The battle for Irish babies’ souls: ‘It ruined two lives, hers and mine’

Joyce McSharry holding a photograph of her with her birth mother. Photograph : Laura Hutton
generations of people who were put through Ireland’s murky adoption system for children of unmarried mothers continue to battle for their identity. here, four adoptees share their stories

It is a measure of the long shadows cast by Ireland’s troubled history of adoption that, at the age of 80, Derek Leinster still hesitates when you ask him what his name is.

His mother’s name was Leinster. But he also goes by Linster, which is how it was depicted on some of his documents. There were other names in his childhood – Trainer, the family to whom he was fostered in early childhood. Later, from the age of four until 18, he was Derek Carway, the name of the family who arranged to adopt him out of the Bethany Home.

When the papers giving him up for informal adoption were being finalised “they put down both names, Linster and Leinster”. He does not believe this was a mistake. “That was done by my mother’s mother because she didn’t want me finding my way back” to the family home, he says. In the end, for the purposes of this article, he opts for Leinster.

The confusion over his name is symbolic of the battle for identity still being fought by the generations of people who came through Ireland’s murky system of dealing with the children of unmarried mothers.

As the dust settles on the Mother and Baby Homes Commission report and the Reynolds review into birth registrations – which found that up to 20,000 files could potentially relate to irregular registrations – it is clear that Ireland’s reckoning with this aspect of its past still has some way to go.

Buried in the report are stories of family ties severed, identities concealed, paperwork falsified, children neglected and treated like assets, mothers regarded as dispensable

There is a growing clamour for the right of adopted people for full access to the records that are often the key to their identity. Survivors and activists are asking how much of the reluctance to give adopted people access is rooted in fear of what those records might show.

The commission report, which was published in January, found that “adoption, whether informal prior to 1953, or legal from 1953, or foreign, was a very significant exit pathway for children in the institutions”. Controversially, it found that there was “very little evidence” of “forced adoption” between 1922 and 1988, although it adds elsewhere that “mothers did not have much choice but that is not the same as forced adoption”.

And it adds that it “has no doubt that, whatever the shortcomings of the legal adoption system, it was preferable to placing children in industrial schools or to boarding out or placing at nurse”.

Adoption in many ways is too tidy a term for a lot of what actually took place. Both prior to and alongside legal adoptions, there were unregulated or informal adoptions; foreign adoptions; the practices of boarding out and nursing out; non-consensual or forced adoptions; illegal adoptions; and ostensibly legal adoptions under which illegal acts were carried out.  

Buried beneath that “preferable”, wrapped up in the turgid, legalistic language of the nearly 3,000-page report, are stories of family ties severed, identities concealed, paperwork falsified, children simultaneously neglected and treated like assets of their churches, or commodities to be exported abroad, their mothers regarded as dispensable. And, to this day, records withheld from adult survivors.

The State and both Catholic and Protestant-ethos institutions participated in the system of unregulated adoptions that took place prior to 1953, and sometimes long afterwards. After adoption was legalised, the official system continued to be characterised by ambiguities, loopholes exploited and blind eyes turned.

The Bessborough Centre, Blackrock, Cork City, former mother and baby home run by the Sacred Heart nuns. Photograph: Provision
The Bessborough Centre, Cork: A former mother and baby home run by the Sacred Heart nuns. Photograph: Provision

If there was a hierarchy of concerns about adoption by the authorities during those years, religious considerations were on top, followed by the rights of adoptive parents, followed by concerns for the welfare of the children. The rights of natural parents were recognised in legislation, the report notes, but did not seem to loom large in practice.

To understand how the system was allowed to operate as it did – unregulated throughout the 1940s, and frequently with little regard for children’s welfare – requires revisiting the social and religious attitudes of the time.

It was not simply that polite society wanted so-called “illegitimate” children – to use terminology only rendered redundant in the 1990s – out of sight, but that these children were seen as the property of their respective churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Their day-to-day wellbeing may not have been keeping the authorities awake at night, but the integrity of their souls was the subject of much hand-wringing.

