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'We were told our mothers were prostitutes and ne'er-do-wells. My mother was a senior civil servant, aged 30'

Susan Lohan says adopted people have for decades been fed a false narrative about their mothers in the hopes they won’t try to find them.

Susan Lohan
Susan Lohan
Image: Fintan Clarke (published with permission)

SUSAN LOHAN HAS been campaigning for the rights of adopted people for 20 years.

She co-founded the Adoption Rights Alliance in 2009 and more recently was appointed to the Mother and Baby Home Collaborative Forum.

The forum was set up in 2018 by then-Minister Katherine Zappone to help inform the Department of Children of survivors’ wishes on legacy issues related to the homes as the commission carried out its work.

The forum was separate to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation and submitted its own 84-page report in December 2018, six months after it first met.

The forum’s recommendations were published in April 2019 but the report itself was not, with the department citing advice from the attorney general as the reason.

Lohan and other members of the forum have been very critical of the fact the report was never published. She described this as “an utter betrayal of the efforts of the people involved”, noting that many survivors who gave testimony were “re-traumatised because, for the purposes of the report, they were reliving their experiences”.

When the commission was being set up, Lohan was among those calling for its terms of references to include examining illegal and forced adoptions in general, rather than just related to children in the institutions in question.

This did not happen and, as a result, Lohan says the commission’s final report, which was published on Tuesday, excludes the experiences of a huge number of people.

“The experiences of tens of thousands of us are excluded from the report, because our mothers never set foot inside a mother and baby home, and we, the children, didn’t.

“I was born in an ambulance because I was born prematurely. And I was brought to Temple Street Children’s Hospital. Having spent three months there, I was then discharged to Temple Hill infant hospital in Blackrock in county Dublin.”

Lohan says the hospital, which was run by St Patrick’s Guild, “was used exclusively as a holding pen for babies taken for adoption”.

Lohan rarely talks about her personal experience but wanted to on foot of the report’s publication. She says her “advocacy is based on bitter experience” – an experience many people in Ireland, knowingly or unknowingly, went through: illegal adoption.

“I rarely talk about my personal story because I’ve moved on from that and I’ve been acting as an advocate and a campaigner for a long time so I thought I was unaffected by all of this. But, I have to say, I crashed and burned with exhaustion in 2019, particularly at the tail end of 2019 when the forum was reactivated.”

Lohan is heavily critical of the commission’s report, saying many of its conclusions contradict the testimonies given to it.

“It’s almost impossible to follow the train of thought because there are so many contradictions – you find yourself reading back pages and going, ‘Didn’t they just say the opposite of that a few pages ago?’.

She says conclusions that there is a lack of evidence of forced adoptions, and women being forced into the homes by Church and State, are “ridiculous” and a “betrayal” of survivors.

Lohan says the report is very “hurtful” to survivors of the institutions, as well as the “tens of thousands” of women it did not include because they weren’t in a mother and baby home, but were still forced to give their child away.

“Particularly to the children, it doesn’t matter the four walls inside of which we were born. We were all taken away from our mothers and our families of origin and given to strangers.”

‘Prostitutes and ne’er-do-wells’

Lohan says adopted people like her were for many years fed a certain narrative about their birth parents, and birth mothers in particular.

Adopted people in Ireland have grown up with the narrative that we were abandoned by our mothers, that our mothers were variously prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics, ne’er-do-wells, you know, unfortunate girls. My mother was a senior civil servant, aged 30. She was not an unfortunate girl.

Lohan says, aside from the women who ended up in institutions, thousands of women who came from “the country” to live in Dublin secretly had babies they never told their families about.

“There were thousands of women from the country, as we would have said, from rural backgrounds, who had long since moved to Dublin, to work in the civil service. They were living in flats on the North Circular Road, Phibsborough, Rathmines.

“So they were living in little bedsits and didn’t have to explain their condition to mammy and daddy. And once they gave birth, and many of them gave birth in state maternity hospitals in Dublin, there was pressure, bullying and coercion to have their child taken from them.”

She recalls hearing stories of how nuns and social workers visited some State-run maternity hospitals in decades past, “preying on unmarried mothers and tricking them into signing forms while they were actually under sedation”.

“The experiences of so many people have been ignored … we were taken for forced adoption or we were illegally adopted, which of course, is the end game of these homes.

The analogy I use is, by not looking at the big picture and looking at the raison d’etre of these homes is like if, after World War II, The Hague court of human rights only looked at the day-to-day conditions in the concentration camps and had not looked at the raison d’etre of the camps, which was to exterminate the Jews.

“Or in our case, they wanted to take away the children who were coming from morally-contaminated mothers, as far as they were concerned.”

Lohan notes how there are examples on the Dáil record where TDs referred to so-called “illegitimate” children as having “double original sin”.

Original sin is a Catholic belief that humans are born sinful.

“We had double original sin because we were born illegitimate to unmarried mothers, so they actually regarded us as kind of seditious forces.”

Lohan says unmarried women and girls who were pregnant were hidden away because if they “were seen out in society, they would contaminate the morals of that society”.

“That’s why they were locked up behind walls, and the dogs in the street know that.”

