The newly released film “Philomena” has reignited controversy about transnational adoption practices, including those that occurred in Ireland’s institutions such as Sean Ross Abbey, where Philomena Lee once lived.
But while the controversy may be new information for some people, an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has been at the forefront of this scholarly research for more than a decade.
Dr. Moira Maguire’s research while a visiting scholar and government of Ireland post-doctoral fellow at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth in the early 2000s eventually led to a 2002 article published in the prestigious Journal of Social History, “Foreign Adoptions and the Evolution of Irish Adoption Policy, 1945-52.”
In turn, the article – much of it based on Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs Adoption Policy Files – formed a significant part of Maguire’s book “Precarious Childhood in Post-Independence Ireland.”
The book, published in 2009 and in paperback in 2012, provided a voice for the children of working-class families who formed a significant proportion of the Irish population that was previously ignored in historical research.
Although the book (and now the popular film) has once again shone the spotlight on the gap between government rhetoric and the Catholic Church and its policies, Maguire is quick to note that the issue is far too complex to focus the blame for shady adoption practices on any single institution.
“There has been a tendency in recent years, when these sorts of ‘scandals’ arise, to lay the blame entirely at the feet of the Catholic Church and, to a lesser extent, the Irish government,” she said.
“But families willingly sent their daughters to the mother and baby homes like Sean Ross Abbey, and many women willingly accepted the religious order’s help in ‘disposing’ of a child which they felt they were too poor, or too ashamed, to keep,” Maguire added.
While pressure undoubtedly was brought to bear on some women to give up their children, that pressure often came from within their own families, and from a judgmental and unforgiving society, as much as from the Catholic Church or the religious orders that ran the mother and baby homes, according to Maguire.
An unexpected result of her research has been the number of real-life “Philomenas” who have reached out to Maguire in an effort to clarify their own biological children’s history following adoption.
One such case involved a woman who reached out to Maguire on behalf of her aunt, an Irish Catholic, who for 42 years carried the secret that she had given birth to a baby boy in 1967 and now wanted to trace him.
After a flurry of email exchanges between Maguire and the young woman, the adoption was traced to St Anne's in Cork where a nearby family appeared to have taken the baby into their home.
“I just wanted to thank you and extend my aunt's thanks to you for all your help; it was invaluable … hopefully all will have a happy outcome,” the lady wrote. “(Your help) really made a massive difference (in) my aunt's life and is much appreciated.”
“Providing insight for these families has been one of the most surprising, and I must say, rewarding aspects of doing this research through the years,” Maguire said.
“I don’t think too many historians really think their research could ever help someone find closure or healing in their own life. I know I certainly didn’t.”
Unfortunately, there are just as many stories without tidy endings, as in the case of one woman who had a baby at the St. Rita’s Home in Dublin, but who has yet to discover with any certainty what exactly happened to her baby.
“St. Rita's had a history of shady practices when it came to unmarried mothers and their children,” Maguire said.
St. Rita’s largely catered to American servicemen who were stationed in England who knew they could adopt children in Ireland fairly easily, according to Maguire. The adopting mothers would stay for a short period at the institution and when the infant was born, it was registered as the adoptive mother’s biological, rather than adopted, child.
“Sadly, it is entirely possible in this particular case that the baby did indeed die, as they are claiming, and the poor recordkeeping has hindered the biological mother from ever knowing for sure,” Maguire said.
“It is equally possible, given St. Rita's reputation, that the woman has been lied to, and that the child was adopted, but was registered as the biological child of the adopting parents.”
Research contributes to Irish Commission.
After receiving her Ph.D. from American University in Washington, D.C., Maguire spent six years engaged in teaching and research in Ireland.
Her research figured in the Ryan (formerly Laffoy) Commission, appointed by the Irish government in 1999 to investigate the treatment of children in Ireland’s industrial schools.
It also contributed to the report of an Intergovernmental Committee, chaired by Sen. Martin McAleese, husband of the former Irish President Mary McAleese. The committee was charged with investigating the state’s role in a network of Magdalene Asylums, institutions that housed the “fallen women” of Ireland.