Derek Leinster’s story 

“You don’t have to be a Catholic to be listened to as a victim of institutional abuse, but it seems to help. That is my experience as a Protestant victim of institutional neglect,” wrote Derek Leinster in an op-ed for this newspaper, published in 2009.

The story that he told in that article and subsequently in letters and articles published in The Irish Times and elsewhere, and in the two books he has written since, paint a still shocking picture of life in mother and baby homes in the 1940s. Even now, recounting it again so many years later, the pain is still audible in his voice.

Tom said that to see me, you’d think I’d have been pitched out of a coffin, I was that horrendous looking

His mother was Hannah Leinster, who was from a wealthy Protestant farming family. His father, a Catholic, was 10 years older and a successful garage owner and landowner. Hannah’s parents refused to see their grandchild raised as Catholic, meaning marriage was never going to be an option. So despite the family’s relative prosperity, Hannah was sent to the Bethany Home in Rathgar to give birth, where she stayed until Derek was 4½ months. 

When Leinster was seven months old he was “nursed out” – a form of paid fostering – to a family called the Trainers, for 15 shillings a week. An older son of the Trainers, Tom, later recalled Derek arriving with his head “full of scabs, pus and blood”.

“Tom said that to see me, you’d think I’d have been pitched out of a coffin, I was that horrendous looking,” Leinster says.

At the age of two he was returned to the Bethany Home to wait for what was supposed to be another permanent placement. That fell through and he spent the next few months in the home, during which time he became seriously ill, contracting pertussis, bronchial pneumonia, diphtheria and enteritis.

In 1944 he ended up in the Fever Hospital on Cork Street, where he would spend 135 days.

“For a child to be so ill as I was that I would have to have been cast on a manure heap and abandoned,” he says.

That was the year infant mortality reached its highest ever level in the Bethany Home. In all, the commission report found that 262 children connected to Bethany died between 1922 and 1964.

How was this allowed to happen?

It was not simply that there was no awareness of what was going on at State level. The commission report recounts how, a few years earlier, against a background of mounting controversy over the idea that Catholic women were giving birth in Protestant homes, the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society (CPRSI) visited Bethany, removed a number of sick children and raised concerns about the conditions there.

In 1939 a department of public health inspector wrote that a nine-month-old boy who had been placed “at nurse” from Bethany “appeared to me to be in a dying condition . . . [he] was dirty and neglected and sore and inflamed”.

Her report prompted a medical inspector in the department, Dr Sterling Berry, to visit Bethany to investigate. He described the child as “delicate from birth” and the institution as clean and comfortable. He subsequently attempted to brush CPRSI concerns away, claiming: “It is well recognised that a large number of illegitimate children are delicate and marasmic from their birth.”

In a confidential addendum he added that complaints against Bethany “are largely due to the fact that they take in Roman Catholic girls for their confinements and keep them and their children subsequently”. He recommended this “most undesirable” practice be stopped.

The boy the inspector raised concerns about died two months later.

When he recovered, Leinster was sent to live with another family, the Carways, who were already living in extreme poverty and barely able to look after their own children.

I became as good as a slave to farmers who would pay me what they liked when they liked

He made it to school infrequently – he remembers gardaí making inquiries and his adoptive mother explaining that he didn’t have any decent clothes to go in. Whatever semblance of order there was in his chaotic childhood vanished completely when she died of tuberculosis when Leinster was 11.

He eventually left school for good at 13, unable to read or write. “I became as good as a slave to farmers who would pay me what they liked when they liked.” 

As all of this was happening in Leinster’s life, the battle was simmering at national level over the push to legalise adoption. On one side of the argument were those who, like public health inspector Alice Litster, were concerned about the welfare of children and the high numbers being sent abroad, as she wrote in a letter to the department of public health, “in a haphazard manner without due regard for their safety and moral and physical welfare”. Adoptive parents also formed a vocal lobby.

On the other side of the argument were some politicians and members of the Catholic hierarchy who feared that, if legalisation went ahead, Catholic children would end up being adopted by Protestants.

