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Geraldine was born in St Patrick's, her sister Pauline was born in Bessborough - 50 years later they found each other

Four years ago a social worker “stumbled across” information that would change their lives forever.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/OlgaOtto

MANY FAMILIES AROUND Ireland have been impacted, or split apart, by the Mother and Baby Home system – whether they realise it or not.

Tens of thousands of women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage, and their children, passed through these institutions throughout the 20th century.tells

Some of the women who gave birth in the system have told their family and friends about their experience, while others have kept it a secret.

Many of the children born in the institutions were adopted – sometimes illegally and without the mother’s consent – and some have spent decades trying to find their birth families or even just information about their past.

Geraldine* was born in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on the Navan Road in Dublin in the mid-1960s.

Pauline* was born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork two years later.

Both women sought to find their birth parents, but instead discovered each other.

The women, now aged in their 50s, found out they are half-sisters four years ago, decades after first making inquiries about their past.

“It was the last thing I was expecting to happen. I went looking for my mother and found out I had a sister,” Pauline says. 

Their mother went on to get married and have more children. To the best of their knowledge, she has not told her husband or children about her earlier pregnancies.

Both Geraldine and Pauline were adopted by families in Ireland. Geraldine moved abroad as an adult, but Pauline still lives here – in the same province as their birth mother.

After years of trying to get information, they found out their mother’s name but little else other than the fact she did not wish to be contacted or meet them.

Geraldine and Pauline both say they have made peace with their birth mother not wanting to meet them but, if she does change her mind, they would not refuse.

“I’ve closed the door, I’ve closed the chapter. I removed myself from the contact register list. If she did reach out though, because I’ve got a heart. I definitely would not say no,” Geraldine explained.

“I think that would be just hurtful, you know, and I’d hate to see a person of her age, she’d be about 75 years of age now, hurt.”

On Tuesday, the Oireachtas Children’s Committee held a meeting to discuss the Burials Bill – legislation which would allow excavations, exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby homes.

During that discussion Alice Coughlan, whose daughter was adopted from Bessborough, stated that “a lot of women” have yet to come forward as survivors, noting that many of them have not told their partners or children what happened to them.

“There are women scared stiff, sitting in a house, wondering if somebody’s going to knock at the door,” Coughlan said.

Pauline told The Journal: “That’s my mother, not telling anyone, perhaps when her husband dies she might change her mind (about meeting us).

“We’re hoping that one day she might think about looking for us. The window is open for her if she does.

“She doesn’t want to communicate with us. I can understand that, I believe she hasn’t told her husband or her other children. That’s a big secret she has to carry.

“I think she was afraid that if the social workers gave us information we would go after her. Even if I knew her address I’ve no intention of showing up. You wouldn’t want to go ruining anyone’s marriage either. I have no intention of tracing her but I’m free anytime if she wants to make contact.”

‘Mammy, why is everybody calling me a bastard?’

The women had happy childhoods but both found out they were adopted in a cruel way – other children at school informed them, sending them home with lots of questions.

Geraldine recalls: “I first learned that I was adopted when I was at school, I was probably eight or maybe even younger. I came running home to my mum. I said, ‘Mammy, why is everybody calling me a bastard?’ I’ll never forget it.

“I guess their parents mentioned it. We came from a small town, people talk and they don’t realise the impact of that. All I kept thinking was, ‘Why would my friends want to say that to me?’

“You can imagine how traumatic it was in our house that day. My mammy and daddy sat me down and they explained how they got me, and naturally it was a shock.”

Geraldine says her adopted parents were open and honest about her adoption from that day forward, answering any questions she had. They have both since passed away, but were supportive of her looking for information about her birth mother.

“I knew people were talking about me. As the years go on, you get tough skin. You become hard, not soft. You really become a fighter inside because you’re challenged with it all the time. It never goes away, you have to produce documentation when you make your Communion, your Confirmation, when you’re getting married.”

Pauline also found out she was adopted from other children at school.

