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Column: "Adopted" - the word spoken in hushed tones as I grew up

Actor and playwright Noelle Brown speaks about growing up as an adopted child in the 1970s and the challenges adopted people face when trying to obtain their original birth certs.

Noelle Brown

FROM A VERY early age I was told I was adopted. In fairness I think my parents had no choice but to tell me, what with me being red-headed with pale skin in a family with dark skin and dark hair – this made it pretty obvious that something wasn’t right.

While I loved being able to say I was adopted when I was a child (because it made me feel exotic), I also learned that it was a word that was used by adults with a dropped voice. ‘Bad blood will out’ was a phrase that was often thrown around in conversation in relation to adopted children in ’70s and ’80s Ireland.

Sometimes, in my teens, I did stop to wonder who my birth parents were, but I had a happy enough childhood and didn’t spend too much thinking about tracing them. Perhaps if I had had children I might have searched sooner.

I needed to know something about where I had come from

I was 35 and in the middle of a break-up of a long term relationship when I made my first call to the Barnardos Adoption Advice Service. I think I was at a point in my life where everything was changing and suddenly I needed to know something about where I had come from – or more importantly, who I looked like.

Initially, all I went looking for were the basic details of my adoption, the names of my birth parents, and where I was actually born. I was nervous of getting too much information, I suppose in case it impacted on my life too much and would change fundamentally the identity I had been given all those years ago.

A minefield of emotions

I spent a few uncomfortable weeks leaving messages on an answering machine for a nun in Cork who I’d been told had the details of my birth. When I finally spoke to her she was not at all helpful, so I had to get back in touch with Barnardos in order to retrieve my file. From then on I dealt only with Barnardos who led me with counselling through the minefield of emotions that this particular experience brings.

Behind the scenes, the nun I had dealt with in Cork later contacted my birth mother’s sister. Suddenly an enormous amount of information about my past arrived in Barnardos. Although they gave me the choice to just have the information I came looking for, when I knew there was more I needed to hear it all.

The wonderful woman that looked after me gave me the best piece of advice – she told me that this information would not change who I was, but would simply give another aspect to the person I am. She was right.

A sense that you must not look back

Very little has been written in Irish theatre about the subject of adoption, even though it is still a prominent issue in our society. It may no longer be mentioned in hushed voices, but there is still a sense that once you are adopted you must not look back.

Since 1952 when adoption was first made legal in Ireland, more than 42,000 adoptions have taken place. Until recently, adoption was seen as a single event without ever the need for follow-up. The emphasis was placed on secrecy and confidentiality. Natural mothers were usually told they would never learn of their child’s identities and whereabouts and vice versa for the child. Natural fathers were rarely involved in adoption.

In time many of these adopted children, now adults, have attempted to discover more about their natural parents and siblings. For some it may be for medical information for others it is the desire of having a fuller sense of their own identity. Even to this day access to a birth cert is still severely restricted. Figures from 2011 reveal that of 58 requests made by adopted people for the release of a birth certificate, just 11 were granted.

Tracing one’s birth family is still full of enormous difficulties for natural children and natural parents alike  The Barnardos Post Adoption Service is still in existence, although it is under severe pressure due to lack of financial resources.  Their work is invaluable, and they help thousands of children and parents in Ireland – and without them I wouldn’t have this story to tell.

POSTSCRIPT, which I’ve co-written with Michele Forbes, has come out of the experience of tracing my birth family. Writing letters was integral to my initial contact with my birth family twelve years ago. I had actually wanted to write a play about the lost art of letter writing and un-directed post. But when we sat down to write the play my story kept coming up and gradually it emerged in the format of letters.

POSTSCRIPT will be performed by Noelle Brown and Bríd Ní Neachtain at The New Theatre, East Essex St. from September 9 – 14 as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2013. For more information: www.fringefest.com / 1850 374 643

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About the author:

Noelle Brown

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