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‘A very nice baby with beautiful fair skin ... It was like they were selling a doll’

Sheila Shelton was adopted by a couple in the US from a Tipperary mother and baby home

The letter, which has a baby photograph attached, recounts her physical appearance and details of her health. “A very nice baby with beautiful fair skin, blue eyes and sandy hair . . . not breast fed at any time . . . is 100 per cent free from TB.”

"It was like they were selling a doll," says Sheila Shelton, now 63, who is talking about the letter an unnamed nun at the Seán Ross mother and baby home wrote to her then prospective parents in St Louis, Missouri in 1958.

“When I saw that piece of paper first, what really jumped out at me was the part about my mother. That she was a ‘highly educated’ lady. I was happy to know something about her, but it really upset me too at the same time.

"Why would an educated lady give up a child? If she was poor, it would have made more sense to me. I was confused," says Shelton, speaking from Hawaii, where she now lives with her wife, Sarah. She first saw the letter when her adoptive mother gave it to her when she was 21.

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Her mother is described as: “a trained nurse . . . a very well-mannered girl and highly educated.” Her “said father is a local farmer (of this we can never be sure).”

Shelton had always known she was adopted from Ireland. Both her older siblings had also been adopted from Seán Ross. Her adoptive father was American, who came from an "incredibly wealthy" background, and her adoptive mother was Irish. He was an engineer, and her mother a fashion designer. They were both in their 40s when Shelton was adopted.

‘Expensive gift’

“I grew up hearing my father say things like, ‘You know, you were a very expensive gift’.” Although Shelton did not know it at the time, he was obliquely referring to the “donation” her parents paid to the nuns of Seán Ross for her adoption. She never discovered what that sum was.

The nuns would say to me, if you don't behave, you'll be sent back to the orphanage in Ireland

When, aged 21, she saw the letter from the nuns, she says “It didn’t even register with me to ask my mother; ‘Did you pay for me?’ My mind couldn’t even go there. That would have shattered me to think they bought me. I was already an outsider: to have thought, I was just like a doll that they bought from a department store and dressed up”.

It was her father who went to collect her in Ireland, on the way back from a business trip to Britain, once her passport had been processed. She was almost two by then.

Shelton had a happy relationship in Missouri with her adoptive parents, both as a child and young adult. However, the private Catholic school they sent her to was a traumatic experience. "The nuns would say to me, if you don't behave, you'll be sent back to the orphanage in Ireland. I was a child. I didn't know where Ireland was. The only image I had of orphans was from Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist."

At the age of 19, her life changed profoundly. “It was New Year’s Eve, 1976. I had finished work and was waiting for my father to pick me up at 4.30pm to go to a family gathering.” she says. She stood waiting at the appointed meeting place outside a cafe. The arranged time came and went. An hour passed. Still he did not arrive. She knew this was wholly out of character. “My father was a very punctual man.”

And then a number of police cars came into sight, sirens blaring. “The next thing I see, they are jumping out of the cars with their rifles and telling to me get back into the cafe. I didn’t know they were trying to catch the man who had just killed my father.”

Shelton's father had been murdered in the carpark of his own office – shot three times – by an opportunist man who stole his car. She can still recall the make of that car. "A 1976 Imperial Chrysler, navy blue." The killer drove off in the car, and was eventually hunted down. He duly stood trial and remains in prison for the crime.

“Our family broke apart after that. My father had been the glue of the family. My mother became broken. She stopped being a mother, she couldn’t handle it; and my siblings didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

‘I was lost’

For some time after that, Shelton wandered. "I was lost." She spent time in California. Aged 24, she went to Ireland, to try and trace her birth mother. She only discovered she was a twin when she checked the baptismal records in Tuam. Her twin brother had died of pneumonia aged two weeks. His death was registered, and he is buried in Tuam Cemetery.

After her twin's death, Shelton was moved from Tuam to St Joseph's Industrial School on Ballinasloe, and then to Seán Ross. Her birth mother had left Ireland by then. Shelton subsequently discovered she died aged just 26 in the US.

We all have different stories, but whether you were adopted to the US or into Ireland, it's the same pain

It was on this first visit to Ireland that Shelton discovered what Magdalene Laundries were. She was incredulous. On return to the US, she asked her mother if she had known about the Irish laundries, or the homes pregnant women lived in prior to surrendering their babies. Her mother knew nothing. “My mother didn’t even know I was a twin. She received no information about that.”

Shelton, who is a visual artist, has spent much time during her since life trying to process what happened to her. She was interviewed by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes; part of a tiny cohort – just 3 per cent –- of former residents who were adopted into the US, and who gave evidence for the report. She is still angry.

“I’ve been an outsider my whole life. I was taken away from my culture, forced out. People are all unique characters and each one of us who were adopted has a different story. That’s what I told the Commission: we all have different stories, but whether you were adopted to the US or into Ireland, it’s the same pain. It’s the same trauma.”