Irish Adoption Rights

Susan Lohan

In this interconnected world, adoption is definitely not national but international, especially in regards to adoptive parents in the US. I do have some Irish roots (thanking all that is good that I can even know this today). My adoptee father’s, paternal great-grandmother (if I have this right) was fully Irish (both of her parents were Irish born in Ireland.) So, what happened there, does matter to me here in this blog.

Today, I came across this story in The Guardian about Susan Lohan who is an adoption rights activist. She was adopted as a baby, and has been denied any information about her natural parents. Lohan has spent years fighting the church and state seeking for them to reveal what they know – about her (and the thousands of others like her born into the same situation). Similarly, hidden information that traps adoptees as second class citizens here in the US continues.

In the mid-60s in Ireland, up to 97% of all children born to unmarried mothers, like Lohan, were taken for adoption, mainly by the religious institutions and agencies that controlled social services and opposed reproductive choice. The married couple who adopted Lohan were loving parents, unlike some families in the past who took in children to use as free labor. A housewife and a shoe salesman, they were the rosary-reciting ideal of Catholic Ireland and their religious devotion would have been necessary to adopt a child. Couples needed a priest’s approval to adopt and sometimes even proof that they couldn’t have children biologically. Religious-run agencies had used adoption “as a mechanism to separate families” who didn’t meet the Catholic ideal. Lohan’s adoptive parents were told that her mother had died in childbirth but they were skeptical. Lohan always had an image in her mind of her mother as an unmarried girl, too young to keep her. She later found out that her mother had been in her 30s at the time, a civil servant who became president of a trade union. “She was not a woman who was easily intimidated,” Lohan says. “And even she felt unable to resist.”

Lohan now helps to run the Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), which she co-founded more than a decade ago with fellow adoptees and activists Claire McGettrick, also adopted from an Irish Sisters of Charity institution, and Mari Steed, one of the “banished babies” adopted from Irish institutions to the US. The ARA campaigns for the estimated 100,000 adopted people in Ireland to have an equal right to their identity and information.

Lohan was about 21 years old when she met her mother, Nábla, for the first time. A social worker with the religious-run adoption agency made contact with Nábla and arranged and oversaw their meeting. At first, says Lohan, her mother had a stern demeanor but, as soon as they started talking, all that fell away and her mother spoke candidly. When Nábla had discovered she was pregnant, she was already maintaining the family home alone and supporting her brother studying overseas, as her own mother was dead and her father had left. There was no support for Nábla to keep her daughter – there was no welfare for unmarried mothers until the 1970s and, even after that, many were evicted or lost jobs if it was discovered they had children out of wedlock. So she was referred to St Patrick’s Guild, the adoption agency run by the Sisters of Charity. “We were not unwanted children,” says Lohan. “[Our mothers’] sexuality was unwanted. Their self-determination was unwanted.”

After their meeting, Lohan’s mother still kept her existence a secret and withdrew from contact for about four years until her death from cancer in 2000. “It broke my heart,” says Lohan, who was in her mid-30s at the time. “I think that was my first realization that I had been grieving the loss of my mother my whole life.” At her mother’s funeral, the priest spoke of “an additional sadness, because she was a single woman with no family of her own”. Lohan felt like screaming, not only at the untruth, but at the unending stigma.

Years later, having received no information about her father, she was meeting with an official from the adoption authority when he left her alone in a room with her file (she believes deliberately), which allowed her to find her father’s name. She went on to discover that her father had died in the 1990s, while she was searching for him. It would take her until 2016 to establish for certain that she had siblings.

Lohan has helped lead a successful political campaign against a bill that would have criminalized people adopted in Ireland for contacting their natural parents, punishable by a year in jail or a fine. In 2005, she was part of the advisory group launching the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, an initiative to enable people separated through Ireland’s adoption system to voluntarily register their interest in receiving information or contact.

An official review of adoption records has found evidence that tens of thousands of adoptions in Ireland potentially involved illegal practices. The Clann Project produced its own report on mother and baby institutions in Ireland. It found that the state’s policy involved the incarceration of thousands of women and girls and the separation of many thousands of children from their mothers “through a closed, secret, forced adoption system”.

