National Public Radio
May 9, 1998
DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST: We're going to tell you a story this Mother's Day weekend that mothers and children on two continents have been aching to learn for more than 30 years, more than 40 years in some cases. And they say they won't stop hurting until they know the truth.
It's a story about shame and religion and secret business deals. And it raises the question: What is family?
Ralph Reynolds (ph) of Dallas, Texas, says the scandal came back to haunt him just a year-and-a-half ago as his father in Texas lay dying.
RALPH REYNOLDS, MAN BORN IN IRELAND AND ADOPTED IN THE UNITED STATES: My father was in the hospital. And I had to go by the bank, and I don't -- to get something out of the safety deposit box. And I don't remember...
ZWERDLING: Reynolds is 45 years old. He works for the federal government. Reynolds, by the way, is not his real name. He says he's revealed the story to hardly anybody. And he feels protective.
In any case, there he was a year-and-a-half ago standing in the bank vault looking for some papers from his parents' safety deposit box to tidy up his parents' affairs. Reynolds says he'd been helping them for years, and he'd opened that bank box many times.
REYNOLDS: And it just so happens, this time, when I -- whatever it was -- for the life of me, I still can't remember what it was I was going after. I had to go through maybe a few more papers than normal because I wasn't finding whatever it was I was looking for.
And in doing that, I ran across these papers, which basically was just a letter from an attorney stating that "enclosed are your son's adoption -- is your son's adoption decree," which actually wasn't even in the envelope. It was just that letter.
ZWERDLING: So here you are standing in the bank vault, right, looking through this safety deposit box. You come across this letter...
ZWERDLING: ... saying "here we are now confirming your son's adoption decree," I mean, what did you do?
REYNOLDS: Well, it was -- it was -- it was a shock. And I think, well, it was a shock for sure.
ZWERDLING: As Reynolds was about to learn, he was one of thousands of babies born in Ireland between the late 1940s and 1970s, babies born to Irish women, taken away from them in many cases against their will, and then secretly put up for adoption overseas. More than 2,000 of those children ended up here in America.
Reynolds says his father died the day after he stumbled across the truth. And he waited weeks before he felt his mother was strong enough and he felt bold enough to confront the topic.
REYNOLDS: You know, I had to plan this out in my mind. You know, how am I going to ask my mother if I'm adopted? Not if I'm adopted, how am I going to tell her that I know that I'm adopted?
I basically went over there and sat down with her and told her that I knew and that -- that it -- but, you know, I wanted to make sure that she understood right up front that that made no difference at all in my feelings for her. And at that point, she, you know, I, you know, she -- her tears -- her eyes kind of welled up. And I could tell she was a little bit upset.
And then she, you know, began to, you know, tell me what she knew about my adoption, which is actually very little. It is surprising. It's just incredibly surprising how little that she really knew about it.
ZWERDLING: Top officials in the Irish government and Ireland's Catholic church have kept this story largely secret for almost half a century. The facts started to emerge only a couple of years ago when an investigative reporter named Mike Milotte got access to confidential government files and revealed them on Irish TV and in a book.
MIKE MILOTTE, AUTHOR, "BANISHED BABIES: THE SECRET HISTORY OF IRELAND'S BABY EXPORT BUSINESS": I think in the wake of the second World War, if you look at the situation in Europe, there were tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of orphans and children living on the streets. There were huge numbers of American personnel there, both military and civilian, who were running occupied countries. And they began to take children back from European countries in quite considerable numbers.
Most of those countries I think then realized that they were going -- having lost one generation through the war -- they were in danger of losing another generation of children through adoption to America. And they banned the export of children.
ZWERDLING: Except for Ireland. Ireland was one of the few countries largely unaffected by the war. And the Irish had plenty of babies that families wanted to give away.
Milotte says he was surprised to learn just how many women back in those days got pregnant outside of marriage, especially when you consider that the Catholic church was so powerful. It was a crime to have sex before marriage. It was a crime to buy birth control. It was almost impossible to get an abortion.
MILOTTE: Many of these women were seen as the next thing to prostitutes, and were very often told that when their identities became known. Even when girls got pregnant, very often they didn't get married even if -- because there was the stigma attached to having had sex before marriage. So even where a relationship endured, the child would be given up for adoption. And it was all done in secret.
ZWERDLING: And according to government files, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin essentially supervised. The church established a network of so-called mother/baby homes for unwed, pregnant women, based in convents run by nuns. And they worked with government officials to send as many babies as possible to Catholic families here in America, especially Catholic families willing to donate money to the Irish church.
According to the records, the archbishop didn't want to put the babies up for adoption in Ireland itself because he worried they might be snapped up by Protestant families. So when a Catholic woman would get pregnant outside of marriage, typically she'd suddenly disappear from her home. Her family would make up some story for the friends and relatives. Meanwhile, she'd be living in secret in a convent.
MARY O'CONNOR, MOTHER OF CHILD BORN IN IRISH CONVENT: I was ignorant, I tell you the truth. I was -- I would have been six months pregnant before really I knew what was wrong with me.
ZWERDLING: Six months pregnant, and you didn't have any idea that you...
ZWERDLING: ... were pregnant at all?
ZWERDLING: How old were you?
O'CONNOR: I was 19.
ZWERDLING: Call her Mary O'Connor, not her real name. She's 53 years old. And she lives about an hour from Dublin.
O'Connor says she never even told her mother that she was pregnant until the day she went into labor back in January, 1965. And without saying a word, O'Connor says, her mother put her in the car and drove her to a mother/baby home named Castle Pollard (ph).
O'CONNOR: She left me at -- near about 100 yards from the door of the convent and said, "Now you can go in and do your own dirty work."
ZWERDLING: Tell me about your life in Castle Pollard. What was the -- what was the place like, and what were your living conditions like? What did you do?
O'CONNOR: When you -- after six weeks, you were given a job. Like, you had to earn your keep in Castle Pollard.
ZWERDLING: And what did you do?
O'CONNOR: I worked in a bake house.
ZWERDLING: Would you call your work generally, you know, decent, honest work? Or did they work you very hard, or...
O'CONNOR: Um, I -- the work wasn't really hard. It was actually how the nuns were hard. Even from day one like, I mean, they were -- there was a Sister Eden (ph) and she was very, very hard. She always reminded you of why you were there. And like, I mean, you let family down and you should have -- you night's fun and all this. You know, sort of, she was very, very hard.
ZWERDLING: Now there have been some reports that some of these places were run almost like prisons, others not that bad.
O'CONNOR: That's right. Your mail was read -- you couldn't write out or if people wrote in, your -- all your letters, all your mail were opened.
ZWERDLING: So your mail was censored.
O'CONNOR: Yes, everything was censored. Even newspapers coming in were censored to the page to page.
ZWERDLING: Could you have friends or family visit you?
O'CONNOR: No. The only friends you would have is the girls on the inside. My mother came once. And she was about 10 minutes there and the Sister Eden sent over for me to come back to feed my child -- I wasn't on holiday.
ZWERDLING: Here's one of the most curious aspects of this story. It's hard enough for most women to give up a baby for adoption during the first few hours or weeks of its life. But church officials forced the young mothers to stay in their convents and raise their own infants for at least one year or more before adoptive families could come and get them.
Reporter Mike Milotte says he's turned up cases where young women changed their minds after their babies were born and tried to leave the convents. But the nuns sent guards to capture the women and bring them back.
For her part, Mary O'Connor says, she knew she'd have to give her baby away. She felt she literally had no choice. But by the time the nuns came to take her son, she'd been raising him for 17 months. Then one evening, O'Connor says, a nun told her, "Get him ready. We're giving him away in the morning."
O'CONNOR: So she just carried it over to the convent. There was two parts, like there was a hospital part where the children were kept and then there was the convent part. And the child was brought over to the convent part. And there was three steps up. You went in the side door and there were three steps up. And they went to the top of the steps and they said, "Just say goodbye now. That's it."
(SOUNDBITE OF O'CONNOR SNIFFING)
ZWERDLING: Did you say goodbye?
(SOUNDBITE OF O'CONNOR SNIFFING)
O'CONNOR: Yes. I waved and they went off. I have not seen him since.
ZWERDLING: Looking back, Mike Milotte says, it's a bit too easy and perhaps unfair to criticize Ireland's Catholic leaders for running this baby trade.
MILOTTE: Yes, I'm sure there's a case can be made. And I think, in justice, I do try to show their side of the story as well. And there is always a danger in writing historical works of this nature that, you know, one is judging the past with the benefit of hindsight.
They had a problem on their hands that in a society where birth outside marriage was frowned upon, they were the only ones providing facilities for these women. Now I would say that the answer to that is not that one applauds what they're doing, but that one criticizes the society that failed to provide alternative solutions.
ZWERDLING: Since Milotte began exposing this story a couple of years ago, Irish officials have confirmed most of the details. And some mothers in Ireland and some adopted children here in America have begun trying to find each other.
Ralph Reynolds, the 45-year-old in Dallas, Texas, says he's written more than 100 letters to agencies on both sides of the ocean trying to learn his original name, trying to learn the name of his birth mother. But so far, he says, he keeps hitting stone walls. Under Irish law, it's illegal to reveal information about adoptions.
REYNOLDS: Well, obviously, to me, I mean, my mother -- if you want to call her for clarification, if you want to say "adoptive mother," I mean that's the only mother I've ever known. And, you know, I could never ask for a better mother. I mean, she's supported me and been there through thick and thin and has done everything in the world for me.
But my heart goes out to both of them. I would love to be able to meet the birth mother, or at least know something about her. And I really -- I hope that she's had as good a life as I've had. I mean, I hope that, you know, she didn't want for anything, or suffer, or have health problems. You know, I hope she had a good life.
And should she ever want to, you know, meet, I would be more than, you know -- I would welcome that with open arms.
ZWERDLING: Can you remember your son? What he was like?
O'CONNOR: Yes, I can remember he was a chubby little fellow with a sort of baldish head, very fuzzy.
ZWERDLING: And I'm just wondering if you could -- if you could talk to your son this weekend on Mother's Day, what would you tell him?
O'CONNOR: I would love to -- for him to make contact with me to tell me what he did in life, what a life -- what sort of a life he had and what he did in life. And I am very sorry that I ever gave him up.
ZWERDLING: There are two footnotes to this story. First, since Milotte's exposees came out, there's been growing public pressure in Ireland to reform the law to make it easier for birth mothers and the children they gave up to track each other down, unless one party refuses. And an Irish government spokesman told me they're drafting legislation to accomplish that.
And a second footnote. When we interviewed Mary O'Connor on Thursday, she told us she's been trying to locate her son for four years now, but she can't get any information. Then yesterday evening, she called us back to give us some news.
When she told a source in the Irish Adoption Network that she was going to appear on our program, the source in effect said, "Well, I suppose there's no reason we shouldn't tell you about your child. We actually know where he is."
So, Mary O'Connor is finally about to contact her son who's now a construction worker living in New York.
And for this evening, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
Our story on Irish adoptions was based in part on information in the book "Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland's Baby Export Business," written by Mike Milotte, a reporter for Ireland's National Television Network, RTE.