A FEW DAYS before Christmas, Ms Caitriona Crowe, an archivist with the National Archive, was looking through a batch of files of pre 1960 documents from the Irish Embassy in Washington received from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
She was checking to see which, if any, of these files might be restricted to public access under the rules laid down by the National Archives Act.
These state that government departments can decide not to release material which could cause danger or distress to people still living. All other government files over 30 years old are opened to the press every January 1st.
When she looked at the list of files from the Washington Embassy, she noticed one on the adoption of Irish children in the US which was not marked, "Restricted".
When she opened this file she saw it contained around 20 names of Irish children adopted by US families between 1949 and 1957. It contained the names both of the adopting parents in the US and the birth mothers in Ireland.
She rang the Department of Foreign Affairs on Christmas Eve and suggested that a file containing such sensitive personal information should be kept from the press, but should be made available to agencies like Barnardos which were helping and counselling adopted children trying to trace their birth parents. This the Department agreed to do.
"The next I heard was Nora Gibbons of Barnardos talking on radio on Tuesday morning about Irish adopted children in the US having their birth certificates falsified," Ms Crowe said.
She rang the Department of Foreign Affairs again and urged that Barnardos be contacted immediately with news of the embassy files. The Department agreed and she phoned Ms Gibbons.
Later, that day she looked at the file again and noticed a reference to another file from the Department's headquarters in Iveagh House. Early the following morning she went down to the repository, took out the file, and there were the 1,500 cases of Irish children sent to the US for adoption.
Each child warranted a detailed and comprehensive entry. On file were the baptism and marriage certificates of the adopting parents; evidence of their ages; a recommendation from their priest or pastor (most were Catholic); and a recommendation from the (usually) Catholic US charity in charge of vetting the prospective parents. This last, says Ms Crowe, was "very thorough".
There was also a joint affidavit from the prospective parents undertaking to educate the child in a specified religious faith - in most cases Catholicism - and to legally adopt the child.
There was also a "surrender" form signed by the child's birth mother. This began: "I hereby relinquish full claim for ever to my child and surrender the said child to Sister X" (most of those in charge of Irish adoption agencies were nuns).
It continued: "The purpose of this relinquishment is to enable Sister X to make my child available for adoption to any person she considers fit and proper inside or outside the State. That I further undertake never to attempt to see, interfere with, or make any claim to the said child at any future time."
The mother also agreed to the issue of a passport to the child in the event that he or she was sent to the US for adoption.
Finally there was another "surrender" form to allow the nun or other person in charge of the adoption agency to hand the child over to the US adoptive parents. The latter also had to furnish medical certificates and evidence of income.
The children named in the files in the National Archive cover the years 1948-61, said Ms Crowe.
Her memory was that their ages ranged from about two to seven.
There are another 300 files containing details of adopted children sent to the US still on file in the Department of Foreign Affairs, a departmental spokeswoman confirmed yesterday. These include cases up to 1972-73, although they had "dropped off dramatically" since 1962.
When Ms Crowe rang the Department on Wednesday morning to urge again that access to the 1,500 files in the National Archive be opened to agencies like Barnardos, she was told this could not happen until the issues of confidentiality and the rights to privacy of those involved were considered. The Department said it would have to take legal advice on these matters.
Mr Crowe said that in her opinion the first thing to do now was to produce a database containing the names of the 1,500-1,800 children, of their birth mothers and their adoptive parents. This would take two archivists only a week, although she stressed that the "vastly under resourced" National Archive could not taken on alongside its multiple other tasks.
It was her belief that the birth names on the files she had seen were real: "They are not the sort of names people would make up, unless they went to enormous trouble to make up unusual names; there are no Mary Murphys.
Ms Crowe stressed that the next step after compiling a database would take careful thinking about how the rights of privacy and confidentiality should be balanced with people's strong need for information about the circumstances of their birth. She also emphasised the importance of the kind of counselling provided by expert agencies such as Barnardos.