Homes like Bethany were already believed to be “spiriting away” Catholic babies – as Bishop J Stanton of Ferns put it – “off to England by Dr Barnardo’s, who would ensure that the boys, suitably indoctrinated, would join the British army and the girls would be sent to work in restaurants etc”.

This paranoia was not entirely the stuff of fantasy.

“Certainly there was, for both sides, a fear of losing children to the other side. And it went on in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. But there was a tradition of proselytism within Protestant religious organisations” which were associated with some of the Protestant-ethos institutions, says Dr Niall Meehan, head of the journalism and media faculty at Griffith College.

But while there was a preoccupation with keeping children in the religion of their birth, says NUIG historian Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, “when it comes to infant mortality and the treatment of children, there was no religious divide”.

Joyce McSharry’s story 

Joyce McSharry was born in the Bethany Home as the debate about the introduction of adoption was reaching fever pitch in 1951. Her mother, Emily Sheppey, was English. All through her childhood Joyce was told that her mother had been found dead of tuberculosis in 1951, with the baby in bed beside her. 

But when she eventually tracked down her full set of documents in 2013 through the now defunct Pact – the Protestant adoption agency which held Bethany records and initially fobbed her off with just a single line in a register and a cousin’s phone number – McSharry discovered the truth.

She and her mother had been in the Bethany Home together until December 1951. More shocking still was the revelation that her mother died only in 1976.

Joyce McSharry, a survivor of the Bethany mother and baby home, at her home in Portarlington, Co Laois, with a photograph of her with her birth mother. Photograph: Laura Hutton
Joyce McSharry holding a photograph of her with her birth mother. Photograph: Laura Hutton

How Sheppey ended up in Ireland to give birth is a mystery to McSharry. “The story, according to her nieces and nephews, goes that she was going to do the months she was meant to do in Bethany, and take me.”

McSharry believes “she never changed her mind”. However, there are two sets of adoption documents: one drawn up in 1951 by a Dublin firm of solicitors, Hayes & Sons, which also drew up Leinster’s adoption order.

This document, which McSharry still finds deeply upsetting, stipulated that if Sheppey contacted her daughter she would be liable for a penalty of a minimum of £26 per annum and the adoptive parents’ expenses.

It ruined two lives. It ruined her life and mine. People can say, 'Ah get over it’, but you don’t. You never do

It appoints an attorney to act and sign papers on Emily Sheppey’s behalf, “in case the Adoption of Infants Act . . . shall be enacted”.

The name of that attorney is Ralph Joseph Walker, the nephew of Hettie Walker, the long-time secretary of the Bethany Home.

Ralph Walker went on to become chairman of The Irish Times from 1959 to 1973 and was a shareholder in the newspaper company. Hayes Solicitors is the legal firm that represents The Irish Times.

A second application for adoption order was drawn up post-legislation in 1954. It states that “mother cannot be traced”, but McSharry does not believe that meaningful efforts were made to find Sheppey.

She later discovered that her mother worked as Weston-super-Mare’s first female bus driver, and died of gastroenteritis alone except for her pet poodle.

Throughout her life Sheppey held on to 10 miniature photographs of McSharry and other infants from Bethany. “My uncle found them under her pillow,” she says.

McSharry later learned from her uncle that her mother was “a jovial and happy-go-lucky” person until her experience at Bethany. “It ruined two lives. It ruined her life and it’s ruined mine. People can say, ‘Ah get over it’, and all the rest of it, but you don’t. You never do.”

Joyce McSharry as a baby with her birth mother. Photograph: Laura Hutton
Joyce McSharry as a baby with her birth mother. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Mother and baby homes were only one of the ways the State dealt with the “problem” of unmarried mothers and their children. Prior to the introduction of adoption in 1953, there were no specific rules about removing children from Ireland.

As a result “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,” wrote Mike Milotte, a journalist and the author of Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business, in this newspaper in 2014.

