Diarmaid Ferriter: The issue of illegal adoptions will not go away

The truth of this system must be confronted, but instead the Government plays for time

Joan Burton, who was adopted, was repeatedly frustrated in her requests for tracing information from St Patrick’s Guild. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Former tánaiste Joan Burton, who was adopted as a baby from St Patrick’s Guild, has maintained the Government’s decision to refer the review of the extent of historic illegal or irregular adoptions to the special rapporteur on child protection for a period of six months to assess the case for further investigation amounts to “kicking the can down the road”.

The can is not going to disappear. The sampling done to date relating to records of 25 adoption agencies suggests significant, “suspicious” irregularities. If a decision is made in six months not to take this matter further, it will inevitably lead to complaints about failure to confront the truth and the further distress that will cause, and if deeper inquiry is recommended, it will be asked why another six months was added to the long wait.

The practices already uncovered are especially egregious given the ferocity of pious assertions about the “welfare” of the children and the “characters” of their mothers that were associated with debate about the introduction of legal adoption in Ireland 70 years ago. Charles Casey, attorney general in 1951, defended the government’s resistance to introducing legal adoption: “How can any Catholic logically demand or permit any legislation which would endanger the soul of a single child? Take the case of a Catholic girl who … hands her child over to kindly people not of her faith. When that mother has rehabilitated herself and become more normal, she will know that she has done wrong”.

The crozier

The minister for justice at that time, Seán Mac Eoin, maintained that his main concern was that introducing a law to compel “a mother to waive for all time her rights to her child” would be “against the common law of justice”. But Mac Eoin, a War of Independence and Civil War veteran, also admitted lamely: “I don’t want to get a belt of the crozier.” The solution was to grant the Catholic archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid the final say over limited adoption legislation, partly designed to “ward off the evils of Proselytism” by preventing adoptions by mixed marriage couples and ensuring those adopting were of the same religion as the child. The Department of Justice overruled the Department of Health when it came to traceability by rebuffing requests that the adoption register include details of the county of birth. As Cecil Barrett of the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau put it later that decade, the key issue was “the confidential nature” of the adoption process and to ensure in relation to the adopted child that “ its original surname is buried”.


Joan Burton repeatedly went to St Patrick’s Guild looking for tracing information: “Each time I sat in their little waiting room under a picture of the baby Jesus and each time the answer was a blunt no … When I was getting married, I asked St Patrick’s Guild to pass on a letter to my birth mother to tell how I was and my wedding plans. Months later I got the letter back with a note saying they didn’t do that kind of thing.”

Similar emotional battles were fought by others at a time when there was far too much self-satisfaction about how supposedly smoothly run the whole adoption process was. But as was identified by social studies academic Vivienne Darling in 1974, when she was one of the few people writing about Irish adoption, there were no grounds for smugness given “our negligence in assessment of the system”.

Dearth of research

Four years later, in 1978, The Irish Times published a series on adoption by Olivia O’Leary, who noted there was “no statutory requirement on the adoption agencies as to the way they carry out their assessments or as to the professional qualifications of their workers”.

The series quoted Catherine McGuinness, who had served with the Adoption Board, and who suggested “we need stricter monitoring of standards of operation in the societies” and also commented: “It’s a wonder that the system works as well as it does.” But how, O’Leary wondered, could that be measured given the dearth of research on adoption? Many adopted children were undoubtedly very well cared for, but O’Leary wrote that “social conventions have imposed a sort of blindfold on everyone involved” with agencies throwing “a cloak over the child’s past”, and the policy of the adoption societies, “reiterated again and again, has been to refuse [tracing] information to adopted people”.

Tom Woulfe, the registrar of the Adoption Board, was also quoted in that series about those adopted who sought information: “Each time I have to say no … we have no way of knowing what effect the release of that sort of information would have … Sometimes it takes me up to an hour to say no in a way that they will accept”. The cloak remained, and still does, with the added layer now of suggestions of widespread illegality.

These covers need to be finally removed.