How many more children will have to be born in Catholic-ethos hospitals and attend Catholic-ethos schools (90% of primary schools in Ireland are still under the influence of the Catholic church) because the church will not relinquish influence and the state will not ensure alternatives. “We should have absolute separation of church and state,” Lohan says. “It is long overdue.”

Ireland Gives Access

A story in The Guardian caught my attention, so I share.

Ireland will allow adopted people automatic access to their birth records for the first time under new laws the government hopes will end a “historic wrong”, including for thousands sent for adoption in secret by Catholic institutions. The minister for children says the proposed law would allow for the release of information – regardless of the parents’ wishes – the law would provide for the full and unredacted release of birth, early life and medical information to anyone over the age of 16.

International laws say all children should be able to establish their identity but tens of thousands of adopted people in Ireland have no automatic right to their birth records or access to tracing services. It remains much the same in half of these United States.

The legislation was published a year to the day since an inquiry found that thousands of infants died in Irish homes for unmarried mothers and their offspring mostly run by the Catholic church from the 1920s to the 1990s. Many infants were taken from mothers and sent overseas to be adopted.

Ireland is seeking to end Ireland’s “outlier status” for adoptees. A historic wrong has been done to adopted people and with this bill, the government is restoring the information that so many of people simply take for granted as part of their personal story.

Successive governments had argued that a 1998 supreme court ruling prevented them from opening adoption files because it emphasized the mother’s right to privacy. A 2019 bill to improve access to records was scrapped after opposition in parliament and from advocacy groups.

Adopted people will still be required to hold an “information session” with officials by phone if a birth parent expressed a no-contact preference. It’s not perfect but it is an improvement.

Identity

From an article in Severance magazine.

Growing up as an adoptee, I frequently fielded questions from friends and strangers alike. “Do you know who your real mother is?” “Do you think you look like your parents?” “What [ethnicity] are you?” The first two questions were easy to answer: My mother is my real mother.  No, I don’t look like either of them. But the third question hounded me my whole life. It speaks to a universal quest to identify with a group. And it speaks to the need of others to figure out who we are. For an adoptee, another question swirls around in the mix: Are we valid?

On one hand, our identity is who we believe we are, and on the other it’s who others believe us to be. In essence, the identity question is two-part: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who do you think I am?’ Adopted or not, we work to reconcile our personal vision of who we are versus who others believe we are. Yet when you’re adopted, there’s an added layer. For me, and I imagine for many adoptees, there’s a struggle to answer the question ‘Who are you?’ When others challenge our identity because of our adoption status, it’s difficult enough; but it’s further complicated by the fact that we have incomplete information about our genetic roots and, therefore, we can’t answer. And even when we get that information, we’re still left wondering how others view us.

Now my story –

I’ve been going through 30-40 years of saved clutter, old letters to and from family members, etc. Yesterday I found my OMNI Berkeley Personality Test results. One does this for their own self and asks some people close to them to do it regarding that person’s perspectives on one’s personality. I had my husband, my daughter, my two sisters, my parents and my in-laws all do this for me back in the early 1990s. Then one compares how one sees one’s self with how other see them. It does give great insights.

I knew that both of my parents were adopted. Since finally learning who all 4 of my grandparents were so late in life (after the age of 60), I’ve also been reading and learning as much as I can about the effects of adoption on adoptees as well as on their descendants. Much of that learning I’ve been sharing in this blog.

No doubt, adoptees have all sorts of reasons for discovering their birth or genetic backgrounds. My mom felt compelled to try to connect with her birth mother but by the time she made the effort, it was too late. Her mother had already been dead for several years leaving my mom devastated. The state of Tennessee wouldn’t release her adoption file to her at that time because they could not determine the status of her birth father who had actually been dead for 30 years (they really didn’t try very hard). It’s a pity because in her adoption file that I now possess was a picture of her mother holding her for the last time before she was taken to be adopted.

In the Severance article, she writes – “I projected her need to know about the baby she’d given up, basing that assumption only on my own feelings toward my children—trying to imagine how a woman could part with her child. I thought perhaps she might want to know that I’d had a good life.” This is so much like my mom’s own explanation of her need to know. My own reason to do the search was to learn the truth about my own ethnic identity. Simply being “American” as my mom once told me because due to adoption they didn’t know, didn’t cut it for me. It is surprising how important in our melting pot of a country, there is still so much emphasis on our ethnic heritage. It was my public school girl days friends making a big deal about theirs that made me feel like something important was missing in my own life. Even the Census forces you to record some ethnicity other than American.

