phil and many of the other young women she worked with would pretty themselves up on Friday nights and rush off to the dances at the old Star in Dublin. They were all meeting up with fellas they were dating, or with new fellas they hoped to meet at the dances. It was at one such fateful dance that Phil was introduced to Robert by her friend, Eileen.

—Hey, Phil, wouldja have a look at that fella over there with my Joe? Is that not dreamy or what?

Philomena glanced over in the direction Eileen indicated and took in a tall, dark-haired man wearing a better-than-average suit. She couldn’t see his face clearly as her vision wasn’t the best, and she hadn’t yet saved enough for new glasses (nor would she necessarily choose to wear them when she went to the Star, remembering the line Marilyn Monroe used in that American film How to Marry a Millionaire: “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”). Plus the lighting in the dance hall was wretched. But going by Eileen’s genuine enthusiasm, Phil could tell Eileen thought she’d snared quite the catch for her.

—Is he not gorgeous? What, are ya an eejit? Are ye lookin where I’m pointin’?

—Sure, sure…I see him. He looks pretty good from here. Who is he?

—A friend of my Joe’s. Joe wants me to set you up with him, Phil. He’s brilliant…comes from good family, Joe says, and has a good, steady job.

—What’s he do, then?

—Joe says he works up Finglas way for a stained glass company — y’know, does all them fancy church windows and the like.

—Hmmm

—Is that all ye can say?! Shush now, here they come over…

Eileen and Joe awkwardly made introductions, while Philomena and Robert blushed furiously at one another. Finally, he offered to get her a lemonade and gently guided her by her elbow away from her friends. They wound up in a dark corner of the hall, where the music wasn’t quite so loud and there was no danger of reeling couples dancing into and over them.

—So, howyeh, Phil? Where are ye from? Not from here, I can tell that.

Philomena blushed furiously, always conscious of her somewhat questionable background. But she could tell from the impish grin on Robert’s face that his question was not intended to be judgmental; he was just breaking the ice.

—Em, no. I’m from Wexford way.

The impish grin widened. Robert handed her a lemonade and reached inside his own pocket for a small flask.

—Care for a bit extra in yours?

Phil nervously eyed the flask and realised that Robert had brought a bit stronger concoction to reinforce his bland ade. She shook her head no.

—Cheers, but I’d rather not.

—Well then [he poured a generous measure in his own glass], here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

The man was definitely gorgeous in Phil’s estimation, now that she could see him closer, but she could plainly tell this was a fella who liked to party. Possibly too much. He already seemed a bit well-lubricated. Not unsteady or sloppy, mind you, but clearly a few spiked lemonades down.

Robert finished his drink and asked Phil if she’d like to dance. As they glided back onto the noisy floor, the showband whomping away like mad, she was surprised at what a deft dancer he was. He smoothly whirled her around the floor, never losing his footing or stomping her toes as so many other fellas did.

A few sets later, Phil and Robert, now sweaty and laughing, rejoined Eileen and her Joe. It was nearly closing time, but both couples were not quite ready to call it a night. As Joe had a small flat of his own, he invited everyone round to his place and Phil nervously accepted the invitation with Robert’s enthusiastic encouragement.

As they stepped out of the Star, they were met with a warmish June night and the humid smells coming off the Liffey. Arms linked, the two couples laughingly made their way toward the river, crossing north toward Joe’s ramshackle neighbourhood, singing as they went. Robert’s fine baritone merged nicely with Phil’s own strong soprano, and she shyly smiled up at him as their voices bounced off the river and cobblestones. From somewhere off to their left came a loudly shouted WOULD YOU EVER SHUT THE FUCK UP? All four laughed and wound the song down to a low chorus.

They arrived at Joe’s and climbed the two flights up to his darkened flat. Joe went about flicking on lights and opened the one window in the place. His upper body disappeared out the window and returned with a quartet of bottled stout. Phil accepted a bottle as she was more than thirsty again from the walk and quite sure Joe had nothing of a non-alcoholic variety there.

A radio was switched on and Joe and Eileen began a slow dance, nuzzling and kissing one another as they circled the room, oblivious to Robert and Phil. Robert’s left eyebrow shot up and he motioned Phil to a dilapidated sofa, which served as the only furniture in the room besides two wooden chairs and small table. She sat down next to him and he immediately launched an arm around her. Phil hadn’t much experience with men, and what little she did have was not of a positive quality. During a brief stay working with a farm family when she was 14, Phil was accosted in her room one night as she slept by the foul, sweaty patriarch. Instinctively, she lashed out with a solid foot to his groin and effectively rolled him off her before further harm could be done. The sight of the doughy farmer squealing down the corridor, his startled, now wide-awake wife three steps behind him and shouting questions was nearly worth the cost of Phil’s job. The farmer’s wife stared Philomena down the next day at breakfast, flinty-eyed and convinced that Phil had seduced her lout of a husband. So that was that — out she went and lucky, according to the farmer’s wife, that the gards weren’t called.

