By Caelainn Hogan. Originally published in The Ditch's State Failures.
With the Irish state sitting on a budget surplus of around €16 billion this year, the government still voted this summer to exclude around 24,000 mother and baby institution survivors from redress. Survivors have criticised the government for calculating these exclusions deliberately to limit costs. The redress scheme passed under the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition has ignored calls for amendments that would include children boarded out from the institutions, survivors of vaccine trials carried out on children in the institutions without mothers’ consent and to change the arbitrary cut-off for access to redress if a survivor spent less than six months in an institution, despite the lifelong impact.
The cut-off year for redress is 1998 even though in my book about these institutions, Republic of Shame, I write about The Castle mother and baby institution in Donegal, which ran until 2006. Many institutions involved in separating “unmarried mothers” and their children are not counted under redress. “Holding centres” for children taken for adoption like Temple Hill run by St Patrick’s Guild were not covered by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which called the institutions it did cover “refuges’, contradicting survivor’s experiences.
While survivors of mother and baby institutions are still fighting for justice years after the conclusion of the commission’s investigation started in 2015, no investigation has even started for people forcibly separated through institutions outside the investigation’s scope or who were illegally adopted.
Surprise rippled through an airless High Court room when it was announced a religious sister was subpoenaed to testify about an illegal adoption. Then, on the awaited date that Sr Fahy, a Sisters of Charity nun involved in the running of the St Patrick’s Guild adoption agency, was due to take the stand, the case was settled out of court. Fahy never had to testify in front of survivors. Soon after, the Guild was put into liquidation. This was back in 2018 and yet since then both church and state have expressed shock over illegal adoptions while simultaneously failing to fully investigate or provide justice for survivors.
A woman called Tressa Reeves and her son brought the case. At 21, a garda detective in Dublin connected her parents with the Guild and she was sent from England to Ireland to give birth. Placed in a private maternity institution run by a laywoman, she was instructed to feed a newborn water as the baby had a disability and was expected to die. There are accounts of such withholding of care at other institutions also. After her son was born, Reeves was taken by a Monsignor to sign adoption papers in the presence of nuns, told to put a false address, with no understanding of her rights.
St Patrick's Guild asked her father for payment for her son's placement in Temple Hill. But the baby was actually sent to a married couple, illegally registered as born to them, with a different birth date and name. Reeves was only told in the 1990s that her son was illegally adopted, despite years’ searching. The Adoption Board knew about her case from at least 2001 and it was clear the nuns knew about other illegal adoption cases. Gardaí carried out investigations but dropped them.
Reeves took her first legal case in 2003. Since 2010, Conall Ó Fátharta has reported on her story. Yet St Patrick’s Guild was one of the first agencies accredited under the 2010 Adoption Act. In the back of the courtroom during Reeves’s case in 2018 sat Susan Lohan, who co-founded the Adoption Rights Alliance more than a decade ago. Adopted through the Guild herself, Lohan was told by a nun she was a “destroyer of lives” for seeking information. Also present was journalist Alison O’Reilly, who broke the news on Catherine Corless’s research into the mass grave in Tuam and in 2015 reported on Éamon de Valera’s son’s involvement in illegal adoptions.
Despite Reeves asking the nuns and authorities to inform him about his identity for years, her son was only told in 2012 that he was not born to the couple who raised him. Mother and son were reunited. Her case forced an audit of records. But it took until 2018 for the state to confirm more than a hundred illegal registrations of children through St Patrick’s Guild.
Illegal adoptions endorsed by the High Court
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes claimed adoption “became so popular” because of lack of family and community support. But it was the Irish state that denied single parents equal rights, providing no welfare for “unmarried mothers” until the 1970s, instead funding institutions that disappeared them from society. The state branded children ‘illegitimate’ until 1987, which the commission acknowledged "was an egregious breach of human rights." Countless mothers were coerced into adoption because of systemic disadvantage enshrined in Irish law, told by nuns they would be “selfish” to keep their baby.