The nuns were forever writing to them asking for money. Donations weren’t illegal, but it was highly questionable

“Almost 500 babies were flown from Shannon for adoption” a year earlier, reported The Irish Times in 1951. Yet only 122 passports were issued for them.

The commission found that between 1922 and 1998, 1,638 children resident in the homes under investigation were placed for foreign adoption. The vast majority went to the United States.

One area in which Milotte takes issue with its findings is in the claim “allegations that large sums of money were given to the institutions and agencies in Ireland who arranged foreign adoptions . . . [are] impossible to prove and impossible to disprove”.

“I found plenty of evidence,” he says. “Plenty of American adoptees, their adoptive parents sent money, kept payments stubs. The nuns were forever writing to them asking for money. Donations weren’t illegal which is true, but it was highly questionable.”

George Allen’s story 

“It’s really hard for me to look back on that with any kind of remorse, even though it was not done legally. The system was maybe flawed, but it worked out for me. It worked out for my adoptive parents, and it worked out for my birth mother,” says George Allen.

He was born to an Irish Catholic mother in St Rita’s nursing home on Sandford Road in Dublin in 1953, and adopted by an American airforce man and his wife, a Protestant, whose names were illegally put on his birth cert. (Out of respect for his birth family including his natural mother, who still lives in Dublin – and as fresh controversy swirls around the issue of illegal adoptions – Allen has asked that his name be changed here, though his story has been told in full in Milotte’s book.)

Allen went on to have a very happy childhood and knew none of this until he was 44, when his adoptive father was dying and mentioned a family secret

St Rita’s was a nursing home opened in 1947 by midwife Mary Keating. Some married women gave birth there, but many who ended up in her care were unmarried. Long after Allen had left for the US, in January 1965, Keating would be convicted of falsely registering adopted babies as the natural children of their adoptive parents, though she did not lose her licence.

Allen’s adoptive parents heard about St Rita’s from a friend who had adopted two children, born within days of each other to separate mothers, from there. But before they could take him home, gardaí began an investigation into an illegal adoption ring being run out of the private nursing home. They interviewed the birth mothers and adoptive parents of eight infants. The Special Branch investigation delayed the family’s return to the US, but they were ultimately allowed to return.

Allen travelled without a passport and his adoption was legalised in his home state despite the falsified birth cert and with no evidence of consent obtained by his birth mother.

He went on to have a very happy childhood and knew none of this until he was 44, when his adoptive father was dying and a comment he made about a family secret led Allen to the discovery that he was adopted.

Through sheer doggedness – including an encounter, almost farcical in the retelling, in which he persuaded a government official to give him the first letter of his birth mother’s name, and another official to tell him how many letters it had – he tracked down his birth family with the help of Milotte.

He discovered that his natural parents went on to marry and that he has seven siblings, with whom he has been in touch for more than 20 years.

“I just ended up being lucky, I guess. I’m sure that there are probably adoptees that weren’t so lucky.”

Mari Steed’s story  

Adoption to the US was seen as a better option for children born in the 1950s, both by some authorities and sometimes too by women themselves. When a woman in her late 20s called Josie Bassett, who was the child of an unmarried mother and had spent most of her life in institutions, became pregnant in 1959 within a year of leaving a Magdalene Laundry, she knew immediately what she wanted for her baby.

She returned to Cork, to Bessborough, which was run by the Catholic Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and begged the nuns to ensure her baby went to America.

“She knew the system. She knew she couldn’t keep me. Her fear was that if I did not go to an American family, I would go through the same thing she did,” says Mari Steed, who is Josie’s daughter.

Mari Steed: she has found over 100 children “of what I call anomalies: children who were not issued passports by the Irish department of external affairs”
Mari Steed, who was adopted by an American family

And so, in December 1961, the then-18-month-old Mari was taken by a doctor with another baby on a plane to Philadelphia, where she was to be adopted by a couple who were too young to qualify there. “When we entered the US our landing card showed our immigrant status as X, which was unaccompanied,” says Steed.

