The baby black market

Mother-and-baby homes were only part of the system for dealing with unmarried mothers in the 1950s. Many children were also sold into a thriving network that stretched from Ireland to the US

Sat, Jun 28, 2014, 01:00

The National Archives of Ireland contain just a few snippets, but they are enough to make clear that State officials in 1950s Ireland knew the country was a centre for illegal international baby trafficking. The number of children involved can’t even be guessed at, but we can be sure they were all “illegitimate”.

Ireland was regarded as a “hunting ground”, in the words of a senior civil servant, where foreigners in search of babies could easily obtain illegitimate children from mother-and-baby homes and private nursing homes, then remove them from the State without any formalities.

There were both legal and illegal adoptions. During the 1950s up to 15 per cent of all illegitimate Irish children born in mother-and-baby homes each year were taken to the United States with the full knowledge of the State. In total more than 2,000 illegitimate children were removed from the country in this way. Most were adopted by wealthy American Catholics.

But it seems that hundreds, if not thousands, more children were taken from the country without sanction or public record-keeping. Many were handed to foreigners. On October 8th, 1951, The Irish Times reported that in the previous year “almost 500 babies were flown from Shannon for adoption”, a number that the paper said “is believed to have been exceeded” during the first nine months of 1951. In the first week of October alone, it reported, 18 “parties” of children departed from the airport.

These figures far exceed the number of official “adoption passports” issued to let adoptive parents take children out of Ireland. In the whole of 1951 only 122 such passports were issued, a fraction of the number of children actually taken from the State.

Some children were handed over to men travelling alone, as when a US businessman left, after a brief visit to Ireland in 1949, with two toddlers from the Braemar home in Cork. The New York Times called it “a surprise for the wife”. The same year a US airman was given two children to take home by the Sacred Heart nuns at Manor House mother-and-baby home, in Castlepollard. This was reported in three US newspapers.

On February 2nd, 1955, one American newspaper, the New Haven Register, carried a startling story under the headline “50 American couples buy Irish babies through international adoption ring”. Claiming a senior garda as its source, the article said the Americans paid between $600 and $2,000 per child. The children had reportedly come from private nursing homes around Ireland, including five in Dublin.


“Could not truthfully be refuted”

When the Department of External Affairs asked the special detective unit to comment on the article, the only claim it disputed was that the paper’s source was a garda.


Higher up the legal pecking order, the secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, advised that the story “could not truthfully be refuted” because there was “some basis for the allegation in question”.

Three years earlier a German newspaper, 8 Uhr Blatt, had carried a somewhat similar exposé headlined “1,000 children disappear from Ireland”. Many of the children, it was suspected, were destined to be sold on the United States’ thriving baby “black market”, where the going price was $3,000 a child, according to the newspaper. On this occasion the Irish chargé d’affaires in Bonn, Aedan O’Beirne, wanted to insist that the paper “publish a rebuttal of the story”, but his superiors in Dublin noted that “no action is required, especially as the article is largely correct”.

With the authorities determined to keep the scandal under wraps, the traffickers were pursued without vigour, and the children, whose welfare seemed of little concern to the State, were abandoned to their fate.

The scandal continued into the 1960s when a Garda investigation into another illegal adoption racket – one police believed was run by a prominent Irishman – led to the prosecution of a Dublin midwife, Mary Keating, who had also been involved in the 1950s venture. Keating was interviewed as part of a special-branch operation in the 1950s, along with birth mothers. At that time, special branch also communicated with adoptive parents in the US.

Keating owned St Rita’s nursing home in Ranelagh, and in 1965 she was put on probation for falsifying a birth record. But behind this seemingly technical charge lay an enterprise involving private nursing homes that ran a sideline business providing “illegitimate” babies, born in their homes, to people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t or didn’t want to adopt legally. Their modus operandi was simple. Instead of registering the baby in the name of its unmarried mother, as the law required, they registered it in the name of the couple to whom the baby was given, a serious criminal offence.

The falsification process is outlined in a letter from St Rita’s to a prospective adoptive parent in the US. It is also logged in detail in the Irish special-branch report. The New Haven Register article from 1955 describes the situation for US military personnel, who accounted for many of the adoptions. “To adopt a baby the American soldier and his wife would travel to Dublin, where the wife checked in to the nursing home as an expectant mother. An Irish woman would actually bear the child, but the birth would be registered in the name of the American.”

