My parents chose April 19th, 1978, my sixth birthday, as the day to tell me that I was not their biological child. The task fell to my mother, who delivered the news while she and I were making my childhood bed: a tactic, I assume, to avoid prolonged eye contact. My mother held my hand as we sat side by side, and I absorbed the news.
There was another “mammy” in my life before this one; a mother who made the choice to give me away. If I was given away once before, then surely it could happen again? Terror crept into my heart.
I relived that childhood moment this week as I read coverage of how St Patrick’s Guild, the agency that brokered my own adoption, falsified at least 126 birth certificates over several decades to make it appear that adoptive parents were the birth ones. The news didn’t surprise me – my memoir, An Affair with my Mother, catalogues the prominent role that St Patrick’s Guild played in Ireland’s illegal adoption racket, and how the agency was consistently caught out in lying to adoptees and birth parents.
As adults we each have a basic human right to know where we come from
The relentless Irish Examiner reporter Conall Ó Fátharta has consistently documented the rampant abuses of Ireland’s secretive adoption system, and the State has turned a blind eye, again and again.
Right now, across Ireland, there are people reading this newspaper who are about to find out that they are living in a State-sponsored witness protection program; that their parents are not their biological parents, that their entire life is built upon a lie.
Stranger in your own life
I had 40 years to adjust to the grief of adoption, but what of these men and women for whom the very foundation of their lives is about to give away?
We spin our individual stories upon the fabric of our family narratives, but what happens when you wake up in your 50s, 60s or 70s to learn that your beloved parents betrayed you, that you are not who you think you are, that you are a stranger in your own life?
Despite the inevitable pain and trauma that these revelations will bring, these unwitting adoptees must learn the truth.
As adults we each have a basic human right to know where we come from. Ireland’s adoption system – rooted in disgust towards the unwed mother and the elision of male culpability for extra-marital sex – remains a dark chapter of Irish social history that has not been exorcised.
Referendums have legalised divorce, gay marriage and, last week, abortion, and yet Irish adoptees are still denied access to their own birth records.
Many Irish adoptees simply want to know their own story, and yet we are infantilised, pathologized, and ostracised, shut out from a closed bureaucratic behemoth that insists on silence and that remains indifferent to human suffering.
I have become intimately acquainted with that suffering following an astonishing tsunami of correspondence received since publishing my adoption memoir. Those who write to me are mostly survivors of Ireland’s adoption system – adoptees and birth parents.
They write tentatively, apologising for wasting my time, but asking that I hear them out. Their stories weave the most intricate tapestry of pain, a living testament to the agony created by secrecy and shame.
If we want to truly break free of our past then the last frontier remains Ireland's shadowy adoption system
Many of these people have spent years investigating the true circumstances of their adoptions, or tracking down the children they lost years before. The truth can be excruciating, but also liberating. It offers a path forward, a compass for our society to navigate its way out of corrosive taboos.
In my own experience, my birth mother welcomed me with open arms, but she insisted on keeping me hidden from the family she started after I was born and adopted. Nearly 20 years after first meeting her, I remain a secret in her life. As painful as that reality is, at least I stand in my own truth.
For those affected by the St Patrick’s Guild’s scandal, and those “falsely registered” by other agencies that we have yet to learn about, the State has a duty to provide them with the facts. The Government can no longer ignore the rights of adoptees, and must conduct a full audit of all adoption files to uncover further illegal adoptions.
It is a fundamental and basic human right to learn where you come from. The Irish people have, in recent years, ushered in extraordinary social change. If we want to truly break free of our past then the last frontier remains Ireland’s shadowy adoption system.
Bringing those buried files to light will complete our transition to a new era.
Caitríona Palmer is the author of the memoir, An Affair with my Mother (Penguin Ireland, 2016). Her next book, Climate Justice, written with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, will be published by Bloomsbury in September 2018. Originally from Dublin, Palmer currently lives in Washington DC with her husband and three children.