Now co-ordinator of the US Adoption Rights Alliance, she believes the commission did not sufficiently investigate foreign adoptions, and that there may be large numbers of Irish-born individuals who travelled there without a passport.

Steed has been doing her own research using the immigration manifests of children coming into the US, information that is digitised and available online for about 13 US states. She has already found more than 100 children “of what I call anomalies: children who were not issued passports by the Irish department of external affairs. For some of them I can’t find a naturalisation petition. So it begs the question, do they know they were adopted from Ireland? Are they US citizens?”

Already, she points out, adopted people are using only DNA matching databases to track down their relatives. At some point the arguments about whether adopted people should be given the right to access their information may end up becoming moot, thanks to technology.

No one knows how many more people might be out there, unaware that their birth cert has been falsified or that their parents are not their birth parents. The Reynolds review speculated that there could be 20,000 illegal birth registrations.

They have done so much to distort the truth. We don’t know half of it. All we can do is the best we can, to make the picture as clear as possible in a very foggy area

Researcher, former Irish Examiner journalist and NUIG lecturer Conall Ó Fátharta points out that “not all illegal adoptions are as a result of illegal birth registrations. That’s just one form of myriad practices that are gradually being uncovered in the area of adoption.” Others included names being changed or children being placed with no adoption order.

Though the review concluded that no further inquiry was merited, Ó Fátharta adds that it acknowledged wider concerns such as the trafficking of children, forced and illegal adoption, the absence of informed consent – all of which were outside of its terms “but that the State will wish to address”.

“We can safely say that there will never be a proper, fully accountable calculation” of the children who were adopted out of, and died in, these institutions, says Derek Leinster, who has devoted the last 30 years to finding out what happened in Protestant-run institutions, and whose research with Meehan led to the discovery of 219 Bethany Home children buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery between 1922 and 1949.

Leinster is collaborating with Buckley on a fresh archival source – 11 ledgers of burial books from the Nichols funeral directors in Dublin – which sheds more light on the fate of nursed-out children.

“There is almost a hierarchy of options for the placement of children, and children placed at nurse had amongst the worst treatment,” says Buckley, who believes a much more thorough reckoning into all of that is overdue.

“They have done so much to distort the truth. We don’t know half of it. All we can do is to do the best we can, to make the picture as clear as possible in a very foggy area,” says Leinster.

Joyce McSharry holding a photograph of her with her birth mother. Photograph : Laura Hutton
Joyce McSharry holding a photograph of her with her birth mother. Photograph : Laura Hutton

Survivors and activists agree that what people who came through Ireland’s system of adoption need, even above redress and compensation, is unconditional access to their own information.

After the review into illegal birth registrations was published last week, sources were quoted as saying there were “significant concerns at government level about the prospect of approaching individuals with incomplete or inconclusive information about their adoption, including how traumatic it would be for people concerned”, a paternalistic attitude that many campaigning in the area found frustrating.

Whatever happens, Leinster wants to ensure there is equal redress and treatment for people who came through Protestant homes.

“We want to be treated the same way, with the same redress and the same access to records as anybody else, and for our records to be held in a State department,” he says.

Regardless of what the report showed, people have understood that this is something we don’t have to hide under the carpet anymore

Meehan also believes that a centralised database of all the records of adopted people should be established. “People still holding on to records should have some legal obligation to hand them over” and a research body set up to help people get access to them.

Steed, who went on to reunite with her mother and developed a close bond until Bassett died in 2012, wants a more thorough investigation into what she refers to as trafficking.

Yet despite her misgivings about aspects of the commission report and the questions about all we still don’t know, there is one thing she takes solace from. She had a baby in her teens, whom she gave up for adoption. In an astonishing twist of fate, that daughter has also had a daughter who is adopted.

As one of four generations of women who had a child who was then adopted, she has a unique perspective on public attitudes. “The public perception has shifted in our favour. That sea change has been massive. That, I think, is the most important factor.

“Regardless of what the report showed, what the outcome is, people have understood that this is something we don’t have to hide under the carpet anymore. We should never have been shaming our mothers and daughters and grandmothers.”