‘I’m just one of 126’: Seeking answers after being illegally given up for adoption

Actor Patrick FitzSymons faced silence and delays when trying to find his birth parents

Patrick FitzSymons as a one-year-old baby

Patrick FitzSymons as a one-year-old baby

 

For most of his life Patrick FitzSymons, one of thousands of Irish children illegally given away for adoption over decades in Ireland, celebrated his birthday on the wrong date. In fact, he was one day older than he always thought he was.

FitzSymons’s biological parents were an accountant from Ennis in Co Clare (who has asked not to be identified) and Eileen O’Connor, a teacher from Kerry, who met in the 1960s. O’Connor became pregnant and, unable to deal with the stigma, the young couple handed their baby over to St Patrick’s Guild.

The Dublin-based Catholic guild arranged for the adoption of their son by a childless couple in Northern Ireland, John FitzSymons, a pharmaceutical chemist from Warrenpoint in Co Down, and Patricia Bradley, a qualified social worker from Co Tyrone.

“It was deemed the right thing to place a child with a childless couple, it was making people happy,” says FitzSymons, who is now an actor, writer and TV producer. “My parents made the decision that I would be better with another couple because, I suppose, of the stigma of being a bastard child.”

Patrick FitzSymons with his parents on his First Holy Communion
Patrick FitzSymons with his parents on his First Holy Communion

Decades later, FitzSymons discovered that he had been adopted. “My adopted mother and I were forever falling out, partly about religion,” he says.

“She possibly felt she had not properly fulfilled her promise to bring me up as a Catholic, because that had been the only stipulation.”

One evening in 1998, he explains, “I was just having a regular visit with her and she asked if I had ever had the intuition that I was adopted. I just said ‘no’ and she said, ‘There’s something I need to tell you’.

“Well, the bottom fell out of my world. She said it was only fair that I did know. Perhaps she had been planning to tell me anyway,” says the 57-year-old, who played the character Reginald Lannister in the TV series Game of Thrones, and Major O’Dowd in Vanity Fair.

For more than five years he made no effort to find his “real” parents. “I hadn’t the first clue where to start. And then when I did it took two years before I got the steer towards the Good Shepherd Sisters.”

“Before that my adoptive mother had given me the information which she herself had been given, and which turned out to be false.”

'My birth mother had endured the institutional shaming and disapproval of Ireland at that time to do what she thought to be the right thing'

His adoptive mother had been falsely told that his parents “a young Catholic girl and older Protestant, married man didn’t want to be found”.

At this stage his mother was in her late 70s. “The way in which she felt she risked destroying her relationship with me was profound, and to begin with I felt looking for my birth family would further hurt her to an extent.”

“I got no leads on information about my real parents until the early noughties after contacting Good Shepherd on the Ormeau Road on the advice of a social worker,” he says.

Patrick FitzSymons with his mother Patricia in the mid-1990s
Patrick FitzSymons with his mother Patricia in the mid-1990s

St Patrick’s Guild

Then last summer, FitzSymons was told by Tusla that he was one of 126 people whose births were incorrectly registered between 1946 and 1969 by the Dublin-based St Patrick’s Guild.

In some cases, the name of someone who was the child’s birth parent was entered as a parent in the register of births. In other cases the name of the child’s birth mother was not not entered on the register at all.

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Believing that he “should stand up and be counted”, FitzSymons wanted to know more.

“But still I agonised about the possible consequences. My adoptive parents, both now dead, had loved me and provided for me as best they could ... Would I want anything that might ensure to reflect badly on them? Of course not.

“My natural parents, my birth mother in particular, had endured the institutional shaming and disapproval of Ireland at that time to do what she thought to be the right thing.”

'I want to live in a society that openly admits its past failings and makes whatever information it possesses promptly and freely available to those it concerns'

He was also concerned the impact the finding out more would have on the children of his biological sister, who FitzSymons found out about in 2006. She died by suicide in 2012. They are “utterly blameless in every respect, had already been devastated by their mother’s suicide and on no account should have to suffer the opening of old wounds”.

“But I thought too of the pain that I and every single individual touched by these events had had to endure in silence – a silence borne of the original conspiracy of Church and State. No one is allowed to talk, no one is allowed to be honest.

