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Mari Steed: We ‘Banished Babies’ remain the last piece of dirty carpet to be examined

Published: Saturday, June 04, 2016

100 years after 1916, what do we have to celebrate? This is one of a number of blogs exploring what independence meant for the women of Ireland.

NWCI’s 1916 Feminist Reflections Blogs are part of the State’s official programme to commemorate the events of 1916 – the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme

“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

For more than 2000 of us born in Ireland between 1940 and 1970, those words in Ireland’s iconic 1916 Proclamation ring hollow. Particularly the resolve to “cherish all of the children of the nation equally.”

We had the misfortune to be born outside wedlock at a time when such circumstances were considered societally unacceptable – indeed almost criminal – and a “problem” to be hidden. We simply didn’t fit Éamon de Valera’s ideal of a “moral and pure” new Ireland, as defined by the standards of the Catholic Church. Yet with thousands of us born under such circumstances, Ireland’s county homes, mother-baby homes, Magdalene Laundries, industrial schools, and other residential institutions were bursting at the seams with us “othered” children and our mothers. The mother-baby homes were established by religious orders as “safer” solution for pregnant women than the over-crowded county homes and workhouses, and in the absence of any practical choices or support for mothers to parent their own children. However, it is interesting that a historian in the 1930s, noting the extraordinarily high death rates at mother-baby homes, stated a mother and her child had a better chance of surviving tenement life in inner-city Dublin than in one of these homes.

World War II offered a “remedy” to this “problem” of unmarried mothers and their children. Thousands of “war orphans” from Europe were finding welcome homes with eager American adopters. Whispered word began to spread through US military bases in the UK that Irish children might even be available, albeit not “war orphans,” per se. These whispers turned into requests sent across foreign desks between the UK and Irish (then) Department of External Affairs. Early requests, as documented in Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, v.9: 1948-1951, were initially refused on the grounds that Ireland had no formal Adoption Act in place (the first Adoption Act was enacted in 1952). Ironically, in the same volume, one finds later memoranda (1950-51) detailing more requests from Americans stationed in the UK, only this time they are cautiously approved citing the same “we don’t yet have a formal Adoption Act, but sure why not,” answer. External Affairs had not yet developed a proper passport/visa process nor any form of appropriate vetting of prospective adopting Americans in those early days. Children were routinely slipped out of Ireland on military transport under the radar of External Affairs and many now even face citizenship issues in the US as a result.

The adoption scheme was formalised in late 1951, under guidelines set by then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. His imprimatur was sought at the highest levels of government, as evidenced by further memoranda found in the External Affairs archives. And yet US Catholic Charities branches, responsible for domestic Catholic adoptions, were wary of the scheme and ill-prepared to take on the vetting necessary. Some US diocesan offices even refused to participate in the scheme, such were the concerns surrounding it both in Ireland and abroad.

The trafficking was largely kept quiet: McQuaid demanded no media coverage whatsoever, although NY and other American papers were quickly leaking stories and photos of the rosy-cheeked toddlers arriving at various airport hubs throughout the 1950s. It was not until 1996, and the discovery of dusty old External Affairs archived files by researcher Caitriona Crowe, that the full scope of the trafficking of children from Ireland was revealed. In 1997, former RTÉ journalist Mike Milotte investigated those archives and other materials held by (now) Department of Foreign Affairs officials, and published the seminal Banished Babies (updated in 2012). And while stories have been legion in media around the world since, especially following the discovery of mass graves at the former Tuam county home, it was not until 2014 that the Irish government announced it would form a statutory-based Commission of Inquiry into adoption practices and many of the mother-baby homes and adoption societies.
Still no official recognition has been made of those “cherished” children lost to adoption trafficking. As we enter the centenary celebration of Ireland’s Proclamation and fight for nationhood, no “welcome home” has been extended to those of us forced into the diaspora. While the government hands out certificates of “Irish Heritage” to the tourism crowd for €30, it cannot be bothered to give its own native citizens access to their original birth certificates, nor acknowledge our citizenship status formally. Instead, outside ventures like EPIC Ireland have instead taken the lead, opening a museum at the CHQ building in May this year, which will feature my story as well as that of four other individuals “othered” by Irish State, Church and society, forced abroad, and now striving for justice in our own homeland.

After nearly three decades facing its ugly “architecture of containment,” from industrial schools to Magdalene Laundries, Ireland’s adopted/boarded-out citizens – and in particular, we “Banished Babies” – remain the last piece of dirty carpet to be examined. And lifting that last piece will no doubt find a nation sorely wanting with regard to cherishing its children equally.

Mari is the daughter of a Magdalene survivor, adopted to the U.S. from Ireland and mother to a daughter relinquished to adoption in the U.S. She is reunited with her mother, daughter and extended family. Mari has worked in adoption activism for nearly twenty years, with rights groups Adoption Rights Alliance, Bastard Nation (US), Adopted Citizens of Eire (ACE, US), and provided testimony to the US ratification of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Mari co-founded Justice for Magdalenes in 2003. She resides outside Philadelphia, US.

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