In 1967, 96.9 percent of children born outside marriage were adopted, most through religious-run agencies. Oireachtas debates show concerns raised about illegal adoptions but greater interest in hiding evidence of an “illegitimate birth”. Charles Haughey, while minister for justice, asked during an adoption debate, “Why place on record that a child is illegitimate when we are trying to ensure this fact never be disclosed?” The institutions were still operating and Haughey had been warned that mothers were treated like “slaves” and given the chance would keep their children. In the 1970s, minister for justice Patrick Cooney said, “Adoption is better for the illegitimate baby than to be cared for by its mother”. Legislation allowed courts to ignore the illegality of adoption orders. At least one High Court case found the mother did not give consent, making the adoption illegal, but maintained it, stripping her of parental rights.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report, released in 2021, downplays evidence of illegal adoptions while failing to include adoption agencies like St Patrick’s Guild within its scope. A separate official review of adoption records concluded there could be as many as 20,000 cases involving illegal registration or illegal adoption, raising concerns about trafficking of children abroad and profiteering, but this was held back until after the commission’s report. By calling the crime of falsifying birth records “incorrect registrations”, the state downplays endemic illegality within the religious-run adoption system, facilitated by those in positions of power. The government decided to redact the names of adoption societies implicated when the report was published. Government-appointed investigator, Marion Reynolds, protested this decision, asking that her own name be removed if that evidence was redacted.
Records from the official review show mothers too young or without capacity to give consent, mothers requesting to have their children returned and one case where a mother was told her daughter had died when she had “in fact been adopted.” An affidavit from a member of a religious order was accepted in place of a mother’s consent and gardaí were asked “to follow up on obtaining consents.”
Former and existing adoption agencies still possess up to 50,000 records that could hold evidence of illegality. The review recommended birth information be made available, with reparations for all affected and DNA testing. The state was also asked to consider children being wrongfully taken from disadvantaged mothers now.
'She knew the reality of Ireland in 1960'
Barrister Anne O’Meara was one of at least 126 people found in 2018 to have been illegally adopted through St Patrick’s Guild. Her file was marked “adopted from birth”, a code for illegal adoption in the Guild’s records. Her birth certificate is a false document. There was no official consent for her adoption.
Taken from her mother at five days old, likely from the Institute of the Good Shepherd in Belfast, nearly a week later she was handed to her adoptive parents at the Guild’s institution in Dublin, trafficked across the border.
In 1997, the Sisters of Charity, which ran the Guild, admitted in an Irish Times report to providing false information to people searching for birth information or tracing family. That made O’Meara determined to find her mother. She remembers the nuns trying to dissuade her, telling her to think of the hurt she could cause. When she threatened to sue they found her mother in days. “My mother would have wished to keep me, but she knew the reality of Ireland in 1960: no one would employ her; accommodation would be difficult to secure, no state benefit,” O’Meara says. “I saw what the nuns and priests were capable of and how they controlled people, they didn’t see those women as entitled to make a choice [...] Church control at that time meant anyone helping an unmarried mother would feel the wrath of the church.” There was a notation of a charge of 30 shillings per week for her stay in the Guild’s institution, even though O’Meara was illegally adopted. Her adoptive father also remembered being asked for a donation from the nuns.
O’Meara drafted a bill to correct falsified births and brought it to politicians in government, wanting to have legal status as the child of her parents who raised her. She spoke with minister Roderic O’Gorman and his predecessor. “I did my best to give a solution and the department just dismissed it,” she says. She believes the Irish state sees survivors only as traumatised people, when survivors are the only experts on the true impact of the institutions. While an ex-gratia payment of €3,000 was made to "persons with an illegal birth registration", potentially thousands of illegal adoptions still haven’t been investigated or recognised under redress. “The way I’ve been treated by official Ireland is horrendous,” O’Meara says. “I needed a solution, some way of becoming legal.”
The religious orders received public money for the women and children sent to their institutions, as well money from families, even asking survivors searching for information, but refused to commit to a redress scheme. Survivors feel the religious orders, many of which have millions in assets, still receive public money and run private healthcare conglomerates, haven't been held accountable.
