The Last Word: Irish-American Adoptions

Actress Judi Dench with Philomena Lee at the premier of Steve Coogan's Philomena.

By Dr. Valerie O’Brien and Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao
December / January 2014

Is it time to have a gathering? Philomena shines a light on an aspect of Irish in need of urgent attention.

The movie Philomena, based on Philomena Lee’s real-life search for her son who was adopted by an American family, highlights the issue of the many clandestine adoptions of Irish children by U.S. families, and the complicity of religious orders and government and church hierarchy in those unethical and often illegal adoptions.

The stories of these children have been both ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ in Ireland, where for generations communities turned a blind eye to the goings-on.

Previous to Philomena (based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith), Mike Milotte’s 1997 book Banished Babies caused an uproar with his claim that at least 2,400 Irish children were adopted by U.S. families in the period from early 1940’s to early 1970’s. Many of those children are now in their 50s and 60s, and time is running out for their birth mothers who are now elderly. (Philomena Lee just turned 80.)

We know that many of the adopted people have been searching for their Irish families and likewise, mothers have been searching for their children. We know too, as in Philomena’s case, that often times their entreaties for information have been met with silence.

As the movie makes clear, the stories of the adoptions were invariably linked with unplanned pregnancies (also abundantly clear from the film is how naive many of these girls were about sexual matters). Young women in Ireland who found themselves in the “family way” at that time, had very limited options. For most, the condition and its attendants; sin, shame and secrecy, meant banishment to one of several Mother and Baby Homes, which were run by different religious orders in Bessborough, Co. Cork; Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath; Stamullen, Co. Meath; St. Patrick’s in Dublin; and the Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, which features in Philomena’s story.

These homes may have provided a lifeline for some girls, but for others, as depicted in the film, their experiences were characterized by trauma, humiliation, fear, and enslavement.

The pain of childbirth was seen as God’s punishment for their sins, as was the resulting exile. Rarely were these girls acknowledged by their families again, or by the communities in which they had lived and become pregnant. (Interestingly, the fathers of the babies seem never to have entered the picture).

In the movie, Philomena and the other young mothers work seven days a week in the laundry, and are allowed to see their children for one hour a day.

In Philomena’s case her son is three-and-a-half years old when he is adopted by an American couple. They leave before she gets a chance to say goodbye. This appears to have been the norm.

Speaking at a screening of the movie in New York, the real-life Philomena said that the only way to leave the home was to sign over your child for adoption and/or pay 100 pounds to the convent, an untenable sum at the time.

No doubt, for many of the children placed with American families, the outcome was positive, but the manner in which these adoptions occurred raises a lot of questions.

We know that the religious orders created a record for each Irish child sent abroad, and that the children traveled on Irish passports using their birth names, and issued by the relevant Irish authorities.

The children were adopted in the U.S. following their arrival, which means that in at least some cases documentation with the child’s original name exists.

Those lucky enough to have access to adoption papers showing their birth names generally are able to access information and resources both in Ireland and in the U.S.

However, those who do not know their birth name face particular challenges in dealing with institutions, a position compounded if they were adopted in one of the U.S. states that continues to seal adoption records. Then there are those whose real names were misrepresented on official documents, and unraveling the truth in these instances is particularly hard.

Philomena is a shocking reminder of pain that still endures. In order for healing to begin, the Irish government should step forward. There are complexities, but search and reunion is a topic that needs decisive action and resolution.

A number of government departments and religious organizations are involved, and an urgent coordinated approach, involving all parties, is required. As a start, the adopted person’s difficult task of searching out their origins should be actively facilitated by Irish agencies, and all legal impediments to accessing information should be removed.

As the Year of the Gathering draws to a close, we need to make sure that all of the people involved in the Irish American adoptions are assisted in getting to the point of their own “Gathering.”

Knowing who you are is a basic human right. The time has surely come to open up the stories of Irish-American adoptions.


Note: Dr. Valerie O’Brien, University College Dublin (valerie.obrien@ucd.ie), and Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao, Harvard/Boston (kinnect@gmail.com), have been involved in researching this topic since 2010. They are particularly focusing on how the past can help inform current and future inter-country adoption practices. Of specific interest is the fact that, 40 years after the Irish practice ceased, American children are now being adopted into Ireland.

2 Responses to “The Last Word: Irish-American Adoptions”

  1. Alyce says:

    My Irish father was involved in the adoption of Irish babies in the 40’s and 50’s in the USA – I knew one boy who was adopted by friends of myparenhts – Irish couple – but he was killed in an accident while iin college
    The adoptive parents are both dead now – the boys name ws Tony O’Neill
    Gordy and Mary were his parents – Mary died last in CAlifonia
    Another couples name was Vaderlaan – an older couple living in Gr Rapids Mi – I cannot recall which child they took – I did not see that child – there was a girl named Angela too but I cannot remember which family got her – my fathers family in Ireland was selected to bring the babies to Michigan and then my cousins would stay with us for a short time before returning to Ireland – a catholic priest in Gr Rapids – Ft McKee I think – was the leader inthe USA inMi – that I know of – I think someone told me that Angela went back to ireland to try and find her parents – – I do not know if there are any pixtures of these children in my parents colletion of pictures but when I have time and go to where they are – I will look them up – I f you reply to this email I will have your contact address and if I find anything I will let you know – the Philomena story was most moving – thank God someone told the story – – I was fairly young when this took place and both my parents are dead as are all of dad’s sisters and brothers that knew anything about this – – my sister might have remembored more of this but she will not talk to anyone about it I’m sure – – let sleeping dogs lie is her best comment for most of everything in her life – so sad – anyway – glad you had this site so I could tell you about the children we had come over to families in gr Rapids – I wish I could remember more of them – OH – there ws another – Vito Lomonoco – he owned a dry cleaning place in Gr Rapids – but I don’t recall which child he took – we children did not see the children – just our cousins after they delivered the children to the americn families –
    Thanks – Alyce

    • theresa owens says:

      im looking for my half brother was sent to america in 1941 i have his birthcert, he was born on 15/08/1938 left bessborough home in cork 1941 no info after that

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