Up to 4,000 Irish children were sent abroad for adoption between the mid-1940s and early 1970s, rather than the 2,000-strong figure drawn up by the Department of Foreign Affairs nearly 25 years ago.
The recent report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes puts the number adopted abroad at 1,638, though this relates only to the institutions it investigated.
Numbers highlighted by the commission indicate that 500 more babies were sent abroad by these institutions alone than the total on the list drawn up by the department in response to questions in 1997.
For example, according to this list, the Sacred Heart nuns, who managed Sean Ross Abbey, Castlepollard and Bessborough, sent 814 children overseas, but the commission found details for 1,123 babies, a near40 per cent increase.
The number sent abroad from Bessborough in Cork is almost twice what was previously known, while the number that went from Castlepollard in Co Westmeath is 56 per cent higher than in previously gathered tallies. The larger numbers may be explained by the fact that the commission had access to more complete records than had been previously disclosed.
However, it did not investigate the body responsible for sending more children abroad than any other in the State, St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin, which handled 643 foreign adoptions.
The adoption society run by the Franciscan Sisters of St Clare at Stamullen, Co Meath, which is known to have sent at least 130 children out of the country for adoption, also fell outside the commission’s remit.
For its tally in 1997, the department drew up lists by the years babies were sent abroad, the country of destination and the institution responsible for sending them.
Three other adoption societies not investigated by the commission, Catholic Women’s Aid, St Joseph’s and St Bridgid’s, sent at least 80 children abroad. In 1996, the department’s tally included a “miscellaneous” category for institutions not named individually, accounting for 101 children.
Meanwhile, the US embassy in Dublin recorded that 170 visas had been issued to allow Irish babies to be taken abroad for adoption between 1949 and 1950, before the State started to keep its own records.
Many of these children were adopted by American military personnel stationed in the UK. Although they were later taken to the US, in terms of how they were recorded, they are quite separate from those sent directly to the US and other countries by the named institutions.
In addition, a 1951 report sent to the government by Bishop Con Lucey along with the future cardinal Dr William Conway and canon lawyer Dr John McGrath alerted the State to a vast “traffic” in Irish babies.
It noted that “the dimensions of this traffic” cannot be precisely assessed, but it was very considerable for the US, estimated at about 500 children for the previous year, and probably much greater, as well as such traffic in children being largely hidden for Britain.
The records used by the commission show just 97 foreign adoptions in 1950, suggesting 400 or so were not officially recorded.
Something similar occurred in 1951, a year when The Irish Times, acknowledging the 500 American adoptions in 1950, said that number had “already been exceeded” in the first nine months of 1951, an assertion noted, but never challenged or denied, by the department.
But the official records relied on by the commission show just 86 foreign adoptions for the whole of 1951, suggesting an official underestimate for that year of at least another 400.
The substantial underestimates by the State in foreign adoption figures for 1950/51 do not recur in succeeding years because the authorities began to keep more accurate records.
There is one final category mentioned, but not counted, in the mother and baby home report. The commission says it found passport records for a further 265 children who were in the institutions named, but who were “not recorded as placed for adoption”.
This wording suggests the records were incomplete, rather than that the children did not leave the country. The 265 children have been excluded from the report’s total which only counts those known to have been placed.