Little blessings

Between 1952 and 1995, Irish nuns took 40,000 mostly illegitimate babies and placed them for adoption, usually in America. Now many of those children are returning in search of their real mothers, uncovering a scandal which goes to the heart of the Catholic church. By Nuala O'Faolain. Photographs by Derek Speirs
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"They came and gave me tablets to dry up the milk. That's all I remember. I heard the baby cry once. But they took it before I even knew whether it was a boy or a girl. Years later, I was told that it was sent to America only a few days afterwards. I can't remember signing anything. I was only l5. I'm sure my baby went to a good home. But I would give anything to know. That baby is 50 years old now. How could I find that one person when there are so many people in America?"

Mary sits in her little room in Dublin, quite alone, except for the ghost of the lost baby. She is one of thousands of Irish women, now middle-aged or old, who were victims of the punitive attitude to sex outside marriage which dominated Irish culture well into the Seventies. Under the desolate rules of that culture, a girl unfortunate enough to get pregnant by someone who wouldn't, or couldn't, marry her had two choices. She could go to England, or, if she was sufficiently tough or fortunate, she might keep her baby - as the rock star Phil Lynott's mother did, for example.

But on Irish soil, the mother had to go as far as possible from where she was known, usually to one of the huge mother-and-baby homes run by nuns. There she had her baby. And then the baby had to disappear. Legitimate orphans went into Irish institutions. Illegitimate babies could, after 1952, be placed for adoption.

The mother, usually very young, usually very confused, was sent by the nuns to a Notary Public to make a formal surrender of her rights. The memory of this can still make a woman, now 60, weep at the injustice: "The nuns had got a job for me as a maid, a few months after the birth. My wages were very small. I had to pay the nuns for the keep of my baby. Then I had to pay this man, to guarantee that I'd let my baby go. I can't walk down that street in Dublin where his office was. It is 42 years ago, but I can't forget the heartbreak."

The mother signed a document undertaking "never to see or interfere with or make any claim on" her child again. Sometimes, the baby was newborn when it was taken away. One woman, whose baby was put straight into a children's home, used to travel to that home for a long time, just to peer through the hedge at the children's playtime.

It was often worse if the mother and baby had had time to bond. If the baby was born in a County Home - formerly the workhouse - mother and child were allowed to stay together for two years. Catherine, who now lives in Ohio, went to look for her birth mother in County Galway. When she found her, 33 years after their parting, her mother said that the worst bit was that she hadn't been able to go back to her own life until her daughter was adopted - "but I didn't want to let you go".

Catherine's mother had found a job in the same town as the mother-and- baby home. She had visited Catherine every day, she told her. "Then one day the nun told me to say goodbye. And you knew, though you were only two-and-a-half; you sensed that you would never see me again. You screamed and screamed. You knew." According to the woman who adopted Catherine, when she arrived in the US she did not speak for months.

Almost every extended family in Ireland has had a girl give birth outside marriage. At one time it was inevitable, in a culture where dancing and courting were everyone's leisure activity, but where there was no access to contraception, and abortion was a criminal offence. The solution was adoption. In 1967, for instance, there were 1,540 births outside marriage and 1,493 adoption orders made.

The nuns who ran most of the adoption agencies placed at least 40,000 Irish children for adoption between about 1955 and 1995. The birth mothers were not told where. The nuns ran things their way. They still do. Most of what records remain from that era are still guarded by the elderly religious. No legislation covers their actions when mother and child now seek to find each other. The nuns are answerable to no one.

Outside Ireland, attitudes have changed. Adopted people in the UK have won the right to see their birth certificates. In the US, adoption and immigration information - such as applies to babies brought in for adoption - became available under the US Information Privacy Act. Enquiries from abroad began to trickle into Barnardo's in Dublin, the only independent agency to offer help in this area. On average, they were contacted every day by three mothers and six adults who had been separated from their families of origin.

The first letters from adopted children came from Britain, in the late Seventies; then from the US, in the Eighties. "My adoptive mother," went one, "told me I had sores on my face and I was always hungry when I came from Ireland. Could you please tell me what the orphanages there were like in those days? Was there no law to make sure that children were well looked after? It bothers me that I was in such poor shape when my adoptive mother got me."

And another: "Dear Sirs, please can you explain why the document authorising adoption by my mother from County Galway was not signed by her. Are there other cases where there is just the typewritten name and no signature? Could you tell me how to find her as she may not have known what she was doing?"

It was some time before Barnardo's received a different kind of letter: "I cannot begin to tell you what feelings your reply to me has generated. The day I met my son at the airport was the happiest day of both our lives."

