‘I don’t even know when I was born’: Scale of illegal adoption is hard to take in

TV review: RTÉ Investigates – Ireland’s Illegal Adoptions lets victims speak for themselves

RTÉ documentary peels back the layers of secrecy, shame and deception that were for decades a defining feature of life in Ireland

RTÉ documentary peels back the layers of secrecy, shame and deception that were for decades a defining feature of life in Ireland

 

Whenever a new documentary once again peels back the layers of secrecy, shame and deception that were for decades a defining feature of life in Ireland, the biggest shock is that there is no shock. We all know that this is how things have always been done here: the truth quietly placed in a bottom drawer, terrible deeds waved through with a wink and a nudge. The faces change. The story is the same.

And so while the wrongdoings chronicled in RTÉ Investigates: Ireland’s Illegal Adoptions (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm) are obviously heinous, the documentary ultimately lands with a predictable thud. Of course, religious institutions facilitated illegal adoptions. And yes, obviously, the State was complicit in what was essentially a child-laundering conspiracy on an industrial scale. Have the now grown-up victims received justice? What do you think?

The sheer scale of the scandal documented in Aoife Hegarty’s report is hard to take in over the span of a single sitting. Indeed, if this otherwise peerless film has a flaw, it is that it might have been better served by airing in instalments.

I’ve seen dogs that were purchased and the people selling the dogs being more concerned about how the dog was doing than the nuns were

There’s just too much. One case that stands out is that of Mary Dolan, who describes receiving sensitive information relating to her illegal adoption from a Tusla social worker in a hotel lobby. (In a statement, Tusla said it would “engage with” and “apologise to” the “small number” of people who received news about their birth parents in inappropriate settings.) Later she was told she had a birth sibling, living in the United States. They met over the internet and bonded. A DNA test subsequently revealed the initial information had been incorrect: they were not related at all.

“I didn’t know what to do,” says Mary. “I could have screamed.”

Setting to one side the Kafkaesque bungling of the State in the present day – and really, we shouldn’t – the historical wrongs done to Mary and other adopted people are, needless to say, unforgivable.

One of the culprits identified by RTÉ is Éamon de Valera jnr, a consultant gynaecologist and son of the late taoiseach and president, who furnished middle-class families with newborns, no questions asked. “Expectant” mothers were encouraged to stuff a pillow up their jumper, to embellish the lie that the infant they received was theirs by birth.

The religious orders were also at the heart of this web of cruelty. Consider the case of William Clarke, whose adoption by a New York couple was organised by the Sisters of Charity in Blackrock, in south Co Dublin. When the infant developed health problems, his new parents wrote to the nuns.

“If William is not up to your standard regarding health requirements, I am willing to take him back,” came the reply from Dublin.

“I’ve seen dogs that were purchased and the people selling the dogs being more concerned about how the dog was doing than the nuns were,” says Clarke, who was later diagnosed with epilepsy.

I don’t even know when I was born. Somebody said, ‘Well, that is not important.’ But do you know what? It is

RTÉ Investigates lets the victims speak for themselves. Talking heads are at a minimum, although the human-rights lawyer Dr Maeve O’Rourke challenges Tusla’s assertion that GDPR privacy legislation prevents it sharing information about adoptees’ biological families.

“There is no justification for telling somebody that they’re adopted and then turning around and saying: ‘Well, I can tell you that, but I can’t actually tell you who you are,’” she says. “That is not the proper interpretation of the GDPR, and we have not seen where that interpretation is coming from.”

The floor is otherwise given to the victims. In their 50s and 60s now, many have had to reconcile themselves to never meeting their birth parents. Not that anyone in authority seems to care – when the mother-and-baby-homes report was published, in January, it failed to satisfactorily address the issue of illegal adoption.

“I don’t even know when I was born,” says Brenda Lynch, whose certificate is false and who does not know the identity of her biological mother. “Somebody said, ‘Well, that is not important.’ But do you know what? It is.”

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