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‘Hole in my heart’: Searching for a mother I never knew

Singer Don Stiffe knew he was adopted but not who his mother was. In his 40s, he went looking for her

Don Stiffe

Don Stiffe knew from an early age that he was adopted but while he had always been curious about his birth family, it was not until he was in his late 40s and a father himself that he took the decision to search for his birth mother.

That search was to prove far more torturous than the award-winning singer songwriter could ever have imagined. He did manage to find out who his birth mother but never got to meet her – by the time he discovered her identity, she had been dead two years.

However, Don also learned that he was one of nine children born to his mother, and through his unrelenting search, he has been reunited with some of his siblings. His story mirrors the storyline of the Bafta award-winning movie PhilomenaPhilomena Lee even plays a part in his tale.

Philomena Lee, who would play a part in Don Stiffe's story. Photograph: Sean Curtin

Don Stiffe (now 50) was adopted from the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, by Margaret and Dominic Stiffe, who brought him to live in Cooke’s Terrace, Bohermore, when he was three and a half months old.

“I had a very happy childhood growing up in Bohermore. I couldn’t have asked for better parents and a community to grow up in. I had the most wonderful upbringing anybody could ever ask for.

“In my teens, I did start to wonder about my birth family and the circumstances of my birth mother but I never did anything about it, because I was afraid it would hurt my adoptive family,” he says.

When he was getting married to Elaine nearly 20 years ago, Don tried to get a copy of his birth cert, but all he could get was a baptismal cert from his local priest which sufficed at the time.

Stiffe with his mother, wife and three children

“There was always a little hole in my heart wondering about my birth mother and father and whether I had any siblings. All I knew was that I was adopted from Sean Ross Abbey where I also believed I had been born.

“Don Stiffe is the name given to me by my parents in Galway 50 years ago, but this is not the name on my original birth cert. This information was withheld from me, along with any information on my birth mother, father and any possible siblings.

“The legislation in Ireland governing adoption causes a lot of difficulty to people like me who are adopted and who want to find out about their birth families.”

It wasn’t until he was married with three children of his own that Don decided to start searching through the official agencies for information on his birth family. He had so many unanswered questions related to his adoption story and was wondered about any hereditary illnesses that he or his children might be at risk of.

His search for information was slow and frustrating and he soon realised that while the agencies he was in contact with had a good deal of information about his birth-mother, they could not disclose it to him because of the legislation. He welcomes the changes due to come into force under the Adoption (Amendment Bill) 2016.

The only information Don was given was that he had been born in the south east of the country, not Tipperary, and that his birth mother would be 88 years if she was still alive.

“I had been told I would have to wait 18 months for any further information. I asked if an exception could be made and the process speeded up due to my mother’s age but I was told this would not be possible.”

In 2015, Don was passing through Roscrea on his way back from a festival in Wexford where he had played a concert with the Kilfenora Céilí Band when he stopped at a filling station for a coffee. By chance or fate, the priest who had organised the festival stopped off at the same garage.

“I was sitting there having a coffee with him and I told him how I had always wanted to go into the home, but could never find the courage to cross the gates. He said: ‘I’d go in those gates if I was you. If you don’t do it today, you most probably never will’. I found the courage that day and went in.”

The Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary. 'I found the courage that day and went in.' Pghotograph: Niall Carson/PA

Don crossed the gates to Sean Ross Abbey – the inaugural remembrance day for the mother and baby home happened to be taking place. He walked into the little graveyard where he saw a new headstone which marked the grave of Michael Hess, son of Philomena Lee. He had said a quiet prayer at the grave when a woman, who was attending the commemoration, approached him.

It was Lee herself. She asked him his story and told him simply to “follow your heart” pointing out that his mother could be searching for him just as she had been searching for her son. By the time she finally tracked Michael down, she told Don, he had already died. She invited Don to join the ceremony where he met other people in a similar position and made new contacts.

Don Stiffe's biological mother

A year later, Don went to the second commemoration in Sean Ross where he met a friend who offered to help him search for his mother. Within a few months, his friend contacted him to say she had found his birth mother through “unofficial channels”, but that his mother had passed away in February 2014.

“That was an awful blow even though there was always a chance that this would happen. It was devastating to think I that was so near to finding her and if I has started searching for her a couple of years earlier, I might have got to meet her.

“A few days later, my friend rang back with more information. She told me I had seven siblings and later in that week, I found out I also had a stepbrother, I was the second-youngest of nine children.”

His friend had also managed to track down Don’s original birth cert – which revealed that his mother’s name was Margaret and his birth name was Patrick – as well as his mother’s death certificate and the name and address of his sister Marie in Dublin.

He wrote a letter to Marie explaining who he was and enclosed a copy of his birth cert and his birth mother’s death cert. A week passed and there was no reply. The following week, Marie called – she had been on holiday and had read the letter five times and then called him straight away.

Ironically, Marie had watched Don on RTÉ’s 2012 All-Ireland Talent Show, which he won, not realising that he was a brother whose existence she knew nothing about. They made plans to meet in Dublin, along with another brother Tom, who lived in Carlow.

“2016 will always be a memorable year for me because that was the year I met my brother and sister for the first time. What an emotional day! I met Marie first and she brought me a photo of my birth mother and father and all my brothers and sisters.

“There was no grave to visit because my mother had been cremated – my father had passed away about 10 years earlier – but she brought me a small urn containing some of my mother’s ashes. That gesture meant so much to me, it was unbelievable.”

Since then, Don has met Tom and Marie on numerous occasions and they have visited his family in Galway, including his adoptive mother in Bohermore. His own children have met aunts, uncles and cousins they never knew they had. He learned that his grandmother on his mother’s side had been a great fiddle player, which could be where his musical genes had come from.

Don has become close to Marie and to Tom, who visits the Stiffe home in Headford. He is also in contact with several other siblings who he hopes to meet soon.

“Last Christmas I wrote to all my brothers and sisters – some of whom live in England – and sent them all CDs of my music. To my great joy, I received Christmas cards and letters from all of them, the last one arriving on Christmas Eve. I put all the cards and my mother’s ashes on a little table and lit a candle there on Christmas Day with my wife and children. I’ve never experienced a Christmas like it.”

Don has come to learn that his birth family situation was a complicated one and his mother was unable to care for him.

“I was fortunate enough to be adopted to Galway by loving parents who gave me a wonderful upbringing.”

Don wrote a song for Maureen, the now 84-year-old woman who adopted and reared him. The lyrics to You’ll always be my mother, which he released in 2016, tells her how important she has been in his life and of his deep love for her.

Although he knew Maureen’s own family had been dispersed and she had spent time in a home, she had never really spoken about her own background. As his story unfolded and the scandal of the Tuam mother and baby home came to light, she began to tell him her own story.

“There were nine children in her family also and they were all separated and put into institutions in the 1940s. She was put into an industrial home in Salthill with one of her sisters, and she has never seen some of her brothers or sisters since. The unfolding stories about the mother and baby homes in Tuam and around the country brought many memories back to her after all the years. Her own story is so heartbreaking and I can see now why she has been so helpful to me with my own search. She will always be my mother.”

Don has a thriving solo career as well as performing with others artists such as Sharon Shannon, Irish-American band Cherish the Ladies and the Kilfenora Céilí Band. He tours Europe and the US with some of Ireland’s biggest names in folk such as Mary Black, Lúnasa and Maura O’Connell.

Don Stiffe will play Glor Theatre, Fleadh Cheoil, Ennis, on August 16th; DC Club Dublin on September 29th and Coleman Music Centre, Co Sligo on September 30th 2017. For details, go to www.adoptionrightsalliance.com