I am so glad to know today about my Danish paternal grandfather, my Scottish maternal grandmother and all of the English and Irish parts of me. I’m less fond of the strong streak of Confederates in my maternal line but grateful my Yankee paternal grandmother and that Danish paternal grandfather balance my karma out in that respect. I’ve certainly had fun exploring the traditions and places where my DNA originated. It is amazing how often Denmark turns up in my life before I even knew I had that culture in my background.

No Choice

There are so many ways adoptees experience a life that they had no choice in. Beginning with their adoption, especially if they were too young to have a say, which the majority are consummated when the child is too young to be given a say.

There are also situations where a mother gave up one or more children when she was young. She then subsequently remarried and had more children in that stable union. So it was in a story I was reading today.

The adoptee in this story had a no-contact failed reunion and was re-rejected in her attempt by her birth mother. The two children relinquished found each other in adulthood. While the father who knew about the surrendered children had died, their children had not been told about these half-siblings.

This adoptee became aware of her genetic, biological family thanks to DNA matching. The extended family she discovered have proven to be lovely, considerate, sensitive and good people. However, the subsequent children who were birthed by this woman’s original mother, who are all adults and have known about these two other children for a couple of years now, don’t acknowledge them or treat them as anything other than shameful embarrassments and inconveniences, a response modeled by their mother.

The mother contracted cancer and subsequently died of the complications. Before she died, she sent this woman a birthday card, accompanied by a handwritten letter expressly stating that she should not to come to her mother’s funeral. It was hurtful for her to say that she “only wanted people who loved her there.”

She never gave these two relinquished children a chance to love her and piling on their wounds, rejected them again as adults. In fact, they didn’t even know she was dying. When this woman died, none of her subsequent children told them anything about the arrangements. So neither of these two attended her funeral but at the last minute did send a wreath. They hoped to be at the least mentioned at her funeral, or in her eulogy or at her cremation but the purposeful silence continued.

Finally, the day after her funeral, her oldest son set up a What’sApp group with him, her brother and this woman and so, there was a video call. He was very matter of fact and explained about her death. He asked if they had any questions. Mostly the call was simply made to justify how he was carrying out their mother’s wishes. These wishes were extensive – excluding them from knowing anything about her deterioration, prognosis, hospitalization, palliative care, imminent death nor were they to be told about her dying or the funeral arrangements. This son admitted that he did think she was wrong to demand that,

This story takes place in Ireland and they have a “month’s memory mass.” Her name will be called out in her church as a mark of respect at her recent passing. It’s a tradition for family to attend at this mass that takes place four weeks after the passing of a loved one. She writes that her brother has to work but her husband will be there to be supportive. She says – “I have as much right to be there as any of them. Being banned from her funeral doesn’t mean I can’t go to this mass in her church. I need to be there to show they haven’t broken me and to have some closure. I also feel it would be a show of defiance to them for ostracizing us so blatantly.”

I totally agree with her and support this decision !!

It’s A Fundamental Human Right

I certainly understand the need to know. I believe one of the purposes that I came into this lifetime was to heal some missing family history. I believe because I was aligned with my dharma, doors opened and answers revealed themselves. That black hole void beyond my parents became whole with ancestors stretching way back and into Denmark and Scotland as well as the English and Irish.

I believe in the principle that it’s a fundamental human right to know one’s genetic identity. I remember once talking to a woman who was trying to understand why it mattered that both of my parents were adopted if they had a good life. As I tried to explain it to her, she suddenly understood. She took her own genetic ancestry for granted because she knew that if she had any reason to want to know, she could discover all the details.

Not so for many adoptees with sealed and closed records (which was the case with my parents adoptions) and not so for donor conceived people whose egg or sperm donors chose to remain anonymous – many doing it for the money – and walking away from the fact that a real living and breathing human being exists because of a choice they made. Today, inexpensive DNA testing has unlocked the truth behind many family secrets. Some learn one (or both) of the parents who raised them are not their genetic parent from a DNA test. A family friend might tell a person mourning the death of their dad at his funeral, that their father suffered from infertility and their parents used a sperm donor to conceive them.

