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From the archives: Adoptees seek lost heritage

This story was originally published in Newsday on Feb. 29, 2004.

As an accountant, Patrick Walsh likes everything to add up nicely on the bottom line.

Perhaps that's why the biggest unanswered question of his life bothered him so much and for so long: What ever happened to his mother in Ireland?

It was after a brief romantic liaison that 18-year-old Elizabeth Walsh, a housekeeper near Dublin, had given birth to her son in 1948. She and her baby lived at Saint Peter's Home for unwed mothers in Castlepollard, north of Dublin. Two years later, in 1950, Patrick was bundled off one day to the United States, where he was adopted by a Queens couple and passed out of his mother's life.

"Basically I left my mum one day and within 24 hours ... I was being held by another woman," said Walsh, 56, of Bay Shore who has since changed his name but who asked that his name at birth be used to protect the privacy of his elderly adoptive parents.

Kathleen O'Shea, 47, of Queens, tells a similar story. Her mother was a 21-year-old hotel chambermaid in Wales when she fell in love with a merchant seaman, became pregnant and gave birth to Kathleen.

After living two years with her mother at Sean Ross Abbey, another Irish home for unwed mothers southwest of Dublin, O'Shea was sent to the United States after a married couple from Cedarhurst arranged for her adoption.

A few old photographs were the only keepsakes Margaret McInery had of her first-born, who now lives in Bayside.

They are among at least 2,000 adults who had similar experiences in Ireland as children from the 1940s to 1960s, and 500 of them ended up in New York. Theirs is a story rooted in the intolerance of Irish society at the time toward births out of wedlock. Now, the children of that time have joined hundreds of others who found, or are trying to find, their elderly birth mothers, and their Irish roots.

"I don't feel Irish and I want to," said Walsh, who was raised by a German-American family. "I think children adopted from foreign countries lose their heritage."

While facing the same challenges as many other adoptees, these Irish babies and their mothers - some of whom wound up in harsh work facilities depicted in the 2003 film "The Magdalene Sisters" - have an especially poignant tale.

Sometimes, the babies were taken without mothers' consent, said James Smith, assistant professor in the department of English and Irish Studies program at Boston College, who has studied the adoption practices. While the children were given new lives, many of the mothers, who may have been victims of rape or incest, were relegated to years of marginalized lives of obscurity and penance.

Shunned by their families, many who had given up their children shortly after birth were consigned to years of labor in harsh church-run workhouses known as Magdalene Laundries, named after Mary Magdalene, the woman saved by Christ. The mothers of O'Shea and Walsh were among the luckier ones who stayed for a time in more humane homes, until their children were sent away for adoption. Historian Moira Maguire's research found that about half of the children in such homes wound up eventually staying with their mothers in Ireland. But many others, either because of a lack of funds or the intolerance of family members, felt they had little choice but to release children to adoption.

Walsh's birth mom was one. "No choice in those days ... there were a lot more like me, that is for sure," she said.

"The state and families and church were in it for some dictatorial theology," said Sister Camille D'Arienzo, past president of the Brooklyn Sisters of Mercy, which ran the former Angel Guardian Home adoption service. "I fault the church, but above all I fault the families" in Ireland.
Influence of social attitudes

Others say neither should be judged too harshly. They stress that events must be judged in light of social attitudes of the time. Unwed mothers in Ireland - as well as the United States - once had great difficulty raising their children because of their families' attitudes. The mothers often chose adoption out of love for the children, said Sheila Pelan, a retired case worker at the former nonprofit Angel Guardian in Brooklyn that facilitated some Irish adoptions.

Peter Mullan's "The Magdalene Sisters" gave a chilling portrayal of the plight of some of the Irish mothers, and advocacy groups in Ireland have called for compensation for the now elderly women. But Catholic groups have criticized the film as an inaccurate portrayal, with the Catholic League saying it "focused on cruel nuns, who surely were atypical, and presented them as prototypical."

Friday, a spokesman for the main organization of Irish bishops deferred to statements made over the years by the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland, which has apologized for anyone abused while in its care. The American branch of the order last year issued a statement that noted, "We grieve with all victims of the Magdalene Laundries."
At first the baby trade was informal as U.S. servicemen decided to take some children home after World War II, Maguire said. But it grew in scope as even some American movie stars like Jane Russell looked to Ireland and adopted, Maguire said.

The baby export was a jarring process. Hours after leaving Ireland on jetliners and waving goodbye to their birth mothers, the youngsters, each with passports and leather scapulas made by their birth mothers that held the images of Catholic saints, found themselves in the company of strangers.

Hundreds of American couples were united in a desire for healthy, white children and the freckle-faced Irish offspring fit the bill. In the United States, these babies are now in their 40s and 50s, and many have banded together to help each other in their quest.

From secrecy to reunion

Locally, Walsh, O'Shea and the others have formed an ad-hoc support group to help adoptees. In living rooms and pubs in the New York City area, as well as in Internet chat rooms, they have pulled together to encourage one another, swap information and give guidance for what are intensely personal and emotional journeys.

Ireland-based groups such as the Adopted Peoples Association and a host of private "search angels" overseas are also at work. The groups are trying to unite adoptees with Irish families who, because of secrecy, may not even know they have relatives in the United States.
According to Mari Steed, the U.S. based-coordinator for AdoptionIreland who was herself sent to the United States in 1961 for adoption, the group can help adoptees find birth certificates.