Barnardo's does not trace mothers or children. It can only counsel and advise. Until recently, it could cope with the demand for its services. But now their "adoption hot line" is almost overwhelmed. This is largely in response to an Irish television documentary broadcast earlier this year, which alleged terrible cruelty in a Dublin "orphanage" - although the children were hardly ever orphans.

Only a few weeks previously, hundreds of Irish people had spontaneously demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in protest against conditions in orphanages there. Now they heard that Goldenbridge, in Dublin, was worse than China in the memories of the women who talked about it on camera. Much worse. Women told of babies left straining on potties for so long that their anuses dropped, so that the loose membrane had to be pushed back in. They told of children forced to thread beads on to wire, for hour after hour, in order to make rosaries for a nun, who beat them if they faltered. A child had smuggled a letter out, begging for help. No one had cared to interfere.

Stories tumbled out of numerous other "childcare" institutions in the Ireland of the recent past. Men who had been boys in homes run by religious men had memories as painful, and more brutal and sexual, than the women had of the nuns. And mothers who had hidden the fact that they had once had a baby had to deal with these revelations. They needed now to know that their child had not ended up in one of these places.

The airwaves rang with pain. On one radio programme, a mother described the circumstances surrounding the giving up of her son. The son, recognising what he knew about his own beginnings, contacted the programme. They had found each other. But, for others, the search is endless.

Maggie Butler is an American psychologist, a coolly competent woman who has reared two adult children, and whose career in the US was full of vitality. But she moved to Ireland three years ago, and intends to go on living there in her search for her real mother. "I have always known my mother was Irish," she says. "But it was when I held my first baby, just after she was born, and I realised that that was my first time to hold my own flesh and blood - that's when I realised that I had to, some day, set out to find her."

She hasn't found her. But she has probably been close to the woman who gave her up 44 years ago. One trail led to an old nun who had worked in one of the busiest mother-and-baby homes, and was now spending her last days in the care of a rural institution.

This nun saw an article by Maggie in a newspaper, and sent word to her. When Maggie went to the institution, the nun told her that she kept her article beside the chair she spent her days in. "Because I remember your mother," she told Maggie. "She was a beautiful woman. Her face had angles, just like yours..."

But later she said, "Sometimes the women who came to the home to have babies gave false names, you know." "Why would they give false names?" Maggie asked, knowing she was being told something interesting. "Well, if they came of a wealthy background, if they had prestige." Maggie's mother may fear there will be a claim on her land or money: she may not want to be found. And, if this is so, she will not be. "But I must go on trying," Maggie says. "You know the feeling, when you recognise a face but can't quite remember the name? Well, I have the name, but the face keeps escaping me."

Maggie Butler spoke about this on Irish radio. The interview was heard by another woman, the director of the newly established National Archive of Ireland. Hadn't she seen some files lately, she thought to herself - something to do with babies and the US? And so it happens that, in an office in a government department in Dublin, about 2,000 files are now being kept under lock and key while a committee considers their status. Each file bears the name of a child born in Ireland. Each contains the same few documents. They were repatriated, as a matter of routine housekeeping, from the Irish Consulate in Washington, DC. They date, mostly, from the mid-Fifties to mid-Sixties. They encapsulate stories of suffering in Ireland and joy in the US. They are the records of the adoption in the US of some of the babies born in secrecy in Ireland. This is where at least some of the 40,000 babies given up for adoption are now known to have gone.

The only sign of the women who gave birth to them are the names on the "document of surrender". But a lot more is shown about the adoptive parents, because they had to prove that they were "good Catholics". The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church had laid the groundwork for that when they finally allowed Irish legislators to pass the country's first adoption law, in 1952. They had always opposed adoption, not least because letting a single mother "easily relinquish" her child might act as an incentive to promiscuity.

"A child's rights in respect of faith and morals must be protected by such safeguards as will assure his adoption by persons who profess and practise the religion of the child," they dictated. A US couple adopting an Irish baby, therefore, had to provide a letter from their medical adviser, confirming that they were not, through the use of contraceptives, "deliberately shirking natural conception". The adoptive mother had to promise to give up work outside the home. The prospective home had to be vetted by a Catholic organisation. The new parents had to promise to educate the child in Catholic schools. Evidence had to be produced as to the state of the parents' health and the size of their income. In comparison, the birth mother is a shadow and the father a nonentity.

The imbalance continues. The US babies - now adult - can find the circumstances of their adoption. But their real mothers in Ireland have no legal right to any information about them. In the Fifties and Sixties, at least another 40,000 babies, along with the 40,000 legally adopted, were taken from their families. In the prevailing climate of contempt for poverty or failure, thousands upon thousands of children were fostered, "boarded out" to farmers, put into special schools, or reared by individuals, perhaps distantly related. Foundlings, about whom nothing was known, were kept in institutions and never adopted in case they were the children of a legally married couple: children of marriages, however long abandoned, were never adopted.