These types of revelations can be earth shattering for some people. I’ve know of someone recently who was thrown that kind of loop. The process of coping with such a revelation is daunting and life-changing regardless. Even for my own self, learning my grandparents stories has changed my perspectives in ways I didn’t expect, when I first began the search into my own cultural and genetic origins.

There is a term for this – misattributed parentage experience (MPE). It has to do with the fact that you did not grow up knowing your genetic parent.  That word – experience – best describes the long-term effects. It is not an “event,” a one-time occurrence. The ramifications of MPE last a lifetime to some degree.  I know how it feels, trying to get to know people, who have decades of life experience that I was not present for or even aware of. It is not possible to recover that loss. One can only go forward with trying to develop a forward relationship and whatever gems of the past make themselves known are a gift.

There are 3 primary communities with MPE in their personal histories.

[1] Non-paternity event (NPE): those conceived from an extramarital affair, tryst, rape or assault, or other circumstance

[2] Assisted conception: those conceived from donor conception (DC), sperm donation, egg donation, embryo donation, or surrogacy

[3] Adoption: those whose adoption was hidden, orphans, individuals who’ve been in foster care or are late discovery adoptees (LDA), etc.

There are also 3 primary topics for raising awareness and developing reform efforts – education, mental health and legislation. Right To Know is an organization active on all of these fronts and issues. They are advocates for people whose genetic parent(s) is not their supportive or legal parent(s). They work to promote a better understanding of the complex intersection of genetic information, identity, and family dynamics in society at large.

John Murry’s Adopted Relationship to William Faulkner

John Murry

It’s not hard for me to be drawn into any adoption story. As a writer, I am of course aware of William Faulkner. As a result of disappointment in the initial rejection of his work, he became indifferent to publishers and boldly wrote his next novel in a much more experimental style. In describing the writing process for that work, Faulkner would later say, “One day I seemed to shut the door between me and all publisher’s addresses and book lists. I said to myself, ‘Now I can write’.”

But really, this blog is not actually about Faulkner but about a related adoptee, John Murry. The name Murry actually runs down a long line of Faulkner’s. William Faulkner’s father’s and brother’s first names. John Murry had been adopted by his adoptive parents by an agreement made before his birth. His biological mother was a Cherokee schoolgirl and his adoptive parents thought they couldn’t have children. Also not unusual in cases of adoption, his adoptive mother gave birth to a son a year later, who John was raised with as a brother for a period of time. While growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, John’s relationship with his parents was troubled (also not unusual for adoptees).

With the birth of their biological son of more importance to them, John was eventually sent away to be raised by his grandmother. She was a first cousin of William Faulkner, who considered her to be like a sister to him. John Murry’s grandparents were related to the Faulkners – on both sides. Mississippi is that kind of place, he says. Murry often refers to Faulkner’s book, The Sound and the Fury. He says that his adoptive parents hoped to model him after a character, Quentin Compson, who appears in that book. John feels more identified with Quentin’s brother, Benjy. Quentin had gone to Harvard University. John says his adoptive parents gave little thought to the fact that Quentin commits suicide in that book.

Faulkner died 15 years before John Murry was born. His grandmother and Faulkner had been inseparable, and his grandfather was a pallbearer at Faulkner’s funeral. When Murry was growing up, his beloved grandmother told him that, despite the lack of blood lineage, he was “obnoxious” and “more like Bill than any of us”. Obnoxious was the ultimate compliment, he says – it meant he challenged authority and called out can’t.

So the character Murry relates to, Benjy, is labelled an “idiot” in the novel. Today that character would have been diagnosed as autistic like Murry was at the age of 32 (confirming his own instincts about who he was most like). He struggles. At times he is in control of all the stuff going on in his head; other times, paralyzed by it. “I have an eidetic memory,” (More commonly called a photographic memory.) He says, “I can remember conversations verbatim. I can hear multiple conversations at once too.” He’s not boasting. Many of his memories torture him. “I don’t want to remember some of these things.”

Not wanting to remember is unsurprising because his childhood was violent. Murry is phenomenally well read, for which he is thankful for one thing: the shelf-full of books his lawyer father gave him. “I was 10 years old, and he puts books out there for me to read like The Communist Manifesto and the Autobiography of Malcolm X – books he didn’t agree with.” Although his parents were set on him going to Harvard, he had other ideas. He chose to play music and compose songs (another way of telling stories).