“The impact of this practice has been devastating for many people,” says Christine Hennessey of Barnardos, the children’s charity, because “it is almost impossible for them to find out anything about their background” – something many adopted people yearn for and the rest of us take for granted.

The Republic had about 40 private nursing homes at this time. Like St Rita’s, all are now closed. Clients of Barnardos know of other private nursing homes in Dublin that they say were involved in similar practices. “In total we have 96 people on our list who were registered as if born to their adoptive parents,” says Barnardos. “Ninety of these were born between 1940 and 1980. Legal adoption was introduced in 1952, and we have 43 on our list for the 1950s.” All of them were born in private nursing homes, mostly in the Dublin area, including St Rita’s.

And St Rita’s may have had friends in high places. At one point in the 1960s, when it seemed that Keating might lose her licence, a priest went to the Dáil to rustle up support. There he met Charles Haughey, then agriculture minister, who laughingly said “half the children born in St Rita’s” had been fathered by TDs.

This sounds like an exaggeration, but it could indicate that St Rita’s was a nursing home favoured by men of power for confining women they had got pregnant – but who weren’t their wives – and whose identities Keating permanently obliterated by falsely registering their babies’ births.

Priests, doctors, nurses, midwives and social workers are all suspected of involvement in arranging illegal adoptions. And where the adopters weren’t assessed to see if they were suitable “to have parental rights and duties”, as adoption legislation required, the consequences could be tragic.

In the 1960s a child died in the care of a couple who were too young to adopt legally but had been given a little girl by a Waterford priest, Fr Bobby Keane. The adoptive father was charged with murder.

But nobody apart from Keating was ever prosecuted for involvement in these illegal adoptions. Even today, official reluctance to acknowledge the existence of illegal adoptions, let alone the scale of the problem, is a cause of grief to people who believe they were victims of such practices.


The Adoption Rights Alliance has been calling for an inquiry into illegal adoptions for more than a decade. In 2010 it put 37 detailed questions on the subject to the Adoption Authority of Ireland. The authority didn’t answer them, but in public statements it claimed to know of only one illegal adoption in the previous 60 years, a figure it later increased to 50.

But at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children on Thursday, Kiernan Gildea, acting chief executive of the authority, said “there must be thousands” whose births were illegally registered.

Theresa Hiney Tinggal says the 50 figure was laughable. She found out 12 years ago that she had been illegally adopted, in 1954, in a process that involved falsified birth records. When nobody in authority answered her questions she set up a website; in five years it has had more than 10,000 hits.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, in her previous role as minister for children, declared that the State had no involvement in illegal adoptions.

But, as the State maintains that only where a legal adoption order exists can an adoption be said to have taken place, by its definition all adoptions are held to be legal. State agencies prefer to call the practice based on falsified birth records “informal” adoptions, a term that infuriates victims of these practices because, they say, it plays down the crimes that were committed.


Blanket denials

Blanket denials of illegality equally ignore evidence that crimes have been committed within the State adoption system itself. The Adoption Board, as the Adoption Authority of Ireland used to be known, has signed off on more than 40,000 legal adoptions in Ireland since 1952.


The great bulk of these were arranged by religious-run adoption societies – in most cases joined at the hip with the mother-and-baby homes that are now being investigated. At least nine religious-run adoption societies organised the export of more than 2,000 “illegitimate” children to the United States for adoption during the 1950s and 1960s. There were other adoption societies that appear to have had no involvement in this practice.

Adoption societies were legally bound by the 1952 Adoption Act, which says among other things that, for an adoption to be legal, maternal consent is needed. And it must, by law, be informed consent and freely given. It is up to the adoption society to ensure consent is informed.

The society and “every person who takes part in its management or control” were potentially guilty of a criminal offence for noncompliance with this strict provision.

A mother whose baby was put up for adoption had to sign two documents, one consenting to the adoption of her child and another stating that she understood the nature and effect of the consent she was giving. Yet many women who went through this process say they had no idea what they were signing: pieces of paper were thrust before them with an instruction to sign where indicated. Some have no recollection of signing anything, and in some situations the signatures were forged.