Fearful of a future of jobs like this, where’d she be at the mercy of some sex-craved father or husband, she turned to the nuns in Cork for help, where she’d spent most of her limited schooling. Their response was to send her to an institution known as St. Dominick’s up in Waterford, notorious for taking in ‘wayward women’ to do commercial laundry and sewing, often never to see the outside world again. But Phil felt her choices were limited, and besides, the nuns told her because of her fine hand with the needle, she’d be doing fancy sewing instead of the hard, leg-killing laundry work. Still, she’d spent ten years in that dreadful place. Ten years of being taunted by fellow inmates for her somewhat ‘elevated’ status as a seamstress, taunted by the nuns for minor infractions, and taunted by the public every time the girls were all trotted out for May processions or outdoor Masses. It was soul-sucking and Phil feared her decision may have been ill-informed: she was becoming a shapeless, nameless thing like the rest of the inmates and the nuns began to treat her in kind. What little money she’d saved before coming to St. Dominick’s had been given over to the nuns for her ‘keep’. Phil harboured no illusions about the money the nuns made off her stunning, intricately embroidered Irish linen tablecloths. She knew she’d never see a penny of it.

On the brink of becoming a mindless automaton, one day Phil was pulled from the sewing room and told a visitor was there to see her. When she was ushered into the nuns’ ‘special visitor’ parlor, she was confronted by a somewhat wild-looking woman of middle age, her obviously long, thick hair swept up into a whorl with pins. Dark and gray clashed in this whorl and Phil found she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She finally met the face under the hair with her gaze and realised she was staring at her own mother, Honora.

Adopted ‘Children’ and Parents: at age 50?

I recently read a letter to the editor of the Irish Times by a Mark Kearney of Trinity College.  I really must reassess my whole conception of Trinity as a seat of higher learning.

I couldn’t resist a rebuttal, although apparently the Times could — they didn’t publish it.  So I’ll post it here instead:

Mr Kearney’s letter rather poignantly cuts to the crux of the matter with regard to the rights of adopted people.  Interestingly, in both the title of his missive and thrice in its contents he refers to himself/other adopted people as ‘the child’ or ‘adopted children.’  As someone with children and grandchildren, who votes, pays taxes and earned the right to drink and serve in the military more donkey’s years ago than I care to count, I consider myself an adopted adult or adopted person, not a child.  Moreover, I am an adult whose rights have been abrogated not only by the Irish State, but by the U.S. as well (specifically the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) as I was chosen for exportation in the early 1960s.  And this abrogation is what continues to keep me a ‘child’ in the eyes of those governments.  In fact, in Pennsylvania, if one chooses to petition the courts to have their adoption file unsealed, the case is heard in the Juvenile Courts, even if the petitioner is 55.  Child indeed, sir.  How demeaning.

What Mr Kearney doesn’t seem to understand is that the fight isn’t about just the ridiculous wait times through agencies, the sometimes inept handling of our cases, or even the ingratiating and infantalising way we’re generally treated by agencies, often the media and general public, our parents or other family members, and perhaps most painfully by one of ‘our own’ like Mr Kearney.  Those are small injustices that pale in comparison to the true issue at hand: the fact that adults are still denied unfettered access to the documents of their birth in 2010.

Trace, contact and reunion are wholly separate issues and yes, understandably not everyone desires to know their heritage, medical history or who they resemble.  But the right to have one’s original birth certificate (a right enjoyed even by felons) should be every citizen’s right.  What they decide to do with that document is their own business.  Perhaps they’d like to just frame it and hang it on the wall.  I, too, had a very satisfactory adoptive experience and it was with the support, love and assistance of my adoptive family that I was able to trace my natural mother as well as the daughter I relinquished to adoption in the US.  Both contacts were welcomed, positive and have brought me a sense of self and healing.  I realise I was lucky in those results and that it isn’t always that way.  But I also prepared myself for the worst and knew what I could expect.  All of this was accomplished on my own and with the help of friends — the agency I first sought assistance from was not only incompetent, but unethical in many regards (c.f. vaccine trials at Bessboro’ circa 1960-61).