‘A fierce woman’ 

Like many people, Lohan struggled to find information about her birth parents through official channels. She enlisted the help of a friend, who was a genealogist and started to search for information about Lohan’s father.

The friend found a few families who could be related to Lohan and, in very Irish fashion, she knew a member of one of them. She coincidentally met this person soon afterwards at an art exhibition, and asked them a few awkward questions.

As it turned out, this person was indeed related to Lohan’s father. This chance encounter started off a chain of events that led to Lohan finding out she had three sisters on her father’s side. She also reconnected with her birth mother.

Her birth mother, Nábla MacGinley, was a “fierce, fantastic woman”, she says.

“I’m very proud of her. She was the first female president of the Public Service Executive Union (now part of Fórsa trade union) and a founding member of the National Women’s Council and Equality Commission.

“I just think, if somebody as strong as her couldn’t even battle the system, what chance did others have?”

‘Incredible coincidence’

In an “incredible coincidence”, Lohan and one of her sisters lived very close to each other in London for three years during the 1990s.

“We would have been in the same bars, shops, buses, trains, tubes. It’s just astonishing.”

Lohan’s adopted parents, Sean and Sheila Lohan, initially discouraged her from looking for her biological parents.

“They were concerned that they might not be nice people, but they too had been fed false narratives about my natural parents.”

Sheila died in 1996, but Sean eventually changed his mind and said he regretted telling his daughter not to find her birth parents.

Lohan says she was “so proud” when her father wrote to then-Minister Brian Lenihan in 2003 to speak out against adoption legislation being debated at the time. The Bill was eventually scrapped after much criticism from adopted people.

“My dad wrote to Brian Lenihan and said that he now believed that the most basic human right [was knowing your birth information], and that it would be absolutely fulfilling for me to know who my natural parents were.

“He said he did not want any government minister using his feelings as a barrier to me, or any other adopted person, discovering who they were. He said that he had been wrong and that of course myself and other folks like me should absolutely know who we were and who our parents were.”

Lohan says she now has “the most fantastic” relationship with her sisters, who live abroad.

“I would cut off my right arm, probably both arms, if anybody were to try and deprive me of a relationship with them. And I’m fairly certain that the three of them feel the same way.

“I didn’t discover the relationships until I was 54 and 55 and I had been fighting for years to do that.

“I’m my mother’s only child, I can’t tell you the joy it has given me knowing my sisters and my nieces and nephews.”

Lohan says every adopted person should have the right to their birth certificate and related information, and the tracing and information legislation promised this year must make this a reality.

She says that not allowing adoptees access their information flouts international human rights law and GDPR.

Lohan says having her own child almost 16 years ago helped her understand the weight of what her mother went through.

“Chickens came home to roost when I had my son in the year 2005. I knew how I felt about losing my mother, but I hadn’t appreciated the enormity of what she went through.

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“Obviously I tried to imagine how she felt losing me. I don’t mean that I was lacking empathy, she just didn’t talk about it.

When I had my son, particularly when he was six months old, which was the age at which I was taken and given to my adoptive parents, it broke my heart, it absolutely broke my heart that somebody could have done that to her, and the tens of thousands of others who had the exact same experience.

“And I fell apart. It suddenly hit me, it was like a planet had landed on my head and I couldn’t imagine that fear, that dread she must have felt.

“I kept looking at my son when he was six months old and saying, ‘Oh my god, imagine somebody took him now, what would that do to me? I lived in a perpetual state of dread for the next year, almost fearing that that would happen. And I would not wish that on my worst enemy.”

Lohan says her son Conall is “brilliant, the apple of my eye”.

“I think we’re quite similar. I love when people tell me that he is the image of me, that brings a tear to my eye.”

Legislation

When asked by TheJournal.ie on Tuesday about adopted people’s reaction to the report, Minister Roderic O’Gorman said “the government is very much aware” of people’s concerns.

He again stated that the government will bring forward information and tracing legislation this year, adding it is “absolutely crucial” that people who were adopted or fostered can find out information about their birth and early life.

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

Citing previous advice from the Attorney General that “it was constitutionally unacceptable to allow unrestricted access”, the commission’s final report says it is likely that a referendum will be needed to change the Constitution in order to allow this.

However, constitutional lawyers have argued that a referendum is not required and that the Oireachtas could decide that the rights of adopted people need to be favoured above privacy rights.

Amid some confusion on foot of the report, yesterday it emerged that Attorney General Paul Gallagher had confirmed to the government that a referendum will not in fact be required.

When asked about granting people access to their records, at the government press conference on Tuesday, the Taoiseach said: “The commission is very strong on the right of access to one’s personal identity, one’s birth cert and your entering into the world, and is quite clear on that.”

Micheál Martin said it’s the government’s view that, by applying GDPR principles, “we will be able to facilitate [access] through a legislative process”.

“We want to stretch this really as far as we can to make sure that people have that access. That’s the objective and that’s the commitment as of now, the formulation and development of an information and tracing bill.”

O’Gorman added that his department is “engaging on a sustained basis with the Attorney General” on the issue.

We’ll have more about illegal adoption on TheJournal.ie tomorrow.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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