‘I was a Tuam baby’: Boston man appeals for records detailing his past

Michael Byrne says knowing more about his past would give him ‘a little more peace’

Michael Byrne holds his communion photo and also his Irish passport when he was aged 4. Photograph: Alan Betson

Michael Byrne holds his communion photo and also his Irish passport when he was aged 4. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Michael Byrne clutches a black book full of old photographs, letters and documents, which he calls his “bible”.

Michael (64), who was born in the Tuam mother and baby home, has spent much of the last five years piecing together his past.

It was only last April that Michael discovered the name of his biological father for the first time, and is unsure if he is still alive today.

“Did he know about me? Did he eventually go on to have a family? Those are all the mysteries he would have answers to and that no one else would have,” Michael says.

“That’s all I want are answers, a little more peace. I don’t hold out the possibility that he is still around, he would be well into his 90s if he was, but who knows he might have children of his own and I might have half brothers and sisters.”

Born on July 22, 1957, Michael stayed in the Tuam mother and baby home for less than a month before being taken to the Temple Hill orphanage in Blackrock, Dublin where he remained until he was four.

He was adopted by an American couple in 1961 and travelled to Boston, where he still lives.

“I was born with a deformed right leg and foot so I wasn’t the first choice for a lot of folks to be adopted, probably because of that handicap,” he says.

“I kept on asking ‘is it my turn?’ and of course it never was.”

Michael’s adoptive parents, Raymond and Marilyn Byrne, had also adopted another Irish boy the previous year called Patrick. Michael says growing up he always knew he was adopted and that his place of birth was Tuam, but didn’t know he had been in the mother and baby home or have any details about his biological parents.

“My parents never hid anything, such as our nationality, our identity had always been Irish born, we had always known,” he says.

“My mother would insist, ‘Michael and Paddy get up and do an Irish jig’. I had no idea what a jig was. I knew, but I knew very little.”

Michael’s adoptive parents Raymond and Marilyn passed away within a month of each other in 1991 and it was not until 2014, when the Tuam mother and baby home scandal began to break, that Michael decided it was now time to find out more about his biological parents.

Following the work of local historian Catherine Corless, the Commission of Investigation concluded earlier this year that 978 children had died at Tuam and the “physical conditions were dire” at the home, owned by Galway County Council and run by the Bon Secours Sisters. The commission issued its final report in January, although the methodology used in compiling it was criticised by some survivors’ groups.

Michael obtained his birth certificate in 2017 and it was then he found out he was born in the home and confirmed his mother’s name; Annie Owens.

“Suddenly I was in the same arena that everyone was talking about. It was an ‘oh my god’ moment, that there was a lot more to my story than I ever realised. I was a Tuam baby,” he says.

He visited the mother and baby home that same year, and met Catherine Corless, and showed her letters between his late parents and St Patrick’s Guild, which handled the adoption of many Irish babies by people in the United States. One such letter from St Patrick’s Guild thanked Michael’s parents for their “most generous donation”.

Michael subsequently got in touch with Tusla who said they had no information about his father but informed him there was a second cousin from his mother’s side living in Charlestown, Co Mayo, her original hometown.

“I reached out and got a lovely letter; they said they would love to see me and that I was welcome to come over any time,” he says.

“They sent photos, and also my mother’s death certificate. She had passed away in 2001, but the death cert mentioned that she had died in Philadelphia.

“I was disappointed, I had questions such as what was her time like in Tuam, how did they treat her, my birth defect. There’s a question of was she trying to find me, Philadelphia is not that far from Boston.

“Did she leave Ireland to come to America for a better life, or to escape? I don’t know.”

Michael’s mother had a number of siblings though they had all passed away by this time while her extended family knew very little about her or why she had left Ireland for the US.

With some help from his niece, Michael learned that his mother had been buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Philadelphia.

“Me and my brother and family went down to Philadelphia in 2018, found the grave and bought her a headstone. I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says.

“No one wants to be buried under the ground with no recognition or acknowledgement. I had to do that, it was the only thing I could do for her.”

Following a number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, Michael discovered his biological father’s name, John Harte, as well the ages (28 and 25) and profession of both him and his mother (farmer and saleslady) at the time of birth, from documents released by the Catholic Charitable Bureau of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Last month, Michael travelled back to Ireland to meet his cousins in person and visit the farm his mother grew up on in Charlestown.

He also returned to Tuam, and met with members of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance.

“It’s been particularly emotional being back this time - you picture your mother walking these same streets, standing on that yard in Tuam, looking around and trying to put the buildings back in place, how it might have looked,” Michael says.

“I also know from speaking to other members of the alliance that I have been lucky in terms of the amount of information and documents I’ve been able to obtain.

“The records need to be opened up, it’s in the past, it’s an opportunity for us to be able to heal. I would love to know my mother’s medical records, what she went through, what her time was like in Tuam.

“To me I’ve always just wanted the truth. I have a lot of information but you love to know more about you.”