“My friends in school told me I was adopted. I was about six or seven. I presume their parents told them.”

Pauline asked her parents when she got home from school and they confirmed she was adopted but did not want to talk about it further. Her older sister is also adopted.

“It was never discussed in the house, we weren’t allowed to talk about it.”

Pauline says, if she was having an argument with a relative or friend, they would sometimes throw out the fact she was adopted in an insulting way, saying things like, ‘Sure we’re not related anyhow’.

Ex-boyfriends weaponise it too. “I remember, when I was younger, about 15 or 16 and you’d be going out with someone and you’d break off, I used to get letters from them telling me I had bad blood in me because I was adopted, no wonder nobody wanted me, that’s what you were up against.”

Pauline laughs about it now, but it was difficult when she was younger. “It definitely made me tough,” she says.

“There was a lot of stigma. I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody (who was adopted) but I was always made to feel different.”

IMG_1399 Information Pauline was given about what she ate as a baby in Bessborough

Pauline says the fact she’s adopted still impacts her from a practical point of view and, in particular, not having her medical records.

“It’s hard to explain. It even affects going to the doctor with the kids, you’ve no medical history. That’s been a big thing for me, that’s the main reason that I went tooth and nail to try to find out information.”

Her adopted father has since died, her adopted mother is alive but has dementia.

“I’m now closer to Geraldine than other people in my family,” Pauline says.

No medical history

Both women struggled for years to get any information about their birth parents or medical history.

Geraldine was adopted by St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin. She sought information from the Guild, and latterly Tusla (the Child and Family Agency), without much success.

Her adopted mother fully supported her seeking information about her birth mother.

“I remember sitting with my mum and she said, ‘Go ahead, if that’s what makes you happy and makes you content. You’re not hurting me at all. What a lovely woman right? She encouraged me to do it.”

Geraldine says she had “many” unsuccessful visits to the St Patrick’s Guild office in Dublin.

“I remember knocking on the door. I remember going in and meeting with the sister and her telling me, ‘No, we don’t have any information, all the documents were burned in a fire, we can’t tell you anything.’

“I spoke to about six different people, they all sang the same song.”

Geraldine says, several years ago, her adopted mother told her she found out her birth mother’s surname (she previously just had a first name).

“I’m not sure how my mother found out but she was very religious and had a great rapport with the parish priest, I think that might have been it.”

Geraldine struggled to find information but kept pursuing it. Over time, documents were passed from St Patrick’s Guild to Tusla.

“Five or six years ago, I got this first social worker and again she told me nothing. At that time she said I can go on the contact registry list (where adopted people and birth parents can express an interest in finding each other), so I did that.”

Geraldine was eventually told that her mother moved from “the country” to St Pat’s in Dublin to give birth at age 19. She was told her father was 23 and worked in a chemical factory.

“For a long time I thought that would be all I’d ever find out. I told the social worker I wanted to get in contact with my mother, but they came back and said, ‘No, she doesn’t want to talk to you.’

“I was told she didn’t want to give me any information, no medical history. I was told, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re perfectly fine’. Jesus, it must be the healthiest family ever that I came from.

“I used to always think to myself, I know more about my dog than I do but myself.”

Despite being told she has no medical issues to be concerned about, Geraldine was born prematurely and weighed just over four pounds.

At six weeks old, she was rushed to Crumlin Hospital because she couldn’t swallow. She spent months in hospital.

“I brought that up but Tusla said, ‘You might have confused yourself with someone else, maybe with your sister, because nowhere in the records does it say that you were not a healthy baby. They insisted nothing was wrong with me.

“I was four and a half pounds when I was born. I remember mammy used to say, ‘You were like two two pounds of sugar when you were born’.”

Rape

A few years ago, Geraldine received a phone call which set off a chain of events that would change her life.

“I answered the phone and the social worker asked me if I was sitting down. I said yes, I thought that maybe my mother had changed her mind and wanted to contact me.

