For the month of March (also known as Irish American Heritage Month) IrishCentral is tapping into the heartbeat of the Irish American community. The Unsung Heroes series features inspiring individuals from across the US who do extraordinary work in their communities and respective fields. From advocates to artists, from local legends to dedicated educators; from a high school baseball team to dynamo nuns in their 80s, these people are making a difference and to them we tip our hats in thanks.
Mari Steed was two-years-old when she was adopted from Ireland by a family from Flourtown, PA. Years later, her search for her birth mother turned up the Magdalene Laundries’ terrifying legacy, and Steed is widely credited for her campaign for justice and the Irish Government’s apology to the Magdalene survivors.
Mari is the daughter of a Magdalene survivor. She was taken from her mother and sent for adoption in America at eighteen months old.
She might never have gone looking for the woman who relinquished her had fate not brought her a great empathy for her mother's experience. In her senior year of high school, Steed became pregnant by her boyfriend. Her parents sent her to St. Vincent’s, a home in Upper Darby for unwed mothers. On rare visits home to Flourtown, young Mari was kept indoors, lest her growing bump may attract neighborhood gossip.
Mari was reunited with her birth mother, who is now known as Josephine Bassett, through her campaign with Justice for Madeline Survivors. Josephine was one of the thousands of women who worked for years in the Magdalene laundries system before the last one closed in 1996. Her mother’s life, Steed told The Irish Voice in 2013, is a “kind of testament to the shadow side of Ireland and the deceitful tale it told itself of a kindly and compassionate social order.”
Mari has worked in adoption activism for nearly twenty years, with rights groups Adoption Rights Alliance, Bastard Nation (US) and Adopted Citizens of Eire (ACE, US), and provided testimony to the US ratification of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Mari co-founded Justice for Magdalenes in 2003.
Mari Steed became a staunch adoption advocate and has been actively involved in getting the Irish government to compensate the surviving Magdalenes.
“We started Justice for the Magdalenes in 2003,” says Steed. “It took 10 years, but the women who listened to Ireland’s Prime Minister's apology are immensely grateful for their state to stand up and say we are sorry for the way we treated you, that’s important to them."
She now lives with her two younger children, two cats, and three sheep in a 218-year old farmhouse. Mari was also reunited with her long lost daughter whom she gave up for adoption. She is now also proud grandmother to Kerry's two daughters.
The person who nominated Mari said “What’s interesting to me is that Mari was one of Ireland’s 2,000 ‘banished babies,’ who were relinquished to the United States and whom no one expected ever to see again.
“The state thought it could literally export its problem children and never be held accountable for it. No one ever expected those babies to grow up, find the Internet, do their research, and return to fight for themselves and their birth mothers, but Mari did."