Irish government minister Joan Burton, the leading candidate for leader of the Labour Party, has spoken out dramatically about her own experience of being adopted from an unmarried mother and child home.
She spoke out about her personal story in light of the state’s decision to conduct a full inquiry into the mass grave of 796 babies at the Bon Secours home, in Tuam, County Galway.
The leading Irish politician, 65, was adopted at the age of two by the Burtons, who lived in Rialto, Dublin.
Burton, who is Ireland’s Minister for Social Protection, was born to an unmarried woman in Carlow, in 1949. She was taken to the Temple Hill Mother and Baby Home, in Blackrock, six months later. She was fostered by Bridie and John Burton and then adopted.
She told Irish radio station Newstalk, “I have a personal interest in all of this. As a child I was adopted and the matters are of a very significant concern to me, as well as of political concern.”
Just before her own wedding Burton decided to try and trace her mother. Sadly, she only managed to track down her family heritage after her birth mother had died.
Speaking to RTE on “Miriam Meets” in 2013 Burton explained that she had never received a formal birth certificate.
She spoke about the embarrassment of not having a baptismal certificate and the awkwardness of a local priest she had to deal with while planning her wedding to Pat Carroll.
“It just wasn’t something you spoke about in those days,” Burton said.
Speaking about searching for her mother she said, “It was something I had always wanted to do. When I was getting married I sent a letter to the adoption society just saying 'Could you pass this on? Could you tell my mother I’m getting married?' but it was sent back."
Speaking to Newstalk radio she said that adoptees should be given their birth certificates. The radio debate covered the state’s planned inquiry into the Catholic Church-run mother and child homes following the emergence of high mortality rates, burial practices, illegal adoptions, and vaccine trials on young children at homes around Ireland.
Speaking about the children’s rights to a birth certificate Burton said, "That legislation has existed in Scotland for decades, and in the UK. I think there has been an enormous amount of work done on it and there are different points of view."
"One is that the issue can be addressed legally and the other that a constitutional referendum is required."
"Some people who have been adopted wish to trace and some don't and you have to have this in mind; this has to be respected."
This is the first time she has spoken publicly about her own adoption since the latest scandal in the Catholic Church emerged.
“All contacts in those days were usually closed down on," she said, speaking about searching for her mother. "In the 1990s…there were people coming back from America who were adopted to America and then came back to the Department of Foreign Affairs and both Dick [Spring] and Fergus Finlay were very helpful in changing the culture towards information and helping people to trace in a limited way.
“I went back in the late 1990s again looking for information and suddenly there was much more information. There was a social worker there who got in contact with a parish priest.”
Her husband described their search for Burton’s mother as a detective-like adventure spread over a few years.
Eventually they made contact with the midwife who had overseen Burton’s birth and had be present at the adoption.
Burton said, “I’ve met a lot of older women with a lot of regrets. People are so thrilled nowadays that people keep their children….the times were like that then, they were so difficult, they were so hard.
“I’ve had a lot of people weeping saying 'How did we do that? How did that happen?'
“We didn’t fully know. That was what was good for people.”
Burton managed to meet her mother’s two brothers and her first cousin in America. Her mother was a sheep farmer and she is told that her Dad was a first cousin. They were both very well thought of in the community.
She said her adopted mother, Bridie, had said that she was supposed to be adopted by a couple in Canada. Among her files they found a passport issued for Burton to travel.
Speaking to Newstalk this week she commented on the documentary series “States of Fear,” by filmmaker Mary Raftery, which lifted the lid on the horrors of Ireland’s industrial schools through testimony from those who spent their childhoods in these religious-run institutions.
Burton said this RTE series was part of uncovering an evolving picture of what happened to Ireland’s children after Ireland gained independence. She said the clerical control had social support from the wider community and that the Irish have to ask themselves questions.
She said, “What we want is children who are loved, children who are properly cared for and their parents are treated with respect. What we had in Ireland 40 or 50 years ago was a society which was utterly clerically dominated by a very puritanical form of Christianity which was, basically if women had sex outside of marriage and if they became pregnant then that pregnancy was a cause of shame for the church authorities but more particularly as well to their families and their communities."
"I welcome that we're now going to have an inquiry, this is a personal view as well, that the format of a commission of inquiry that will allow for a structure .....in which a number of issues will be addressed.”
She added that 50,000 children in Ireland have been adopted since the law was introduced.
She said, “Most of them if not all of them went to loving, caring homes, and I think it's important that we think of the mothers that gave birth to the children and their fathers, which we rarely hear about.”
Listen to Joan Burton here speak about her upbringing, adoption and the Magdalene Laundries here. Starts at 21.22 minutes.