Those are invaluable because of the information they contain. "It is going to list the mother's name and in some cases the father's name and depending on how birth is registered it may list mother's county of Ireland," Steed said.

For many of the adopted children, finding their links can resolve problems they have with anxiety or with relationships. Steed still bears a faded Y-shaped scar on her right cheek, the result of what she said was a bullet wound suffered when her ex-husband committed suicide by gunshot.

A life taken

Many of the adoptees interviewed said they had good upbringings and admit that from a material standpoint they fared better than they might have if they remained with their birth mothers in Ireland. By the mid-1950s the Irish Catholic Church required families to promise to raise the children as Catholics and have sufficient financial assets.

"Mum had a choice. She could have kept me and the two of us could have gone to an industrial school say, basically a glorified poor house. Her choice was that I would have better chance over here," Walsh said.

Some of the adoptees are angry about the banishment the mothers experienced. "You can never justify that to me, never," O'Shea said.

Walsh's adopted father was a military man and the family lived in Bayside for 18 months before moving around the country, finally settling on Long Island. He became an American citizen at age 10. His search for his mother began right after he married his wife, Susan, in 1972.

Armed with his Irish birth certificate, Walsh made some false starts because he wrongly assumed his mother came from Dublin because of an ambiguous notation on the document. Traveling to Dublin, Walsh spent days at a government records office in a search that uncovered 24 possibilities for his mother.

The break came when he made some pestering transatlantic phone calls to Sister Mary Sarto, a nun who guards the adoption records for Castlepollard. Sarto told Walsh his mother's age at his birth - 19 - and more importantly that she came from County Kilkenny, not Dublin, he recalled.

With precise information, volunteer Bernadette Joyce checked baptismal records at parishes in Kilkenny and narrowed the search down to two names, Walsh said. Since it is common practice in Ireland to inform the parish where you are born when you get married, Joyce determined that Walsh's mother had moved to England, was 74 years old and had six other children after she married.

Reconnecting with the past

After an initial call from Joyce on March 15, 2003, and an exchange of letters, Walsh made a telephone call a month later on Easter Sunday to Chorley, England. He talked to his mother for the first time in 52 years.

"She kept saying, 'You are the little boy with the blond hair,'" Walsh remembered. "That day, March 15 was a very happy day for me," Walsh said. "It had to be a very traumatic day for her. It had to bring back a flood of memories, some very bad memories."

Walsh, who has two children, now has reconnected with his mother and six half-siblings.

Kathleen O'Shea, a labor relations executive in Queens, grew up in Cedarhurst and was naturalized in 1965. In 1985, during a trip to Ireland, she began knocking on a lot of doors to test tips she had gotten.

There, she discovered that her birth certificate contained a misspelling of her mother's last name. Once that error was discovered, O'Shea learned that Margaret McInery, 68, was living about 20 miles away from the old Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland. She had married and had eight more children.
While thankful her daughter had tracked her down, McInery did not tell her other children about O'Shea. For 10 years when the Bayside woman visited England she was simply identified as a cousin from America.

O'Shea finally told a half-brother the story, and he told the rest of the family.

"After it was out, she was happy," a tearful O'Shea recalled. O'Shea, who has a 4-year-old daughter from a past relationship, still practices Catholicism in what she called a "reformed" church near her home. But over the years O'Shea has come to believe that the way she and the other children were treated reflected a fundamental lack of faith by the church in Ireland about human potential.

"The church had a lack of faith in what those mothers and children could accomplish," she said. "My birth mother was a remarkable woman."

In search of their roots

With no central clearinghouse, it isn't known how many of the 2,000 children adopted from Ireland have reunited with their birth parents. Advocates estimate that about two dozen adults from the New York area, adopted in the 1940s through 1960s, have discovered their roots.

The main gateway is the Adopted Peoples Association, an Ireland-based advocacy group for adoptees seeking information about their birth parents.

The agency has tips for those doing searches:

Register with its Web site and provide personal information that can be used to help match adoptees with birth parents who also may be searching. More than 4,000 people have registered so far at the site, which made three unions possible last year and one this year.

Seek a birth certificate through the agency, which can be a crucial step because it will contain the name and age of the birth mother, and possibly an address at the time she gave birth.

When seeking information in Ireland, go to the country's Adoption Board, which can refer you to the agency that helped in the adoption.

File Freedom of Information Act requests for immigration records with the Department of Homeland Security.

For those who want to use their own resources to trace birth parents in Ireland, the AdoptionIreland Web site provides some tracing guides to the process. Last year, those on-line guides facilitated 15 reunions, the organization said.

- Compiled by Anthony DeStefano

Where to go for help
The Adopted Peoples Association
27 Templeview Green
Clare Hall
Dublin 13
Telephone, from U.S.: 011-353-1-868-3020

Where they went

Top American destinations of babies adoped from Ireland (1951-1974):
New York - 517
Illinois - 273
New Jersey - 233
Texas - 140
California - 116
Ohio - 100
Other states - 535
Total: 1,914

Note: An additional 170 U.S. visas were issued between 1949 and 1950 but their destinations are unknown.

Source: "Banished Babies" by Mike Milotte

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