Ireland’s shameful secret of forced adoptions was a story I had to write

Ann O’Loughlin’s The Ballroom Cafe was inspired by the ‘small voices’ of unmarried mothers she interviewed who were forced by the church to surrender their children

Ann O’Loughlin: One woman in her 80s wanted to see the son she had lost before she died; the pain of this mother, whose child had been taken from her, as raw as the day she lost him. “I just want a chance to tell him I am sorry, but I had no say in it. It was all wrong, but mine was and is a small voice,” she said

Ann O’Loughlin: One woman in her 80s wanted to see the son she had lost before she died; the pain of this mother, whose child had been taken from her, as raw as the day she lost him. “I just want a chance to tell him I am sorry, but I had no say in it. It was all wrong, but mine was and is a small voice,” she said

 

They spoke slowly and quietly, decades of heartbreak punctuating every word. Stopping only to strangle back the tears in their throats; they pleaded for help in tracing the children so cruelly taken from them and sent to the US for adoption.

They are the forgotten women; the women who were pregnant and unmarried, turned out by their families and who lost their children to forced illegal adoptions to the US.

Treated harshly and despicably, they hid under a burden of shame for decades. Now in their senior years, they dared to highlight their cases, to speak of a shameful time in Irish history, when young unmarried mothers were treated so badly; in many cases their children taken from them and sent to wealthy couples in the US. Some of those children were taken without consent. Some went to already dysfunctional homes.

I first came across the mothers left behind many years ago as a working journalist; their dignity and the raw pain and shame they carried almost unbearable to witness. One woman in her 80s wanted to see the son she had lost before she died; the pain of this mother, whose child had been taken from her, as raw as the day she lost him.

“I just want a chance to tell him I am sorry, but I had no say in it. It was all wrong, but mine was and is a small voice,” she said.

She was right; her voice was a small one, but unforgettable.

There were many other “small voices” over the years brave enough to tell their stories publicly; they cast aside the shame heaped upon them by a Catholic country for bearing an illegitimate child and shone a spotlight on the harsh practices of the past, which saw them treated as outcasts and their children taken, often without their consent, and sent to the US for adoption.

Ann O'Loughlin on writing The Ballroom Cafe

It was these “small voices” that I drew upon to write The Ballroom Cafe.

All fiction reflects life and The Ballroom Cafe is a novel concentrating on the “forced adoption story” from both sides, moving between 1960s America and Ireland in 2008. It is a solid fact that ordinary life trundles on no matter what tragedy is heaped on our shoulders, so the challenge for me as a writer was to examine this issue, reflect the pain and suffering caused to so many women, while at the same time making sure the story rather than the issue drove the book.

It seemed fitting then to set The Ballroom Cafe in a crumbling old mansion, Roscarbury Hall, Rathsorney, Co Wicklow in Ireland, where two sisters, Ella and Roberta O’Callaghan, lived among the misty parkland and the overgrown gardens running down to the sea. A deep silence lasting decades dominated their lives; they only communicated through notes, short sharp notes slapped down on the hall table.

When Ella, to keep the bank from repossessing the house, opens a cafe in the old ballroom upstairs, her sister is furious. An American, Debbie Kading, here in Ireland tracing her roots, befriends Ella and starts to work in the cafe. Debbie is looking for answers, but meets a wall of silence at the local convention. An adoption scandal is uncovered that reaches far beyond the convent and the tiny village of Rathsorney.

The Ballroom Cafe may be a story filtered through life in Rathsorney village and the cafe, where people gossip and sip tea from china cups, but it reflects the tragedies of those ordinary lives lived under the shadow of a shameful secret.

There are strong women in The Ballroom Cafe, women who have been dreadfully wronged and suffered pain at the hands of society. But these women also love to take tea, chat, eat glorious cakes and indulge in a bit of romance and a lot of gossip. The humour in the novel provides the lighter moments.

The research for The Ballroom Cafe involved listening to the stories of women who were forced to give birth without painkillers; who looked after their children for two or three years until the nuns deemed them ready for adoption. Some saw their children dressed up for a nice photograph which was then sent to prospective parents. Many of the children were simply taken from their beds; a lot of mothers did not get to say goodbye. Even those who wanted their children put up for adoption did not know that a home as far away as America had been found.

The religious organisations who arranged these adoptions to the US were given a generous donation for each child. There was no follow-up on these children and only in recent years, as mothers here have cried in public looking for their children, have men and women in the US come forward with stories of far from idyllic childhoods with their adoptive US parents.

The practice was not confined to Ireland, but Australia has been the first to apologise. A national apology was issued to thousands of unmarried mothers who were forced by government policies to give up their children for adoption over several decades.

In The Ballroom Cafe Ella O’Callaghan finds solace in the beautiful Weiss brooches she keeps in silver boxes on her dressing table. In truth my research among the bright colours of these American-made vintage brooches was also a break for me to delight in some of the good things from times past.

The Ballroom Cafe was the book I had to write; the story I had to tell. It is essentially a tale of family and second chances. We can only hope that the mothers left behind and the children taken away can get a second chance to meet and look in each other’s eyes once again or feel a sense of justice that a State apology could bring.

The Ballroom Cafe by Ann O’Loughlin is published on June 18th by Black & White Publishing, Edinburgh, priced £7.99, and is available on Amazon Kindle now

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