These children moved around from institution to institution until they were 16, when they could enter service or go to England. If they then wanted their records - say, for medical information - they discovered that there were none. Birth information was falsified, or lost. When the religious who had run the institutions died, all they knew died with them. In these circumstances, the American files are an exceptional hoard of potentially healing information. But they sit in the government office while civil servants attempt to work out the problems of confidentiality which surround them.

"It is the Minister for Foreign Affairs' wish," the Irish parliament was told when the American files were discovered, "to be as helpful as possible in relation to the provision of information. But there is no clear-cut answer to the dilemma posed by the competing interests relative to information on adoptions. It is a dilemma posed by the sad circumstances surrounding the reality of adoption."

Barnardo's, often in the person of Norah Gibbons, who runs the adoption hot line there, is left to break to enquirers the news that there is no central register, voluntary or otherwise, to help them in their search. At present, about 200 US citizens are trying to find their Irish mothers, and 20/20, the US television news programme presented by Barbara Walters, is broadcasting their story. An embarrassed Irish government may have to respond to the new demands this will create.

Times have undoubtedly changed. Young Irishwomen are different now. In 1993, for example, there were 7,000 births outside marriage and only 648 adoption orders. But the old women who had their babies in the past have not changed. The values of that time were burnt into them. They will not come forward to be filmed, even for US television. They still have too much to lose. For them, the stigma is still there.

The first two women to contact Barnardo's after news of the US files came out were both in their sixties, both married to husbands they had never told, and both thought that theirs had been the only baby ever to go to America. Nothing can be done for them while the US files remain closed. But at least they have grasped, for the first time, what it was they signed when they gave up their babies up: "I undertake never to see or to interfere or to make any claim upon the child..." Mothers often remember nothing but the approximate date

of the child's birth. But that would be enough

to discover whether the child went to the US, because the birth date would be on the passport issued to a baby.

The yearning felt by women who surrendered their babies is such that an Irish radio programme discussing the US files had to appeal to people not to go to the office of the National Archive. But, in the world they lived in, these women could do no other. They were as much creatures of their time as the clerics who assured themselves of the Catholicism of adoptive parents and not much else. The emotional wellbeing of women and children counted for nothing in patriarchal Ireland - less than nothing if they were also poor. And "outside the Church", as every Catholic child learned to chant from the Penny Catechism, "there is no salvation". There is a strong folk memory of Irish Catholic children being tempted into Protestantism during The Famine. Even in this century, Irish mothers would have wanted their babies to go to Catholics, who would not have an evangelical motive for adopting.

They would also have wanted them to go to the US, the home of wealth and glamour. Anne Phelan, a former air hostess with Aer Lingus, remembers the baby flights to America. On one particular night in 1952, she saw a manifest of a Dublin flight connecting with a Pan-American to Idlewild. "Stewardess x 2 x 10%", it read. A "10%" is a baby.

There was nothing secret about it. When Anne Phelan was working in the airline's office in central Dublin, an American officer in uniform came in and chatted to the counter staff. "I'm back again," he told them happily. "My wife was thrilled with the adopted daughter I brought her. Now I've come to buy myself a son."

That's what Phelan especially remembers - the word "buy" being used quite unselfconsciously. No one at the time thought anything of it. "We all used to collect for the orphanages. We were delighted to think the nuns would get some money for the others and the babies would get wonderful new homes in America. We heard that Jane Russell was coming for an Irish baby. We were all dying to see her."

Couriers may have made a little profit. "Please book your transportation at your Pan-American office," a nun in Ireland writes to an adoptive parent in Chicago. "All our children travel thus. We group them in four, and four adopting parents share the expenses of one guardian for the children." But the nuns got nothing from the adoptive parents except voluntary donations, which were essential to keeping the service going: the birth mothers, often servants or office girls, could not usually pay for the upkeep of their babies. Money was so tight in the homes that the first thing an adoptive or foster mother did was to buy the child clothes, then wash and iron the ones she or he had come in and send them back to the nuns for the next child.

The state has always stayed aloof from the whole problem. But Maggie Butler, for one, knows that the problems caused by fostering and adoption have been vigorously tackled in other countries, simply out of respect for mothers' and children's enduring need for knowledge of each other. She fears another evasion by "official" Ireland. "Ireland is a country that finds it difficult to take responsibility for itself," she says. "But this new information challenges the habit of burying traumas somewhere out of sight. What the country does about the files will be significant in lots of ways." Meanwhile, the phones ring and ring in Barnardo's. "We're doing what has to be done," a weary Norah Gibbons says, after another morning of answering them. "We're listening to the past.

Nuala O'Faolain is a writer with 'The Irish Times'