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redacted lives

'I don't want to die not knowing': Adopted people share their search to find their identity

The penultimate episode of Redacted Lives follows people on their search for relatives and information about their early lives – and the jubilation and heartbreak that journey can bring.

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The penultimate episode of Redacted Lives, a podcast series about mother and baby homes, was released by The Journal this week. The six-part documentary series explores the experiences of people who passed through the system.

Children born into these institutions were usually adopted or sent to industrial schools – often without their mother’s consent.

Many women have tried to find their children over the years, but to no avail. Adopted people have also struggled to find their parents, or information about their early life.

Redacted Lives gives these people the chance to tell the real story of mother and baby homes, and explores how the State continues to deny survivors access to information, proper redress and ownership of their true identities.

TENS OF THOUSANDS of people in Ireland passed through the mother and baby home system.

Countless families have a daughter, a sister or a mother who spent time in one of these institutions – whether their relatives realise it or not.

On the other side of this equation are these women’s children, many of whom were adopted.

With legal adoptions, the correct documentation doesn’t always exist. And illegal adoptions pose a whole other set of complications.

People’s names, dates of birth and other details were sometimes deliberately changed on official documents. In many cases, a child’s adoptive parents were listed as their biological parents.

In some scenarios, it is believed that children were incorrectly listed as dead – despite being alive and well – before they were adopted, often to the United States.

In truth, we don’t know the scale of illegal adoption in Ireland – and possibly never will.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was not specifically asked to examine adoption, but it did gather some evidence about consent and foreign adoptions.

In its final report, the Commission said it found little evidence of forced adoption or illegal birth registrations.

390x285 (1) Lorcan O'Reilly / The Journal Lorcan O'Reilly / The Journal / The Journal

However, an independent review carried out on behalf of the Irish Government by Marion Reynolds, a former deputy director of social services in Northern Ireland, found evidence there could have been thousands of illegal adoptions here.

In March 2022, Professor Conor O’Mahony, Ireland’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection at the time, recommended that a State inquiry into illegal adoptions be established.

A number of experts, like Catriona Crowe, believe another inquiry is the best chance we have of finding out the truth.

“I can understand why people are tired and cynical and disillusioned and exhausted and bitter and furious after what they’ve gone through with the first Commission.

“It would have to be designed differently, perhaps more like the academic Commission of Inquiry in the North of Ireland, which talked to very few people who still had very good protocols about how to deal with survivors, particularly in terms of consultation with them, editing their testimony, preserving their testimony, all of that, which gave people, I think, a sense of security that they were going to be taken seriously,” she stated.

Crowe, the former Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland, made those comments in the latest episode of Redacted Lives, The Journal’s podcast series about mother and baby homes.

‘I don’t want to die not knowing’

Throughout the documentary series we’ve heard from a number of mothers about their decades-long searches to find their children.

In the penultimate episode, I Hear You’ve Been Looking For Me, listeners also hear from two adopted people who were born in St Patrick’s mother and baby home in Dublin.

Marguerite Penrose was one of the 500-plus survivors who gave evidence to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

mp3 Marguerite Penrose Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Marguerite was born in St James’s Hospital in Dublin in 1974, before being sent to St Patrick’s institution, where she spent her early years before being fostered and legally adopted.

She is mixed-race and was born with severe scoliosis and missing three ribs. For these reasons, she spent her early life in a room separate from the other children.

Yeah, there was a reject room. So that would have been where the likes of myself would have been – A. Because I was a person of colour; and B. Probably because I had a disability. That was probably one of the hardest things I think I had to hear. And so, although I was fostered and adopted by an amazing family, nobody should have to start their life like that.

Marguerite believes she was not adopted as a baby because of her skin colour and health issues. However, the Penrose family started to foster her when she was four years old – eventually making the arrangement permanent.

“When it comes to the likes of being mixed race or black or a person of colour, it definitely seems to be that we were [in an institution] longer. I was blessed, I didn’t end up in industrial school, but I think if I had stayed there any longer … that’s where I would have eventually ended up.”