Murry spent three weeks of his childhood in a host family’s home with other dysfunctional children (who were also being treated at a fundamentalist Christian rehabilitation center). There, he had his first sexual experience, which was being repeatedly gang raped by three older boys. He says they discussed killing Murry in front of him. “I want people to know if something like that happens to you, that violence is not something you bring upon yourself, just as I didn’t bring it upon myself. I was the victim of it.” He blames a later heroin addiction that almost killed him to that time he spent in that Christian rehab as a youngster. “I think the thing that led to heroin was having to repeat again and again, ‘I am powerless over drugs and alcohol, and only Jesus Christ can save me from that’.” 

Giving up drugs and leaving America in a move to Ireland changed everything for Murry. Albert Camus is quoted by Murry as saying, “The first thing a person has to do in life is to decide whether or not to take their own life and once they’ve done that they can choose to live. I don’t want to die – I know that now. I slowly realized my perspective on things has changed. I’ve changed.” I recently completed reading Camus’ book The Plague (I know, a perverse choice in a time of pandemic perhaps but actually enlightening as regards the behavior of people under such extreme circumstances which it seems changes little over time).

John Murry’s story is sadly typical of many adoptees who have a higher rate of suicide, dysfunctional relationships, drug use and are more likely to be victims of abuse.

The Silencing of the Moms

St Patrick’s is often a joyous celebration with parades and lots of beer, the wearing of the green and Irish blessings. Today’s blog is not about that side of being Irish. Caelainn Hogan explored the history and legacy of the mother and baby homes in her book, “Republic of Shame“. Today’s blog shares heavily from a review of her book.

Folktales are powerful because of their purpose: they teach moral through warning. This is what could befall you, they say, this is what happens to badly behaved girls. The S Thompson Motif-Index of Folk Literature itemizes the following categories: Girl carefully guarded from suitors; Girl carefully guarded by mother; Girl carefully guarded by father; Girl carefully guarded from suitors by hag. All four motifs are attributed to several mythologies including those that are Irish. But the last one, “Girl carefully guarded from suitors by hag” is specifically Irish.

The mother and baby homes of Ireland were run by nuns associated with the Catholic Church. These were the depositories for women pregnant out of wedlock. Some of the homes were laundries, some were repurposed workhouses from the famine, and a surprising number actually survived into the early 1990s.  This sad history has enough gravesites, unnamed dead and persecuted women to honestly qualify as a most horrifying folktale.

Even in this modern time, women who gave birth in these homes continue trying to locate the children taken from them and some adults who survived the horrors are still searching for their birth mothers. And as recently as December 2020, the Irish government voted to keep the archives of the mother and baby homes locked for another 30 years, leaving hundreds of people without answers, which in some cases means never having a true answer to their identity.

Hogan wrote her book as a personal quest to investigate the homes and make an issue of two of the system’s most disturbing motifs: silence and female virtue. The author says – “My generation’s perspective is that the mother and baby homes are a thing of the past, but it has an ongoing impact. I was born in 1988, a year after illegitimacy was abolished in Ireland. I spoke to a friend’s mother who was sent to a mother and baby home, also in 1988. That alternative, that could have been my mother’s life. That had quite a deep impact on me.” I understand. In learning about my own family’s origins, I realized what was a miracle to me – that my unwed mother was not sent away to have and give me up for adoption.

The author says, “I wanted to show my experience of coming to terms with this alarmingly recent past and understanding how it continues to impact lives, to admit to my own ignorance even when it affected people I knew, to realize there were institutions around the corner from the house where I grew up that I never knew about, a system built on secrecy but all around us still.”

Adoption law in Ireland still protects the anonymity of the mother—which means many people don’t have access to their birth information – purely because they were born out of wedlock.  Adoption rights are an equality issue. There is still a culture of silence around adoption in Ireland, especially when it comes to adoptees accessing their own information. Ireland’s adoption laws were always intended to keep adoption details as secret as possible. It’s hypocrisy that these laws are represented as protecting the privacy rights of the mothers. The author found that almost every woman she spoke to, who had her child taken from her for adoption, who was sent to these institutions, they have only ever wanted information and answers. These are women who have spent years searching for their children. 

There is much more at the link to the review/interview, if you want to continue reading about this issue as your method of acknowledging all things Irish today.