For the Adoption Board of the time what mattered was that the requisite forms were signed. What lay behind the signatures was not looked into. The board seems to have relied on public notaries who “witnessed” the signatures, declaring in the process that they “knew” the person signing.

Few mothers questioned any of this at the time, because they could see no alternative to adoption. But one who did was Margaret O’Neill. She gave birth to a baby boy in Sean Ross Abbey, in Co Tipperary, in 1968. Adoption was never discussed, and she signed no papers, yet her son was taken and given up for adoption at six months of age.

When the Adoption Board finally acceded to her demands and investigated her claims – 21 years after the adoption – it found that signatures purporting to be hers were undisguised forgeries. In one her name was even misspelled. This blatant fabrication had been notarised by a solicitor and accepted by the Adoption Board. The adoption had been handled personally by the abbey’s head nun, Sr Hildegarde, and a Garda file went to the director of public prosecutions. He declined to prosecute, so Margaret sued and won. The nuns put up no defence.

Could Margaret O’Neill’s have been the only forged signature? In her case the crime came to light because of her astonishing persistence in the face of official indifference. How many more such cases would be brought to light by an official inquiry with the power to compel documents?

Then there’s the question of money changing hands. The Adoption Act of 1952 was clear that anyone who accepts payment for arranging an adoption, including for incidental expenses, could end up in jail for 12 months. Yet here again it’s evident that some adoption societies run by religious groups received considerable sums of money, especially in relation to the American adoptions that they facilitated.

A New York couple were asking about adopting a child from the Franciscan Sister of St Clare’s adoption society in Stamullen, Co Meath, when they received a bill equivalent to several thousand euro in today’s money for unitemised “expenses”. They paid without question and were sent a child they selected from a photograph. The couple filed away all their paperwork.

Sr Hildegard confided in a social worker shortly before her death that at one point income from American adoptions exceeded income from any other source, but the paperwork, she said, was destroyed when a Garda investigation into unrelated matters seemed imminent.

Signatures, too, were forged to facilitate American adoptions. Rather than go to court to obtain legal guardianship of the children they were sending across the Atlantic, the nuns relied on slips of paper, signed by the mothers, “relinquishing” their children to a senior nun, who then took control. No court was involved.

Thirty years after her son was sent to the United States from Manor House mother-and-baby home, in Castlepollard, Pat Thuillier (née Eyres) obtained the two “relinquishing” forms she had supposedly signed at the time. One had been used by the nuns to obtain a passport for her son from the Department of External Affairs and the other to convince an American court that she consented to her son’s adoption there.

But the signatures on the two forms were radically different. One, at least, was a forgery. Both were notarised, on the same day, by the same solicitor.

Campaigners such as the Adoption Rights Alliance suspect that illegalities in the adoption process that have come to light, often by accident, barely scratch the surface. They argue that to leave the matter of illegal and forced adoptions out of the forthcoming commission of inquiry would be a devastating blow to a vulnerable group of people whose calls for acknowledgment and support in the past have fallen on deaf ears.

In the 1950s the senior civil servant in charge of “adoption passports” and the man who called Ireland a “hunting ground”, Joe Horan, wrote, seemingly prophetically, that “we must be alive to the possibility that the name of this country might one day figure in one of those ‘exposures’ they have from time to time.” This could lead to “all sorts of undesirable prospects such as letters to the newspapers, parliamentary questions, and so on”.

But Horan didn’t need to worry. The Irish media, like the political establishment, showed little interest in what was being done to so many of its most vulnerable citizens.


A name but not an identity: One illegally adopted child’s search to find out who she is
Theresa Hiney Tinggal doesn’t know her birthplace or who her parents were. Born on June 11th, 1954, she believed for 48 years that she was the daughter of James and Kathleen Hiney, who brought her up. The register of births said they were her natural parents. So did the record kept by the midwife, Una Doody.

But 12 years ago her sense of identity was shattered when her uncle told her that Doody had given her to the Hineys when she was two days old.

Although the health board knew by 1956 that she had been illegally adopted, it seems never to have traced her mother or tried to correct the record.

Hiney Tinggal believes thousands of Irish people are in a similar situation. “Knowing where you came from is a basic human right. Without this, illegal adoptees live in a permanent limbo.” Tinggal says the State needs to put the issue on the agenda of the mother-and-baby homes inquiry.

Mike Milotte’s book Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business is published by New Island

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