“Instead she said, ‘I was just searching through the records, and I saw that your mother was admitted into Bessborough two years later and she had had another baby. You have a sibling, you have a sister. This woman is on the contact registry list, do you want me to contact her?’

“I was shocked, but I said, ‘Yes, absolutely’. So, Pauline and I started talking, we emailed and spoke over the phone, we connected.

“We had both been on the contact registry list for a long time, but the social worker basically stumbled over the findings because she decided to delve right into this and research a bit further.

“But isn’t the contract registry sorted to correlate and bring people together? If not, what’s the point of it?”

Geraldine says finding out about Pauline gave her fresh hope that she may find information about her birth father.

“After I discovered this information I thought, well you know what, I’m going to see if I can find my father, I want to know who he is. So I got in touch with Tusla again.

Geraldine says, after much back and forth, the social worker told her they had narrowed her father down to three men.

“I thought this was great news, but then was told that my birth mother would have to give permission for Tusla to give me the information.

“Weeks go by and then she comes back to me and says, ‘We can’t pursue the case any further because your birth mother has refused to permit us to go further with this. She has told us she made up the identity of the man she originally said was your father, she said she made up his name’.”

Geraldine says this was a huge blow. She complained that she was initially told her father was a 23-year-old factory worker, then was told it was one of three men, then told all of this was incorrect.

“I thought it was strange to have made up a job as specific as working in a chemical factory,” she recalls.

Geraldine asked the social worker to escalate the issue with her superiors but they said the same – the issues could not be taken any further without the birth mother’s consent.

“I was shocked, I was absolutely shocked. It goes a bit further than that, then she tells me that my birth mother had said, ‘Do not contact me again. If you do, I’m going to report it as harassment’.”

During this conversation, Geraldine’s birth mother also gave the social worker a new piece of information.

“She said I was the result of a rape, she was assaulted,” Geraldine says.

As the information she received had changed numerous times, she didn’t know what to believe, but hearing this was devastating.

“You have no idea, I was totally devastated. And to hear it over the telephone with zero support from a mental perspective.

“If you tell somebody that information and think that there’s going to be okay, that’s not right. You need to say, ‘We’re here for you, call us every day or I’ll call you. I’ll check in on you’, but there was nothing.”

Geraldine says she has a very supportive family and did not seek therapy after this incident, but that someone without a support network may have been even more affected by such news.

She says the rough date her birth mother gave in relation to the rape doesn’t quite add up with the month she was born, even though she was born prematurely.

“I would have been born at 2.5 pounds given the dates, which is medically impossible, yet they continued to say the door is closed in terms of finding my birth father based on this.”

Geraldine does not know exactly what happened and accepts that she likely never will.

“You don’t know the circumstances of what happened to this woman. I’m not sure what to believe, it’s been a rollercoaster.

“You have to come to the resolution of believing whatever you want to believe yourself. And now I’ve closed the door, I’ve closed the chapter. I’ve decided that enough is enough now, it’s just very traumatic and I don’t want to open the doors again, because it is very, very hurtful.

“I count my blessings that I found Pauline. It’s a lovely relationship that we have, we talk all the time.”

Geraldine has removed herself from the contact registry but says if her birth mother ever tried to contact her, she would be open to that.

Names changed on birth certs

Pauline first started to look for information about her birth mother in the 1990s.

“I was about 18 or 19, I had written to Bessborough looking for my information. And a sister wrote back to me, she said she wanted money to travel to find out information. So I gave her about £20, which was quite a bit of money at the time.

“She gave me a bit of information, basically just my mother’s first name. It was so hard to get any information,” Pauline recalls.

She was later spurred on to join the contact registry after listening to a segment on the Gerry Ryan radio show.

“He did a programme one morning and he said there was a sibling register set up. So I remember filling that form in on the computer and took no more notice of it.

“And then four years ago, I got a letter from Tusla telling me to contact them. So they had me matched up with a Geraldine.”

IMG_1404 Information Pauline was given about her birth parents

Just four months ago, Pauline eventually got a copy of her birth cert.

