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.

The recent release of the Ryan Report and the allegations of abuse against children and women in Church and State-run institutions are also not far from O’Brien’s mind. In her early work to understand the historical angle of adoption in Ireland, she adds that she is “trying to examine through the lens of the Ryan Report what might have happened if the children had stayed. I think some of the children were probably very lucky, that they didn’t stay in institutions where we now know so many children were treated abysmally.” That O’Brien can see the positive side to these adoptions, despite their circumstances, is a testament to the project’s ultimate goals of justice and sensitivity. “When we uncover the past we must be very mindful of people’s sense of self and identity and integrity. We’ve no wish to pathologize individuals…because for many people that came here [to the U.S.], they’ve had very successful lives. So what we’re really interested in is hearing about those successful lives but also how they learned to integrate the stories from the past and how they learned to integrate their identity in relation to their Irishness, especially for those who weren’t raised in Irish American homes.”

For the mothers who raised their children in mother and baby homes without power or choice, O’Brien has found common ground with the calls to expose the horrors of the Magdalene laundries in balance with respect and privacy for women involved. “I think it’s the same issue of justice for women who have been through quite a horrific period where to be pregnant outside marriage in Ireland was such a taboo, and while the Church played its part the community did as well…I don’t think any of us can walk away.”

Like these other projects that attempt to heal the wounds of the past in Ireland, so much depends on access to state records. But in the absence of concrete numbers, the significance of what O’Brien calls “memory work”—focusing on remembering rather than uncovering the truth—becomes all the more clear. She and Maguire Pavao are conducting interviews with everyone “from policy makers to air hostesses to students that were in applied social sciences at UCD, my university,” says O’Brien. “There were many stories of students going to live or study in America very often had their passage paid and brought the child on their knee. Again we don’t have any firm data, and those are the stories that need to be collated.”

This memory work provides the chance for connections that concrete statistics often cannot. O’Brien learned that for herself when she described the project she was working on to her aunt one day. Her aunt replied that as a child she remembered babies, wrapped in shawls, coming through the house with nuns on their way to the airport. It turned out O’Brien had relatives who worked in mother and baby homes and they would often stop for a cup of tea on the way. O’Brien had already been working on the project for years before she made this accidental discovery. “It was just amazing. It was so powerful to think that some of the people that I might get an opportunity to meet in fact were held in arms in my family home.”
*The Ryan Report is the published report of the Irish government’s investigation of child abuse in reformatory institutions and industrial schools operated by the Catholic Church and funded by the Irish Department of Education from 1936 on. The Murphy Report investigates cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin.

**Magdalene laundries were Church-run institutions in Ireland where young girls and women engaged in hard labor and many allegedly suffered physical and sexual abuse. This abuse was also covered in the Ryan Report.

If you are interested in participating or have any questions, please contact Dr. Valerie O’Brien at or Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao at