For 75 years Dublin-born Paul Graham was a “citizen of nowhere.” Born in a Protestant mother and child home (Bethany Home) for women who were considered “fallen,” he was adopted by an abusive Belfast family as a baby. For 75 years, neither Dublin nor Belfast recognized Graham as a citizen, essentially refusing to acknowledge he exists.
Graham joined the Navy and met his Belfast wife Hilary as a young adult. After fifteen years of service, they decided to move to Australia to start a family, as Belfast was at the height of the Troubles. It was then that he found out he wasn’t a British citizen; he found out he wasn’t an Irish citizen when he tried to find his birth mother.
This was the ultimate insult after a childhood of institutional abuse. Though a ten-year-old Graham thought his life could not get worse after being subjected to maltreatment and physical abuse at the Bethany Home and his adoptive home, he fell victim to numerous accounts of rape at the hands of his Dublin boarding school principal.
“I was taken to a doctor who confirmed it, and nothing was done. They said I had encouraged it. It was all hushed up,” he told the Irish Mirror. “About two months after that, a friend of my mother’s did the same thing. Since that day, I hated life. I was getting beaten at home with sticks, life was just falling apart.”
“When I was about ten, my mother drank an awful lot, bottles of whiskey and things like that,” he said. “I’d be woken up at about five in the morning and told to got to town, which was a good three mile walk, and get a bottle of whiskey from this all night pub down by the docks.”
Graham found solace in the Navy and stayed for fifteen years. He enjoyed drinking, smoking and fighting with the other men in the service. There he began corresponding via letters with the woman who’d become his wife of 57 years, Hilary.
“The first time I met her I asked her to marry me and we’ve been married for 57 years now,” he reminisced.
They had three children and were well-loved in their community of Sydney, Australia. Graham was even elected as Sydney’s Deputy Mayor, becoming the first non-Australian to be elected to the position. But his decision to move there proved to be life-changing in many ways.
“I never had a passport because in the Navy we had a seaman’s card and that was it. So I went to the passport office and the girl there said, ‘Well, you’re not a British citizen.’
“I said ‘What do you mean I mean I’m not a British citizen? I was born in Belfast, I was in the Navy for fifteen years.”
Though Graham enjoyed his time in the Navy, there he developed severe alcoholism. It was his desire for recovery that put him on the road toward finding his birth mother to trace his roots and solve his problems; in the process, he found he was a “citizen of nowhere.”
“After starting the long journey to recovery it was suggested to me that I should look into my background, as this was one of the many problems I had. I contacted a solicitor in Ireland and instructed him to find my mother and what had happened.
“I never knew I was born in Dublin, as the papers I had showed that I was born in Belfast. I found my mother, but regretfully she had died just months before.
“She had seven sisters and I made a very emotional visit to Castlederg to visit one of them. That was a wonderful time in my life, as I discovered I had a family.”
During his search he found out that his birth name was Maurice Johnston. Graham traveled to Dublin to obtain a copy of his birth certificate and to see the Bethany Home in Rathgar where he was born.
“I applied for a visa to visit the US, but the passport office came back and told me that there was no record of a Paul Graham being born in Dublin nor was there any record of a Paul Graham being born in Belfast.”
“Eventually, we finally got the visa. I spoke to the Irish embassy about this and they said that as I had an Irish birth certificate it was legally possible to issue me a passport under my name of Maurice Johnston, however they said it could cause a lot of legal problems.”
While Graham was in Dublin he found a Bethany Home Survivors group, and today he campaigns for justice. for them. He told the Mirror that he now just wants to be recognized as a citizen of the country he loves.
“I’m not looking for compensation. I just want to be accepted as a citizen of Ireland, that’s what I am,” he said. “When I look back at what happened in the 30s and 40s it just really gets me. My life was ruined, for the first 30 years at least.
“All I want is for Ireland to stand up and shamefully admit that these things happened. And make sure they never happen again.”
Graham says that after 75 years he is finally happy. He suffers from the beginnings of dementia, but is thankful for his wife and children who have stood by him through his personal troubles over the years.
“I often wished that my childhood could have been different; I would love to have been normal and become perhaps a doctor, however this was not to be. I am now 74 and I have the beginnings of dementia, but I am finally happy after all these years,” he said.