“Documents can be forged and everyone must play their part so that the so-called ‘sins’ of all can be quietly erased. And I’m just one of the 126, which I’m sure represents only the tiniest fraction of those affected by [this] scandalous adoption process,” he said.

Patrick FitzSymons as Major O’Dowd in Vanity Fair
Patrick FitzSymons as Major O’Dowd in Vanity Fair

FitzSymons, like others among the 126, are planning to take legal action against the State, amid concerns that Tusla and other State organisations are still holding onto documents, despite pledges of full disclosure.

More than 15 cases are being prepared by one Dublin firm, Coleman Legal Partners. The firm has formally requested sight of all documents from Tusla, but says it is waiting for a response.

“There is quite a comprehensive amount of documents to be obtained from the various sources,” says solicitor Norman Spicer. He said a number of people have come forward to lodge complaints with the firm in recent months.

Explaining his reasons for coming forward, FitzSymons said: “I want to live in a society that openly admits its past failings and makes whatever information it possesses promptly and freely available to those it concerns.”

Data protection

Last May, acknowledging the impact that such “life-changing” information had on individuals, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said she understood the desire of many to have their birth records corrected to show their true birth parents. In a statement, her office said Tusla is dealing with individuals on a case-by-case basis, backed up with a dedicated counselling service.

However, FitzSymons, and others, view matters differently. FitzSymons believes that Tusla is hiding behind the still relatively new European Union General Date Protection (GDPR) legislation, which would require the consent of the birth mother before her identity could be shared.

“It is important to note that in the absence of robust information and tracing legislation, Tusla can only lawfully release information relating to third parties with their expressed consent,”the child safety body told The Irish Times.

“Third-party information includes birth/natural mother and family details in addition to information that may identify those third parties,” it said.

“Tusla is keenly aware of the difficulty that this poses for those seeking personal and family information and to that end is working closely with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to implement the Information and Tracing Bill of 2016.”

This legislation is due to begin its committee-stage debate in the Seanad shortly, which will “allow for the release of birth information in as many situations as possible”, a statement from Ms Zappone’s office said. Government amendments are still being worked on.

Meanwhile, Tusla said it is continuing to work on tracing those who were illegally adopted from St Patrick’s Guild. However it said the work is “extremely complex” and must be treated “with great sensitivity, balancing the rights of all parties involved”.

Rejecting the defence of GDPR restrictions, FitzSymons said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar should have known the effect the EU Directive could have when he issued last year’s apology.

“Stating on the one hand it would now come clean with regard to the adoption cover-up, contact everyone affected and appraise them of the full facts ... only to then withhold that information in the name of data protection ? Cynical, to say the least,” he says.

Speaking in the Dáil last May, Mr Varadkar said the disclosure about St Patrick’s Guild was “another chapter from the very dark history of our country” and had “robbed children, our fellow citizens, of their identity”.

However, FitzSymons claims the State withheld information that his birth mother had attempted, in her last months, to make contact with him. “It was in 2006 that I was told that back in 1978 my mother had made it known to St Patrick’s Guild that she would be happy to meet me. Needless to say no attempt was made to contact me,” he adds.

He alleges it was in 2006, a full decade after being given the identities of his birth parents, that he was also told he had a biological sister. “I have no doubt that her adoption and issues related to her identity played a part in her mental deterioration.

“They could have made us aware of each other’s existence much earlier in the process. Instead, all along, they told me what they wanted, and when they wanted.

“I did get to meet with my sister three times. She had two lovely kids. She was very energetic, keen and delighted we had met. But there was an intensity there which gave me concerns about her mental health.”

Referring to what he terms “this seemingly ongoing conspiracy of shame and silence”, FitzSymons said he believes the St Patrick’s Guild files were “dumped” on Tusla to ensure the Catholic Church avoided blame.

FitzSymons says he wants the Church to admit its role in the illegal adoption and “the widespread pain and trauma caused by the subsequent cover-up of the facts”.

Since last May an independent inquiry into a broad sample of adoptions arranged by a variety of other societies and institutions has been ongoing to see if there are similar patterns. Children’s charity Barnardos has estimated that as many as 150,000 Irish adoptions might need to be investigated.

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