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).
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.
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.
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.
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
Mortality rate: 31%
Castlepollard, Westmeath births: 77
Mortality rate: 8%
Bessborough, Cork births: 106
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.
Let’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: