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40 years of nothing, then a message saying 'I'm your son': Mother & son reunite after 4 decades

A Facebook friend request earlier this year changed Maria Arbuckle’s life forever.

MARIA ARBUCKLE GAVE birth to her eldest child, Paul, in March 1981.

She wanted to raise him, but was a teenager, unmarried and had no-one to turn to.

Maria, now 59, grew up in care and was separated from most of her siblings at a young age.

She was sexually and physically abused before being moved to St Joseph’s training school in Middleton, Armagh.

When she was 18 she got pregnant and was sent to St Patrick’s mother and baby home on the Navan Road in Dublin.

Like many women and girls, she was sent to an institution far from home so she could be hidden away. She was put in a car and not told where she was going.

“I just got into the car. It was the same when I was getting taken from the foster home to (the school) – the social worker just turned up and put me in the car and brought me away, they never explained what was happening or anything.”

Maria remembers little of her time in St Pat’s, bar the love she felt for her son and the despair she felt at not being able to keep him. She was admitted to the institution in January 1981 and gave birth two months later.

“I don’t remember giving birth to him, it’s completely gone. But I remember when Paul was born, I was taken to a hospital. And then when we came back [to St Pat's] we had to go up to the babies at feeding times and washing times but we weren’t allowed to cuddle them or anything. You were told ‘don’t, they’re not yours anymore, don’t do it’.

“And there was a girl who had sneaked a camera in and, to this day, I can’t even remember how I got the photograph but she photographed me holding Paul when he was two days old. And I still have that photograph.”

Screenshot 2021-11-11 17.21.46 Maria Arbuckle and her son Paul when he was a newborn Source: Maria Arbuckle

Maria said her memories of this time are hazy but she remembers a social worker and one other person arriving one Saturday morning and taking Paul away.

The following May, Maria was living in Monaghan. She was told she needed to sign forms so Paul could be adopted. She wanted to keep her son but felt she had no option but to sign the papers.

Maria was devastated and had no support system, recalling to The Journal: “I had no other option, no family, nowhere to go.”

She attempted suicide that day.

“I went down to the Armagh Social Services and signed the paperwork. I came out of there and met a random guy. He took me to a house and I went to the bathroom and took a load of tablets. And the next thing I remember is I woke up in Monaghan Mental Hospital.”

Maria remained in hospital for about 10 days before being released.

She went on to have five more children, but her first-born daughter died at just five months. She said the pain of losing Paul was similar – even though he was still alive, she had no idea where or how he was.

“The only way I can describe it is … my first daughter when she was born, she died at five months, cot death they said. But I knew where she was. I knew where her grave was, I could go and sit and talk to her at her grave.

“With Paul I never knew. But they’re both on the same par really. Because every year, I’d be thinking, ‘Oh I wonder what Kerry would be doing now?’ And also wondering what Paul was doing.

“His birthday is the 10th of March and her anniversary is the 16th of March. So they’re really close together,” Maria said.

She noted that, earlier this year, one of her other sons recalled that every year in the week leading up to Paul’s birthday and Kerry’s anniversary, Maria “would just close off completely, either she’d go away, or she would close the curtains and just lie in bed”.

Maria regularly talked to her other children about Paul and Kerry, but said she “had never actually known that the kids had picked up on” how difficult March in particular was for her.

“I’m the same a week before my daughter’s birthday as well,” she added.

‘Keep it light and informal’

Maria tried to find Paul numerous times over the years but was told by social workers that unless he reached out to find her, nothing could happen.

“It was the same story every time, ‘You’re not allowed to look for him, he has to look for you’.”

After almost four decades of very little progress, there was a breakthrough about a year ago.

Maria said that Judith Gillespie, the chairperson of an inter-departmental working group tasked with examining mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland, said she would try to help.

“And the next thing I get a phone call saying that I was assigned a social worker in Derry. Okay then. Then I get another phone call in December to say that they’ve traced his adoption papers.

“Then in January I get a phone call to say that everything has to stop because the GRO (General Register Office) is shut down because of the lockdown. And then I get a phone call back to say the tracing has gone ahead.”

vpfNkIaw Maria Arbuckle pictured this week Source: Órla Ryan

Maria got another phone call in early March of this year. This call would change her life.

“It must have been about a quarter past nine on the Monday morning, I get a phone call. And they say ‘Prepare yourself, Maria … I’ve just come off the phone from your son’.

“I couldn’t even speak, my sister had to take over the phone because I just couldn’t talk to them at all.”

Later that day Maria composed herself and called the social worker back. She was told she should write Paul, who now goes by a different name, a letter. The social worker would then send the letter to Paul and go from there.

Maria moved to England several years ago but was in Derry at the time and told the social worker she could extend her stay “if anything is going to happen”. She recalled: “They said no, for me to go ahead and go home, that this process would take months.”

Maria was conscious it was coming up to Paul’s 40th birthday and asked if she could include a birthday card. She was told no.

“Can I send photographs of siblings? ‘No’. I was told ‘Just keep it light and informal’. Okay then. So that’s what I did, straight away I got paper and a pen, wrote a letter and sent it to them.”

Maria was nervous but excited for what the coming months may hold. However, things moved much faster than she could have anticipated.

A Facebook friend request

Maria told The Journal: “That night, I get a friend request on Facebook. And it’s a woman from Derry. So the first thing I thought was ‘Is this his partner?’

“And then because she was from Derry, my home town, I thought ‘No it’s probably something to do with the mother and baby homes, somebody is looking for advice from me’. I accepted the friend request.”

Maria has been public with her search for Paul over the years and has advocated on behalf of other survivors so a friend request from a person she doesn’t know isn’t unusual, she explained.

I woke up the next morning to a message saying, ‘I hear you’ve been looking for me, I’m Paul Raymond Arbuckle, your son’.

Maria was, understandably, shocked. Paul didn’t have a Facebook page so his partner found Maria online and added her.

“I was shocked, but pleasantly shocked. It was like, oh my god, 40 years of nothing and all of a sudden here is a message and a guy saying ‘I am your son’.”

Maria said Paul told her he felt compelled to go above the social workers and contact her directly after reading media interviews she had done about her search for him.

“He told his partner, ‘I can’t let this woman wait any longer’. So that’s when he messaged me.”

Paul told her he had moved to Derry in recent years as his partner is from there. The pair exchanged messages over the following few days and decided to meet that weekend.

“We stayed in contact over the few days, it was questions back and forth, questions back and forth. And then on the Saturday we went to his house.”

‘The hug seemed to last forever’

Maria and her sister went to Paul’s house to meet him, his partner and their children.

The first thing we did was hug and this hug went on for, it seemed like forever … I wasn’t holding a baby anymore, I was holding a big grown man.

It was Paul’s 40th birthday a few days later and Maria brought gifts, including a framed copy of the photograph of Maria holding Paul when he was a newborn.

“I brought him birthday presents because I didn’t know whether we’d just see each other that day or what would happen.

“And one of the presents was the photograph of me and him when he was two days old. I’d got it framed for him. And the whole time we were there, he sat with his photograph in his hands.”

During the meeting, Paul and his aunt realised that they had unwittingly met before.

“It turned out that my sister had actually helped him a couple of months beforehand. When he went to collect his daughter from the school that my sister works in, she took them all around the school looking for her. My sister didn’t know that he was her nephew and that the child was a great niece.”

Maria said Paul lives just a few minutes away from his aunt so it’s quite possible he has crossed paths with other relatives, including his siblings, over the years but didn’t realise.

“While he was growing up, he used to actually spend summers at an aunt’s house in Derry. And my house was two minutes’ walk from his aunt’s. So the chances are that my kids could have met him at any time,” she said.

‘It’s like they’ve never been apart’

Maria recalled how, despite not seeing each other for 40 years, there was no real awkwardness between Paul and herself. Everything just clicked into place.

She knows this isn’t the case for some other families who reunite and is very grateful they have been able to develop a close relationship in recent months.

“How can I describe it? I’ve known him all my life because I gave birth to him, but so many things connect us. I can see bits of my other sons in him, looks-wise,” she said.

“Two of them support the same football team – Arsenal – not me,” she added, laughing.

“Him and my youngest son have the same personality, he’s very quietly spoken.”

Paul has since travelled to England to meet his siblings and other relatives. Maria said seeing Paul with his siblings is incredible.

“It’s like they’ve never been apart, it’s like they’ve always known each other. The kids say [to Paul], ‘We knew you all our lives, you were talked about the whole way through our lives’.

“It’s so weird. It’s like they were never separated. The minute they got to meet each other it was like, ‘Are you coming down tonight to watch the Arsenal match?’”

Maria said the feeling is mutual, adding that Paul’s partner told her: “It’s like you’ve been part of the family all these years, Maria, it doesn’t feel like you weren’t there.”

Paul had a happy childhood with his adoptive parents – another thing Maria is grateful for.

We’ve heard so many bad stories about mums meeting their kids and the kids saying that they won’t have anything to do with them. Or I’ve heard from adopted children that their mums never wanted to meet them. I have to say, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Maria noted that some people pass away before finding their relatives, or aren’t sure if their child is dead or alive, saying: “I’m quite lucky that [Paul] was alive, he was adopted and he has had a good life.”

She has yet to meet Paul’s adopted parents but said that is “on the horizon”.

In recent years Maria found out that when Paul was being adopted, his adoptive mother also wanted to take Maria in.

“His adoptive mum, whatever she had read in the records, she knew that I was in care and she had actually asked if she could take both of us but she was refused.”

Maria knows many mothers who passed through a mother and baby home or similar institution are still looking for their children decades later.

She is aware of how soul-destroying this can be but encourages people to keep searching – a breakthrough could happen all of a sudden, like it did for her.

“Never give up. I felt for years that it would never happen, it’s never going to happen. And then all of a sudden, it just happens like that.

“Keep going, that’s all I could say. I’ve heard horror stories of people that have met or people who didn’t want to meet, they’ve contacted their child and they say no. I think somewhere in your life, it comes to a stage that you do want to know who you are.

“And I know for the mothers, it isn’t the mother’s fault, because the law was that we couldn’t contact the child, the child had to come looking for us. And I know in some cases that people don’t even find out they’re adopted until their adopted parents die and then they’re told by a family member. I just say, keep hoping.”

Commission of Investigation

Maria believes she is one of many women who were sent from Northern Ireland to the Republic to give birth in a mother and baby institution here.

She is sharply critical of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes which was published in January of this year.

The report found “little evidence” of forced adoption, forced incarceration and abuse in the 18 institutions under investigation – despite survivor testimony which contradicted this.

A number of women are taking legal action to have elements of the report quashed. Judicial reviews are due to be heard in the High Court in Dublin next week.

Maria described the Commission’s final report as “a whitewash”.

“They basically said ‘You’re lying’. That’s what it felt like, another slap in the face.”

The Irish Government is currently developing a redress scheme for survivors. Maria said the State and Catholic orders which ran the institutions need to be held accountable.

She believes everyone who spent time in an institution should be compensated but she’s not sure of how the size of the payments would or could be decided.

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“I don’t know how they’re going to do it. How can you put a price on not seeing a child for 40 years? My mind boggles. How can they even come up with amounts? ‘Oh well, that person was in there for two weeks so we really shouldn’t give her a lot’.

“Two weeks and her baby was taken. The baby was still taken. It doesn’t matter how long she spent in the place, her baby was still basically stolen.

“When you steal something in a shop or anywhere else, you can get done for it. You’ll be arrested, you’ll be charged and you’ll be taken to court. These people never were. And basically that’s what they did, they stole the babies.”

In recent days eight UN human rights bodies raised concerns about legislation proposed by the Irish Government.

The signatories of the letter stated that the planned Burials Bill and Birth Information and Tracing Bill, as well as the redress scheme being developed for survivors of mother and baby homes and county homes, “raise serious concerns in relation to the State’s compliance with its international legal obligations”.

The Government has defended its planned legislation, saying it will benefit survivors, adopted people and their relatives.

Speaking on Thursday, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said the Government plans to publish in “the near future” an action plan in response to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission. He said it will focus on the “priority needs and concerns of survivors and their families”.

The publication of the details of the redress scheme has been delayed but is expected to happen next week, prior to opening for applications next year.

Inquiry in Northern Ireland

Maria hopes that officials in Northern Ireland will learn from what many survivors view as the incorrect approach taken by the Commission in the Republic.

She and other survivors met with MLAs in Stormont on Tuesday and were assured that a full investigation into institutions in the North is imminent.

Earlier this week, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said recommendations for a public inquiry into mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland now need to be turned into action.

O’Neill and First Minister Paul Givan have reached agreement on the shape of a public inquiry to investigate the institutions.

northern-ireland-deputy-first-minister-michelle-oneill-speaking-during-a-press-conference-at-belfast-city-hall-following-a-video-call-with-lord-frost-to-discuss-the-ni-protocol Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (file photo) Source: Alamy Stock Photo

At the start of October a panel of Stormont-commissioned experts called for a public inquiry into the “great scandal” of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in the North.

They also recommended a non-statutory independent panel that would run in parallel to the inquiry and allow those who were sent to the institutions, and their families, to give evidence in a less adversarial format.

Other recommendations included immediate redress payments for survivors at the outset of the twin-track investigatory process.

O’Neill told the PA news agency on Tuesday: “Women and girls have been failed, their babies have also been failed, for far too long, so it is now time to turn the recommendations into action and I am determined to do that.

“I have today made a proposal that the Executive Office leads on the public inquiry and I am glad to see that that has now been endorsed.

“I hope now that we can move at speed to respond to the asks of the panel, the asks of the victims and survivors because fundamentally they are crucially important, they are at the centre of this.

“I want to speak to them over the course of the next number of days and then make an Assembly statement in terms of the next steps.”

She continued: “The report was launched some five to six weeks ago and it has taken some time just to work out where each responsibility sits, but I am glad that work has now happened.

“I do think it was too slow, that is why I today announced that I wanted the Executive Office to take on the public inquiry element of it and for us to proceed at pace and I am glad that is now the agreed position.

“Now is the time to turn all the recommendations into action and for us to turn a corner for victims and survivors who have been failed for generations on many, many fronts and I want this Executive to actually lead by example and to do the right thing.”

Information on the support services available to survivors of mother and baby homes and related institutions can be read here.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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