She had to go through various surgeries when she was younger due to her health issues but, despite this, had a very happy childhood. She has a wonderful relationship with her parents Noeline and Michael, and her sister Ciara.

They were always open to her looking for her biological parents – but she wasn’t ready to do this until a few years ago.

Marguerite had a serious health scare in 2015 – suffering from respiratory failure. It was the incentive she needed to start searching for her birth parents.

I did say to myself, ‘I’m getting older now’, after that health scare. I don’t want to die not knowing, or not knowing that I tried. Yes, you can try and maybe never get the information. But at least I could say to myself, ‘I tried and I got this information, I didn’t get that information’. So that was what spurred me on.

Marguerite knew she had half-siblings but knew nothing else about them. In late 2020 she was assigned a caseworker from Tusla, Margaret, who began to look for information.

This process was slowed down due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the cyber attack on the HSE in May 2021, but there was a major development in November 2021.

Margaret found an address for one of Marguerite’s brothers. She wrote him a letter – not saying that his sister was looking for him, but asking him to get in touch.

Almost instantly, he responded to say he was willing to meet. He and Marguerite started to exchange messages. Hear more of Marguerite’s story in episode five.

Chris’s story

In this episode, listeners also meet Chris*. He left St Patrick’s mother and baby home much sooner than Marguerite, being adopted as a baby.

When he was six or seven, his parents told him he was adopted. It was never a secret when he was a child, but he knew it made him different from his friends.

The fact that Chris was adopted never came up at school until it was time for his confirmation.

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He and his classmates had to bring in their birth certificates, and the teacher pointed out to the class that Chris’s was different because he was adopted.

Chris recalled: “The other kids started talking about it and I remember one guy, and and I know his name very clearly and I know exactly where I was standing when he said it.

“I remember he was alluding to something that I couldn’t do ‘because you’re a bastard’. I was like, ‘What? What’s a bastard?’ I genuinely didn’t know what that meant. And he was like, ‘You’re illegitimate’. And I was like, ‘What does that mean? And he said, ‘You’re adopted’.

“I didn’t understand what bastard meant – as in, the literal term. And I didn’t know what illegitimate meant either, and then him saying that it meant I’m adopted. And it was at that point then I suppose that I realised that there was an otherness to it. And I guess that was just Catholic Ireland of the time … the fact that you were a product of sin.”

Bombshell news

During the 1990s, Chris made sporadic contact with social workers in a bid to find out information about his origins.

In the early 2000s, a social worker dropped a bombshell: his biological parents were actually married when he was given up for adoption.

During this meeting, Chris was told his adoption may not have been legal. His biological mother had apparently not disclosed the fact she was married to his father at the time of his adoption.

This was, understably, a lot of information to process.

“My reaction was probably, ‘Okay, right, fair enough, if that’s the way it is, grand’. And I think at the time, I probably didn’t appreciate the enormity of what they were telling me. And I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it,” Chris told us.

He was asked if he wanted to challenge the validity of his adoption, but wasn’t exactly sure what this would entail.

“If I challenged it, would it mean that my name would change? Would my brothers and sisters not be my sisters and brothers anymore?”

Chris said he was told that, if it did challenge his adoption’s validity, it would mean prosecuting his birth mother.

Listen to more of Chris’s country in episode five here.

*Name changed at interviewee’s request

New episodes of Redacted Lives will be released every Thursday. Subscribe to the series wherever you get your podcasts.

Subscribe now on:

If you passed through a mother and baby home or another institution and want to share your story, you can contact us in confidence by emailing redactedlives@thejournal.ie.

Redacted Lives was created by the award-winning team of News Correspondent Órla Ryan, who has written extensively about mother and baby homes, producer Nicky Ryan, from the critically-acclaimed Stardust podcast, and executive producer Sinéad O’Carroll.

Daragh Brophy and Christine Bohan were production supervisors. Taz Kelleher is our sound engineer, and design is by Lorcan O’Reilly.

With thanks to Laura Byrne, Susan Daly, Adrian Acosta, Carl Kinsella and Jonathan McCrea.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in these episodes, you can contact the Samaritans by calling 116 123.

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