Many survivors gave painful testimony hoping injustices would never be repeated. But systems of emergency accommodation and direct provision still give public money to private businesses to warehouse marginalised people. Pregnant people and trans people are still forced to leave Ireland for care, denied bodily autonomy. While a National Centre for Research and Remembrance is developed on the site of the last Magdalene Laundry, a survivor of that institution I know is homeless today without any justice for the abuses she experienced.
The Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme Act 2023 provides no justice for thousands of survivors. “This law does not provide reparations for systemic racism faced by children of African descent who were incarcerated in Irish institutions for years,” the Association of Mixed Race Irish stated, with trustee Conrad Bryan, who spent his early life in Ireland’s largest mother and baby institution, calling the law “arbitrary and exclusionary”. There is no redress for survivors discriminated against because of race, ethnicity or disability.
Living bereavements from generation to generation
The Clann Project, which supported survivors who wanted to give evidence to the official investigation and produced its own report on the injustices within mother and baby institutions, called the government’s plans to deny thousands of survivors redress “a blatant act of discrimination” and stated that the minimal payments for those who are included make the exclusions “all the more cruel”. Clann also highlighted that the scheme denies any compensation to mothers forced to work unpaid in institutions other than Tuam, with the commission claiming this would be domestic work women would have already been doing.
One of many forcibly “repatriated”, as the commission describes it, from England to Ireland by the Crusade of Rescue, Terri Harrison spent just under six months in two mother and baby institutions, her son taken from her. Mothers will only be eligible for €5,000 if they spent less than 90 days in an institution, regardless of abuses or negligence, many denied pain relief and taunted during labour. Harrison reminds that mothers separated from children endure a “living bereavement”, with the “ripple effect” affecting generations.
I reported how an influential Fianna Fáil family fostered a child from Tuam who, before she died, shared testimony about physical and sexual abuse in their home, exploited for free labour. Many survivors boarded out like her are excluded from redress.
Despite recent legislative changes, the state is still redacting records and withholding birth information. Noelle Brown, a playwright and adoption rights activist born in the Bessborough institution, believes she is a survivor of vaccine trials there. Like thousands of other survivors, Brown is excluded from redress because of the arbitrary six-month limit, despite the lifelong impacts of forced separation and being born in an institution, her information kept from her by authorities for so long. She is still being refused full access to her medical files.
Born in 1969 in Denny House, the former Magdalene Asylum turned mother and baby institution that closed in 1994, Beth Wallace is excluded by the six-month limit. Her siblings were also in institutions linked with Protestant adoption agencies, her brother Stephen perishing at five weeks old. She recently obtained a record describing him as “small”, “wasted” and “marasmic” when he died in 1972 from pneumonia. “It looks like he died essentially from neglect,” says Wallace.
With official tracing services often involving waits and redactions, Wallace recently met her birth father “by fluke”, months before he died, finding a family who tried to keep her. “It never ceases to amaze me the web of lies and secrecy surrounding our births and early days,” Wallace says, criticising barriers to information. “All most of us want is simply the truth.”
At least 9,000 children died in the mother and baby home institutions. The redress scheme offers no justice for them or for mothers still searching for the burial places of their babies who died in the institutions, many from malnutrition or uncertain causes. One family is currently seeking justice at the Coroner’s Court for baby William, born in Bessborough in the 1960s, an institution where more than 900 children died and the burial place of more than 800 is still unknown. William became sick at the institution and his family believes he perished because of neglect. After years of asking for information from the state and the nuns, the family only found out recently from an anonymised official report that he was buried in an unmarked famine grave without his mother’s knowledge or consent.
“Our last hope to get some acknowledgement of what happened to William is to get the coroner to hold an inquest into his death,” says Carmel Cantwell, his sister, who believes real justice for survivors would have been for the Commission of Investigation to have respected survivors' testimonies and lived experiences as evidence. “Then the government and the religious may have been forced to take full accountability for what happened.”
Caelainn Hogan is a writer and journalist from Dublin. Her first book Republic of Shame investigates the ongoing legacy of religious-run institutions that incarcerated thousands of women and their children. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, National Geographic, the Guardian, VICE, Harper's, the Dublin Review and more.