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“They’d changed my name. The name I had always gone by was not mine. That was a huge shock. I couldn’t believe that they would change it, but everyone’s name must have been changed.”

Pauline says she went to Bessborough in 2019, for the first time since she was a baby.

“We went down about two years ago and we drove around it. I’m lucky I got out, by the sounds of it.”

The burial place of over 800 children who died at the home remains unknown. Pauline says controversial plans for an apartment development should not get planning permission until the burial place is located.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen but I don’t think anyone should build over a graveyard, no matter what. If there were animals there, they’d have more rights,” she says.

‘The whole country knew’

Geraldine says the detail contained in the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes is “very distressing news” and “appalling”.

“You’re talking about a village, a community, a country hiding this for decades. This was still happening in the 1990s, it’s shocking. The government knew about this, the church knew about this, the nuns – they were all in on it.

“It’s a shocking report, it’s absolutely disgusting. I’m glad that it has been brought out in the public eye because it is devastating. And to think that it could be just shoved under the carpet if people like myself decided not to talk, that they’d get away with it, it’s absolutely appalling.”

The report, which was published in January, confirmed that about 9,000 children died in the 18 institutions under investigation.

Geraldine notes that some people say no-one knew what was happening in the institutions, but she doesn’t see how this could be possible.

“How could no-one know? You’ll just have to look at the movie Philomena (about Philomena Lee) and you see the Americans coming over and they’re going to the local pub and they’re talking about bringing the baby home and paying for the baby.

“People knew and they decided to remain quiet. And I think that’s wrong. I think there needs to be accountability for what went on.”

‘You have a right to your identity’

The heads of a Bill on information and tracing legislation were due to be ready at the end of March but this has been delayed. The legislation is expected to be ready in the coming weeks.

When previously asked by The Journal about adopted people’s concerns in relation to birth certs and access to records, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said the government is “very much aware” of these concerns and wants to address them.

Under current legislation, adopted people are not entitled to their birth certificate or to information about their families of origin.

O’Gorman has said the new legislation will rectify this.

When asked about granting people access to their records, Taoiseach Michéal Martin previously said: “We want to make sure that people have that access. That’s the objective and that’s the commitment.”

Geraline and Pauline both welcome the fact legislation is being drawn up but say this is long overdue. They believe a person’s birth parents should not be allowed to block them from getting their birth cert, medical records or related information.

Geraldine says: “No one should have the power to say you’re not entitled to your birth cert. I do understand it from the mother’s perspective as well – she might be thinking, ‘Oh my god, somebody’s going to come knocking on my door’. And that must be terrifying as well.

“But what gives her the right, I’m in my 50s, what gives her the right now at 75 to still have that control factor over my knowing and not knowing information. I don’t think that that’s right.”

Pauline says it’s “a disgrace” that adopted people still struggle to get their birth certs in 2021.

“If the government decides that they’re going to give birth certs, it can’t be at the mother’s discretion. My birth mother didn’t want us to get any information like that.

“Everyone should be entitled to their birth certs and medical history, it shouldn’t be down to your birth mother to decide whether or not you can have your own information.” 

Geraldine says, despite all the ups and downs, people who are seeking to find information, or indeed relatives, should not give up.

“Don’t give up, because you know you only have one life. You don’t want to regret it later in life thinking, ‘Oh, I should have pursued it’.

“Things happen, the years go by, people die. The longer you leave it, the less information you might get.

“If you’re interested in finding out, don’t give up if that’s what will bring you peace. Because it’s a big thing to have a question mark inside your heart, it gnaws away at you.

“As you go through milestones in your own life, you’re always brought back to thinking, ‘I wonder, I wonder, I wonder’. So for anyone who is wondering, my message would be don’t wonder, go for it, try and find out as much information as you can about your own identity.

“Because after all, that is your identity, it’s you, it is your makeup, you are entitled to it and no one should have the right to stand in your way of getting it.”

*Names have been changed at the interviewees’ request

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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