Ireland’s ‘Orphans’ Search for Their Past


Maggie Butler marvels at her mother’s courage.

Imagine: Alone, frightened, a young unmarried woman--a sinner--stands before stern nuns, a priest, lawyers and a notary at a Dublin orphanage in 1952 and signs away her baby.

“I certify that I have handed over my daughter to custody. I surrender her completely to charge,” the papers say. “I solemnly promise that I shall never interfere with her in any way in future.” The woman signs, then vanishes.

Soon after, the Irish baby who will become an American named Maggie Butler is flown to the United States for adoption by a Roman Catholic family in New England.


Now Butler is back, in expectation and frustration, searching for her mother. The quest has made her “the Irish national orphan,” said Butler, who now lives in Dublin and is the most visible symbol of about 2,000 people who, as infants, were quietly shipped to the United States between 1949 and 1972.

“Many of these mothers have howled inside with the pain of it for the rest of their lives,” Dublin social worker Norah Gibbons said.

Many of their children are now howling too against a system that seems to many of them to have been built on misguided faith, forlorn hope--and forgery.

In addition, tens of thousands of now-middle-aged Irish men and women were taken from their unwed mothers as babies to cover up their births, judged shameful by the moral standards of a thou-shalt-not Catholic society.


Like the Americans, the Irish adoptees are demanding answers to questions that leave modern Ireland uneasy.

“People are asking basic, disturbing questions: Why was my mother encouraged to put me up for adoption? Why did my country send me away?” said Gibbons, who works for the child welfare agency Barnardos.

Adoptees such as Brendan O’Connor, an Irishman who learned his mother’s identity after she died, and Maggie Butler are proof that information is hard to acquire.

As Irish law is now interpreted, adults who were adopted as children have no right to specific birth information from the dozen children’s aid societies that handled the adoptions, all but one of them run under the authority of the Catholic Church.


Other European countries, particularly Britain, Germany and Greece, also exported babies after World War II.

Many of the children had been displaced by war and its economic aftermath, but others were born out of wedlock.

The U.S. adoptees returning to Ireland are mirrored by German-born Americans returning in search of their roots, Gibbons said.

Many countries, including Britain, which sent thousands of children to Australia and Canada, accept a United Nations call to give adopted children full access to their birth information.


Ireland does not.

‘Good Excuse for Covering Up Sins’

The Irish government is embarrassed and sympathetic; but pending a ruling by the Supreme Court expected by year’s end, any rights of adoptees to information remain outweighed by long-ago pledges to their mothers.

“Many now think that concern for the mother’s confidentiality is a good excuse for covering up the nuns’ sins. Is consent valid if a woman surrenders her child under constraint and in difficult economic circumstances?” asked Irish reporter Michael Milotte, who is writing a book critical of adoption practices.


To release specific information to inquiring children would be a breach of faith and contract, adoption agencies say.

But pressure is building for some sort of national registry that would allow mothers and their children to seek out one another if they wish.

“It used to be that nobody talked about being adopted. Now groups are being set up all over the country, people saying, ‘I am adopted; I want information,’ ” said Theresa Fennessey, a social worker in Tipperary who has successfully reunited children and their mothers.

Extraordinary things are happening.


Women in their 60s are lying to their husbands, inventing excuses to sneak away to rendezvous with secret children whose existence they cannot publicly acknowledge decades later.

Others are refusing to meet their children.

“They say to me, ‘I’ve been married to him for 30 years; I can’t tell him now,’ ” Gibbons said. “And some women never married and live in small towns where they have local repute as the ‘good spinster.’ How can they come forward now to publicly embrace a child no one ever knew they had?”

Among perhaps 40,000 out-of-wedlock children raised by adoptive parents in Ireland, an average of 110 babies a year went to the United States from 1948 to 1962, “hopefully to a better life, but at what cost in human suffering we may never know,” Foreign Minister Dick Spring said.


In 1952 adoption was legalized in Ireland, but it was not until 1962 that domestic demand for babies to adopt began to catch up with the supply, and not until 1972 that welfare benefits became available to single mothers.

“Many of us have been moved by the stories that have been told about babies exported to the United States--some of them unwanted, some of them removed from their young and frightened mothers at the most vulnerable possible time in the life of those mothers,” Spring said. “Some of those children have spent many years trying to find out why they were abandoned, as they saw it.”

Finding Traces of a Long-Lost Mother

Enter Maggie Butler, born in Dublin in 1951, exported before age 1 and raised in New England by an Irish American family.


A psychotherapist, she returned from Maine to live in Ireland in 1993 and began looking in earnest for her mother.

Eventually, she found the nuns who arranged for her adoption. Reluctantly, they gave her sketchy information, saying that her mother had moved to England, where she apparently married a Scotsman named Bill in 1953. Her natural father, the nuns said without elaboration, was a graphic artist.

Butler ran into a dead end after discovering that the surname on her birth certificate was false.

“You were cut off from your name, from your history and from your country,” she said. “You were sent into exile. You are supposed to be grateful for what was done for you. But that shouldn’t negate the fact that you want to meet your mother.”


Mothers who reluctantly surrendered their children in the 1950s were victims of an inflexible, still rural and often poor society in which 20 miles was far away and most people had neither car nor telephone. Contraception was largely unpracticed in the Ireland of the ‘50s, just as abortion is still illegal in the Ireland of the ‘90s.

Said social worker Fennessey: “If a girl got pregnant, she went to the local parish priest, and he sent her to an unmarried mothers’ home. She had her baby and it was taken; that was expected. Some women never came out. They stayed in the convent.”

Women, many of them grateful for anonymity and a second chance, were advised never to tell anyone of their shame.

Conventional wisdom saw the export of babies as good for Ireland--an embarrassment removed--and good for the babies, reporter Milotte found.