As they say, it’s foolish to mix apples and oranges and the right of access to one’s birth certificate should not be confused with trace and reunion.  They are not mutually inclusive.  But those, like me, who have the desire to know more about who they are and where they came from, should be treated with dignity and respect, and not as some ungrateful, whingeing ‘child’ riddled with insecurities and self-esteem issues.

Using terminology like ‘adopted children’ smacks of the concept that adoption begins and ends with the receipt of a ‘warm bundle of joy,’ when in fact it’s a lifelong process.  Perhaps Mr Kearney could benefit from the words of the Rev. Keith C. Griffith, MBE: “Adoption loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”

Ireland’s ‘first wave of intercountry adoptions’?

Irish Minister for Health and Children Barry Andrews’ official statements on Wednesday, 3 March (at the Committee debate on a pending adoption bill) leave me with my jaw gaping and wondering if this man is fit for office. He said, “The first wave of inter-country adoptions occurred in the early 1990s. Some of those individuals are now coming of age and beginning to take an interest in tracing. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to wait until we have a little bit more knowledge and experience of this area. There is a perfectly good system for tracing in this country. It has worked well. “

This is an absolute insult to the more than 2,000 of us who were involuntarily sent from Ireland for adoption between the 1940’s and 1970’s, largely to the U.S. We represent that ‘first wave’ and are now well into adulthood (some of us even have grandchildren…imagine that). We are tax-paying, voting, middle-aged adults who, by the way, hold dual citizenship. We, along with our in-country adopted Irish brethren, have also been vocal in adoption reform for the last twenty years. It is truly unfortunate that the government largely chose to ignore us, despite our best efforts to produce sane legislation and truly efficient post-adoption services. It is clear Minister Andrews himself has either chosen to ignore us or would like to conveniently forget this dark chapter of baby-brokering in Ireland’s own history. Time and again, we have offered sound proposed legislation, including the restoration of unfettered access to the original documents of our birth – a right enjoyed by every other citizen save adopted people.

The last sentence of his statement above also absolutely beggars belief and I happen to know firsthand that it is largely untrue.

Having availed of the ‘perfectly good’ post-adoption services offered by the Sacred Heart Adoption Society in Bessboro’ as early as 1997, I can attest to the absolute ineffectiveness of the current system. In fact, the handling of my own particular case was so disastrously mismanaged by this agency that in 2003, I was forced to file a complaint with Mr. John Collins of the Irish Adoption Authority. Among the agency’s many egregious mistakes were the following:

Their trace coordinator was following several incorrect birth certificates for my natural mother, despite the fact their own records noted her correct date of birth on admittance forms (which I was given a copy of, in violation of the agency’s own ‘non-identifying information only’ policy). I was told my mother was an “orphan,” that her parents had been killed; she was actually, like me, born out of wedlock. The same trace coordinator would have contacted some poor woman in Limerick of no relation to me, except that I had grown so weary of their inefficiency that I managed to trace my mother on my own. It took me one e-mail to a heritage researcher based in Dublin, and an hour later I was looking at a faxed copy of my mother’s and my own birth certificates. Over the next few years, I established welcomed, careful contact with my mother (we enjoy an ongoing close relationship).

For my mother’s part, she too tried at various times over the years to contact this agency. Initially, she was told I had been sent to California, when in fact I was raised in Philadelphia. Shortly after I arrived in the U.S., my adoptive parents sent a letter to her, along with photos of me at my first Christmas with my new family. They wanted to assure her that I was happy and healthy and assimilating to my new life. She only got one photo; the others and the letter were withheld from her.

After informing them of the success of my self-trace, I received a nasty letter from the aforementioned trace coordinator, including a copy of private and confidential correspondence between this coordinator and my adoptive mother (still living). I did not solicit this letter and it was unnecessary. When I informed my adoptive mother of this breach of her own confidentiality, she was absolutely horrified.

This same coordinator was captured on videotape showing a visitor from the U.S. the records room at Bessboro’ and announcing that only she and one other person had access to this room – a professional publicist who they were “hiring to write a book to refute that [June, author of ‘The Light in the Window‘] Goulding woman’s lies.” So I’m given to understand that some publicist off the street can have free access to my and my adoptive parents’ private information, but I myself can’t? And this is effective post-adoption service?

My experience is completely typical of that currently experienced by many thousands of adopted adults in and from Ireland. For me and others who were part of the wave of children sent to the United States, it is further compounded by distance, costs and either lack of information or disinformation. Let’s try listening to the elder voices of those who have experienced inter-country adoption – we don’t have to wait for the “1990s” crop to come of age. And here’s a news flash, Minister Andrews: many of those voices came from your own backyard.