The This World documentary Ireland’s Lost Babies aired on BBC2 on 17 September. Martin Sixsmith explores the stories of those involved in the transatlantic adoption trade between Ireland and America in the 1950s and ’60s. Ireland’s Lost Babies will be shown on RTÉ 1 at 10.15pm on 18 September. The documentary can be watched on the BBC player here, while details about the making of the programme can be also found on the BBC website.
Review by Dr Niamh Cullen.
The BBC documentary Ireland’s Lost Babies followed Martin Sixsmith as he explored the forced adoption of so-called illegitimate Irish children to the US. It casts yet more light on the question of how independent Ireland treated some of its most vulnerable members: single women and their children. The documentary was structured around a series of interviews with Lily Boyce, whose son had been forcibly adopted, and with adopted children in the US who were now trying to trace their birth families in Ireland. The personal stories were weaved in well with the broader narrative of how these adoptions were carried out, and of the society that enabled the system to continue. The 2013 film Philomena dramatized the work that Sixsmith has already done in helping Philomena Lee — who recently spoke about her experience of forced adoption — trace her son; here he uncovers the roots of the system in Irish society and Irish institutions, both religious and political.
We know that between 40,000 and 60,000 children were adopted through religious institutions in Ireland, including 2000 to the US. In many cases they were taken forcibly away from their mothers who were housed in Mother and Baby homes run by Catholic orders. Since there was no state welfare provided for single mothers until 1973, and many, like Lily Boyce, were rejected by their families, unmarried pregnant women often had no other option than to go to the nuns. Fascinating archival footage of religious processions gave us a visual insight into 1950s/60s Irish society and to the power of religion at the local and social level. In her interview with Sixsmith, Lily Boyce also talked about how her knowledge of sexuality was so limited that she only became aware of her pregnancy after about six or eight months. The paucity of sex education in 1960s Ireland, which Ciara Meehan highlighted in a recent blog post, made young women even more vulnerable.
The practice of adopting ‘illegitimate’ babies to the US continued until 1970. While it was illegal to pay for an adoption, the adoptive parents made generous and sometimes continued ‘donations’ and paid ‘expenses’. It cost $220 to send a child to the US; a considerable sum in today’s money. Photographs of children and babies were compiled to be sent to the US in a clever marketing technique by the religious orders. The families were thus generally wealthy and respected members of the US Catholic community. However interviews with several adopted children revealed that the lack of proper background checks on prospective parents meant that the children could end up in abusive situations. Interviews with Catriona Crowe of the National Archives of Ireland also revealed the scale of political collusion that made this mail order adoption system possible; in 1996 documents were discovered indicating that passports were systematically being provided to these babies and children in order to allow them to leave the country. The religious orders now offer little help to those trying to trace their birth families or adopted children, citing privacy laws as the reason for their refusal to release information.
The scandal of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, where the bodies of children who had died in the home were discovered in unmarked graves earlier this year, brought to light the systemic neglect of these poor and vulnerable children by both the religious institutions and the state. However as Lyndsey Earner Byrne Sean Lucey, Sarah-Anne Buckley and other historians pointed out during the debates about Tuam, the high mortality rates and harsh regimes at these homes were well known to the state and the media at the time. The scandal as it broke in 2014 was precisely that this was not the shocking discovery it seemed, as the facts had always been in plain view. As I am not a historian of twentieth century Ireland myself, I am curious to see what social historians of Ireland will say about this issue; should the extent of these systematic forced and paid for adoptions be news to us, or is this something that we have known about, but wilfully ignored, up to now?
The unique intermeshing of state and religion in independent Ireland is also worth noting. It seems easy to lay the blame for Ireland’s treatment of unmarried mothers and their children on Catholic morality. However, no such institutional system for dealing with such ‘moral transgressors’ existed in other predominantly Catholic, democratic nations. In 1960s Italy, the vast majority of the population described themselves as Catholic and Catholic morality exerted a strong influence on society; yet in my research on post-war Italy I’ve never come across anything in any way comparable to Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. What makes Ireland’s situation unique it seems, is the attitudes and the power afforded to religious orders and the collusion of a state unable or unwilling to provide for the welfare of those at the margins of society. Since both the Taoiseach/prime minister and the head of the Irish Catholic Church both refused to be interviewed for the documentary, it seems that this collusion and the Church’s unwillingness to face what happened in Ireland’s religious institutions is set to continue. Ireland’s Lost Babies is a difficult but important documentary to watch that will hopefully give further momentum to this discussion.
About the Author
Dr Niamh Cullen is an Irish Research Council CARA research fellow at the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin. She is a historian of modern Italy and her current research is concerned with gender, emotions and marriage in 1950s and 1960s Italy. She is also the author of Piero Gobetti’s Turin: Modernity, Myth and Memory (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011). She tweets at @niamhanncullen and blogs about her research here.