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Across the water

'Sold to the highest bidder' - how Ireland's institutions allowed Americans to adopt Irish children in the 1950s

On average 10 Irish children (the vast majority born outside of marriage) per month were adopted by American citizens in the early-to-mid 1950s.

SONY DSC Kristin Klein Kristin Klein

THE DUBIOUS NATURE of the process surrounding the adoption of Irish children by American citizens in the 1950s has come to light with the publication of foreign policy papers dating from that decade.

The documents, which range from summaries of meetings to communiqués between civil servants to briefing notes for ministers, show a bureaucratic system that was entirely hands off and saw the adoption of Irish children born outside of marriage by foreign citizens as a fundamental ‘good’.

The papers detailing these adoptions are contained in Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Volume X, which covers the years 1951 to 1957, as published by the Royal Irish Academy.

At that time, as many as 10 Irish children a month, the vast majority of them born outside marriage and as a result resident in Catholic institutions, were being adopted by Americans. Some 330 such children left these shores between 1950 and 1952, with such records only being kept from the former date.

This trend was far from secret, and indeed was openly derided in the British press.

At the time the then Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs) saw its role as being purely administrative in nature – it supplied each child with a passport, leaving the suitability or otherwise of each potential adoptive family to the Catholic Church, in whose institutions these illegitimate (as they were officially described) children invariably resided.

Catholic Charities

Throughout the papers it is made clear that the adoption of Irish children born to single parents by Americans was seen entirely as a good thing by Ireland’s senior ministers. Then Justice Minister, Fianna Fáil’s Gerald Boland “favoured the sending of children to America for adoption in suitable homes where the alternative would be life in an institution in this country”, according to one memo from April 1954, though it is emphasised that that viewpoint had never been stated publicly.

Politics - John Kennedy Visit - London Fianna Fáil Minister for External Affairs Frank Aiken (left) and US President John F Kennedy in London in 1963 PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

In fact, a major source of worry for the Department at the time was that it would be seen as being “quite embarrassing if, in some case, a child had to be left in this country owing to the impossibility of issuing a passport in time” due to the short notice with which American servicemen (based in the UK, who comprised a substantial portion of the adopting Americans in question) were often transferred.

However, the problem of possibly granting an adoption to people who would not be able to adequately care for the child remained.

The Department of External Affairs solution to the problem of gaining adequate prior approval for US citizens seeking to adopt in Ireland was for those Americans to receive the blessing (via “very detailed and comprehensive reports” into a subject’s finances and home life) of an organisation known as the Catholic Charities prior to granting a passport application to a child.

This institution, which had branches across the US (and remains active to this day), was seen as providing the most “complete vetting” of any American individuals seeking to adopt an Irish infant.

Unfortunately, the vetting in question turned out to be less complete than had been believed, a fact that first came to light in late 1953 when a number of children began to arrive in the Archdiocese of Chicago without adequate pre-approval of the would-be adopting families.

Misplaced children

An interview with a Monsignor O’Grady of the Catholic Charities organisation at the Department in Dublin in January 1956 only served to deepen suspicions that all was not well with the vetting process.

O’Grady appears to have avoided detailed questions as to the nature of his organisation’s US operations, before bemoaning the “irregular” adoptions carried out by a “commercial operator” in Texas and Wisconsin who had been making money from such adoptions, which in turn had caused O’Grady’s organisation “grave embarrassment”.

The Monsignor then neglected to answer a question as to whether or not that operator was in fact connected with the Catholic Charities, before admitting that it was “true” that children were being “misplaced” in the USA owing to “deceit” on the American side.

It subsequently emerged that the Catholic Charities was not “in fact equipped at all its branches to deal satisfactorily with adoptions”, and that indeed some adoptions had only proceeded when agents of the organisation had given personal recommendations for unsuitable candidates in lieu of an in-depth vetting process.

A subsequent memo between Dublin and the Irish embassy in Chicago indicated the poor impression the Monsignor had made on his interviewers: “Monsignor O’Grady made a very poor impression on us. He is very old and rather senile at times… It beats us how he holds down such a job.”

The revelation, meanwhile, that the Catholic Charities may not have been all they were cracked up to be came as a “blow… (as) all our adoption arrangements centred around the recommendations of the branches”.

Again, the embarrassment involved for the Department appears to have been the major concern for the relevant officials, rather than the plight of the children involved:

While I do not wish to suggest that there was anything in the nature of mass irregularities under the old regime, it was disturbing for us to find that any loophole existed, especially since there is persistent public criticism in this country of these adoptions, most of it admittedly emanating from ‘wild’ reports in the cheap Sunday English papers.

The Department’s response to the scandal was perhaps a little restrained to put it mildly by modern standards – it simply decreed that from that time no recommendations would be accepted from the Catholic Charities… unless the recommending branch was licensed and approved as a child-placing agency by local State authorities in the US.

And from there?

We are not really desperately interested since our new regime removes our earlier total dependence on the organisation.

The adoption heard round the world

JANE RUSSEL PREMIERE LAS VEGAS Jane Russell in Las Vegas, February 1952 AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The Irish government’s take on the adoption of a 15-month-old Irish boy by Hollywood starlet Jane Russell in November 1951 is also detailed.

