The legacy of Ireland's Catholic Church-run Mother and Baby Homes


In the wake of the Ryan and Murphy reports*, both released in 2009, often the memories of the children, women and workers involved have taken a sideline to the question of who is to blame for systemic abuse. But while the Irish public attempts to heal from this broken past and demand justice, more stories are on the verge of disappearance: those of the unknown women and babies who lived in Church-run mother and baby homes and of the American families who adopted these children from the 1940s until the early 70s.

I spoke with Dr. Valerie O’Brien, lecturer and researcher in Applied Social Science at University College Dublin, about her joint project with Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao, founder and CEO of Center For Family Connections in Boston and lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, to reach out to those involved and record a history obscured by Church and State. By sharing these stories, O’Brien and Maguire Pavao see an opportunity to positively affect modern adoption practices in Ireland as well as bring dignity to the mothers who were forgotten by their community.

Even after the 1952 Adoption Act, which regulated adoption in Ireland and made it legal, most adoptions were facilitated by nuns in mother and baby homes. In these homes, pregnant, unwed women were hidden away in shame to have their child under the watchful eye of the Catholic Church.

Sometimes located on the same site as the Magdalene laundries**, the institutions were also workplaces for pregnant women and new mothers, who often raised their children until they were toddlers. Based on records of adoption passports from 1949 on, O’Brien and Maguire Pavao list 2103 adopted Irish children, though the exact number is still not known.

While the mothers gave consent to their children’s adoptions, O’Brien describes it as a decision made out of helplessness. “For the vast majority of women, they couldn’t leave the mother and baby home until their child was a certain age. For many of the women the children were 2 or 3…[and] the nuns didn’t always tell the American adoptive parents that their mother was looking after them. They wanted to give the impression that they were orphaned or abandoned children,” says O’Brien.

Not only was this painful for the young mothers, the method posed problems for both adopted people and adoptive parents. “The adoptive parents weren’t given the full picture. They were often given very traumatized children who were suffering from separation from their mother’s love and care and attention.”

Even after the Adoption Act, this practice continued due to a loophole that provided for “illegitimate” children to go overseas.

The difficult search for biological family by adopted children reveals the need for full access to mother and baby home records. “Prior to the 90s [when records of adoption were found], some people knew about the practice,” says O’Brien, describing the mother and baby homes as “known but not known” by the Irish community. “There was some disquiet reported from time to time in the media but attempts to more tightly regulate the practice were impeded. What was involved were nuns moving children from Ireland to America with the cooperation of Catholic charities here predominantly, and placing children in adoptive homes. And the children were then adopted here [in America]…Unless they were told by their American adoptive parents that they were adopted they might not even know.”

The adopted children, now adults, were often given new names upon arrival and may not be in possession of their original birth certificate; in fact, they may not even know they are Irish. While the Church stipulated that the adopted child be placed in a Catholic family, the family did not have to be Irish American. According to O’Brien, “The criteria that was laid down by the Church was that the children were placed in Catholic homes, where parents gave a commitment to raising the children Catholic, sending them to Catholic school and Catholic college.” Controversially, these adoptions all occurred without the help of American institutions—though the Child Welfare League of America offered assistance to the Catholic Church and Catholic charitable organizations throughout the 50s and 60s, their offers were turned down.

Recognizing these past concerns, the project aims to impact contemporary adoption practices. In addition to being a member of the Irish Adoption Board for over ten years, O’Brien has written frameworks for many aspects of domestic and international adoption in Ireland. Still, with Ireland just beginning to become a “receiving” or adopting country rather than a sending country, she believes that the country’s adoption practices can be improved, particularly by passing Hague legislation to regulate intercountry adoption and prevent child trafficking. Ireland is the last country in the western world to adopt this legislation.