“Americans wanted white children; the nuns thought they were sending them to a better world,” Milotte said. “These were fallen women in the eyes of the church.”

Many of the mothers were poor, but some were middle class and above. And a few of the orphans were the children of men of high public standing, including priests.

O’Connor, who drives a taxi in Dublin, has had his share of frustrations but also sees the other side of the coin: If the nuns had not been there, he asks, what would have become of him and other babies?

Born in 1937, he was raised by a Catholic family. At 26, he learned that he was adopted, when an employer asked him for a birth certificate.


“I went to the records office to get the certificate and there was none. I didn’t exist,” O’Connor recalled.

Someone told him he had been born at 39 Mountjoy St. With the aid of a librarian, about 20 years ago he found what he believes was a reference to himself in a 1938 newspaper classified ad offering a 12-month-old boy of good disposition for surrender.

The homes for out-of-wedlock children were popularly called orphanages--a misnomer, for the parents were very much alive.

Some of the mothers regularly visited their children until one day, sometimes when the babies were as old as 2, they were gone and no nun could say where. In one case, a court found years later that a nun had forged a mother’s letter of surrender, Milotte said.


Like Butler and O’Connor, many adoptees have painfully discovered that the names on their birth certificates were false, social workers say.

In the midst of raising a family of his own, O’Connor continued a fitful search over the next two decades. He discovered that he had been born in a nuns’ home that had moved, changed its name and moved again. Last year, he met a woman who told him that his mother lived in a small town in northwest England but refused to say anything more precise.

“ ‘I won’t go away until I find my mother,’ I told her, and I called her every month thereafter.”

In December, O’Connor learned that his mother’s real name had been Dunbar. He learned that a union official named Mick Dunbar who helped him find a job when he was 16 was not merely a friend of his adoptive father, but his natural uncle. He learned that his mother had died in England in 1994.


Butler is a step behind. When she told her story to Irish newspapers in 1993, it was still unusual for adoptees to speak out, and there was not much echo. She was contacted, though, by an elderly nun.

“When I went to see her, Sister Clare said she had been keeping the article with her,” Butler said. “ ‘I remember your mother. . . . She was a beautiful woman,’ she said. I’ll never forget the scene: rain streaming down the window, an electric fire, the old nun in her chair. I knew there was more to learn, and that it must be learned slowly, but before I could visit again Sister Clare died.”

1,500 Tales of Loss Told on Cardboard Files

Potentially good news for Americans came in March when archivist Catriona Crowe heard a radio interview in which social worker Gibbons complained about the export of babies to the United States with false names on their Irish passports.


When she got to work at the National Archives in Dublin that morning, Crowe started digging. She found 1,500 cardboard files, each telling the official story of a child exported to the United States. “I cried when I read the letter in which the mother relinquishes ‘full claim forever to my child,’ ” recalled Crowe, who says that by now about 2,000 files--all still sealed--have been located.

In the push for change, the Adoption Board, which legalizes adoptions within Ireland, is asking that adoptees be allowed access to their original birth certificates. There has been no government response yet, and there is still no central depository for information that adoptees can consult.

What they can glean depends largely on what documents they possess, and the degree and quality of information that nuns at current and former adoption agencies will impart, social workers say.

Sister Sarto of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Cork, which sent about 500 babies to the United States, said requests for birth information have jumped from a sporadic few only two years ago to an average of four a day this year.


“We give people a reference number and non-identifying information about their mother and ask if they want us to try to trace her,” she said.

If the woman is found, a counselor such as Fennessey will be used as an intermediary to prepare mother and child before direct contact is attempted.

“The children are more [eager] than the mothers. Many elderly women find it very difficult to return to a painful situation,” Sarto said. “Many wouldn’t have the courage or ability to look at it again in their declining years.”

Customs change slowly in Ireland: As late as 1967 there were 1,540 births outside marriage and 1,493 adoption orders. But change comes: In 1993, there were about 7,000 recorded births outside marriage and 648 adoption orders. In 1995, there were about 400 adoptions outside the birth family, Gibbons said.


The newly assertive adoptees, and sympathy for them, are aided by an anticlerical current in Ireland after revelations of sexual abuse and paternity involving priests and past mistreatment by some nuns of institutionalized children.

‘Drawing Away Veils From Darker, Hidden Ireland’

Perhaps most of all, the human face of policy and its consequences has been fundamental to what the Irish Times calls “a final drawing away of the veils from a darker, hidden Ireland . . . a convergence of suppressed grief, of buried secrets and of enduring pain.”

“My mother needed a lot of courage to go through what she went through in the society she lived in. I’d like to say thanks,” said Butler, herself the married-young, divorced, remarried, widowed, making-her-way-nicely-thanks mother of two grown daughters.


Brendan O’Connor missed his mother, but found his family; there were welcoming cousins everywhere. He met his Aunt Mary, his mother’s sister, now 82 and living in Canada. She filled in a lot of gaps.

O’Connor’s mother stayed in England after the war, it seems. There, she married a man named Ross and, like so many of Ireland’s “fallen” women, endured the deceit and humiliation of having her first baby for the second time. Not long ago, Dublin taxi driver O’Connor met his half brother Brian. Brian Ross, 52, drives a cab in London.

Maggie Butler is still out in the cold, frustrated and sometimes angry, but also patient.

“I know my mother is out there, and I’ll keep looking. Somehow I think something would tell me if she was dead,” Butler said. She is writing a book about her search.


“Dear Mom,” the book begins.

* The Barnardos Adoption Advice Center is at Christchurch Square, Dublin 8, Republic of Ireland. Barnardos runs a confidential phone line for adoptees from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays: 011 353 1 454-6388. Ireland is eight hours ahead of Los Angeles.