Russell, who was unable to have children of her own, had publicly expressed her interest in adopting an Irish baby boy at that time (to accompany the baby girl she had already taken custody of). She subsequently brought baby Thomas Kavanagh, a son of Irish parents, from his home in London to the US with his parents’ consent, on condition that the boy would live in loving circumstances and be given an education.

The actress’ desire to adopt in Ireland had been widely reported across the world (and most especially in Britain) in advance of her arrival – indeed one report in the Irish Times on 30 October 1951 carried a statement from the Church of Ireland Moral Welfare Organisation saying that Russell “would be most ill-advised to come here expecting to be able to adopt a child by just asking for one”.

But Russell did not come to Ireland. She went to London instead.

The baby (who was offered to Russell by his mother upon the actress’ arrival in London, her visit and its purpose having been well-flagged in advance) was granted a passport by the Irish embassy in London on 6 November 1951. Dublin did not become appraised of the nature of this passport until some days after the child had travelled to the US.

An internal memo prepared for then External Affairs Minister Frank Aiken of Fianna Fáil in the immediate aftermath of the infamous adoption seems to suggest that as far as Ireland was concerned, the entire affair was a “publicity stunt” on behalf of Russell, given that one of her agents (who had stood guarantor for the baby’s passport application) had informed the Irish passport office that Russell “was not adopting the child”).

Bar the granting of a passport, the affair happened mostly on the UK’s watch. Legislation introduced in Britain in 1950 forbade this manner of adoption, so the reason given for the child’s journey was  a three-month “holiday”, as Home Secretary Sir Maxwell Fyfe told the House of Commons on 15 November, nine days after the ‘adoption’.

From an Irish point of view there was nothing more that could be done once the passport had been granted, for “the strict rules applicable in such cases (in the UK) were complied with” (it should be noted that, unlike the vast majority of American adoptions of Irish children during this period, the child in question was not born outside wedlock).

The incident nearly cost Russell her career according to the BBC.  Baby Thomas meanwhile, lives in Arizona to this day.

Servicemen abroad

Aside from the issuance of an Irish passport, the Jane Russell situation bore little resemblance to the majority of these adoptions from Ireland as the child in question had been removed from the UK (a country which at least had adoption regulations in place, even if they were easy to circumvent) rather than Ireland, was born through wedlock, and had not been resident in a religious institution.

Ireland had no such adoption regulations in the early 1950s. Many of the adoptions thus secured were those of US armed forces servicemen serving in the UK, who were looking to bring a child home to the US with them.

A civil servant from External Affairs explains the Department’s powerlessness to interfere in a memo dating from December 1951:

“… (British) make it an offence to bring a child in such circumstances out of Great Britain. Here there is no offence unless the child were being abducted.”

Put simply, at that time an American citizen had only to secure a passport (which was easily done) for the child they wished to adopt in order to claim them.

The flaws in this approach seem to have finally hit home with the Department in the aftermath of the Russell case, although the key issue for officials appears to have been the problem of self-preservation.

WWII British Isles American servicemen based in the UK sightseeing in London in 1945 AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Fundamentally, the problem was not that such adoptions were necessarily wrong, or even immoral, but that should an infant end up in disadvantageous circumstances (such as being sold on the black market) in the US the Department of External Affairs would be held responsible, as a note between Dublin and London from January 1952 shows:

“You will remember that in the Jane Russell case the papers were also in order, even more so in order perhaps, and yet that did not keep us out of trouble.”

…It is we who give the passport without which the child cannot travel to the USA. Now, while the consents to which you refer are quite alright, supposing it happened that the child was surrendered to persons who, on arrival in the USA, proceeded to sell it off to the highest bidder, with consequent press publicity etc. It is we who would be held responsible.
I have taken an extreme case for my example but the fact is that, if any child who left this country for adoption in America figured in an unsavoury press campaign, racket or other exposure, it is this Department that would face the music.

The rather blasé language used to describe this process is further depressingly illustrated in the same memo when the civil servant in question describes the futility of obtaining an undertaking that an adopted child should never become a public charge:

There is no danger that such a child would ever become a public charge; it would simply be sold or surrendered to another couple.

‘No ‘colour’ problem’

The sheer otherworldliness of the atmosphere surrounding these adoptions is perhaps summed up in the following exchange however.

The political nature of the adoptions is detailed on more than one occasion in the released documents.

A Consul General in New York wrote to an Irish civil servant in August 1951 suggesting that the goodwill of the American parents in such cases might be harnessed to foster anti-partition sentiment in Ireland. That suggestion was shot down in no uncertain terms:

“With regard to the final paragraph of your minute of 6 June, we are not impressed with the possibility of retaining the sympathy or goodwill of intending foster parents for anti-partition purposes, as we feel that the great majority of them have no connections with this country and that they simply look to Ireland to obtain children for adoption because the ‘demand’ in the US for children far exceeds the ‘supply’ and adoption matters are not as yet regulated by law here (Ireland’s first adoption bill was introduced in 1952),” the response reads.

Rather disturbingly, the guaranteed ‘whiteness’ of the Irish children in question appears to be something of a selling point according to the civil servant:

Moreover, there is no ‘colour’ problem here so that intending foster parents in the US know that Irish children are ‘guaranteed’ in that respect.

Read: ‘Bloody hell Your Majesty, I nearly shot you’ – Britain’s queen was almost killed by her guardsman

Read: “Bringing 250 people into a town of just 2,000″ – Council meets to discuss housing of refugees in refurbished hotel

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