Just before Christmas, John Rainey and his wife decided enough was enough. They had been trying to adopt a child but constantly shifting goalposts, endless red tape and mounting fees put an end to their dream.
The Sligo couple had managed to adopt a little girl, Anna, from Russia in 2008 and they had been hoping to give her a sibling. "The process was going nowhere," John says, "and we got so worn down by it, so disillusioned by getting nowhere, that we thought it was best not to pursue it any further. We knew we were just setting ourselves up for a fall.
"We wanted to ensure the focus was on our daughter, who has brought so much joy into our lives."
The Raineys' experience is echoed by hundreds of other couples around the country who find that trying to adopt a child can be an emotionally exhausting, bureaucratic nightmare that can drain funds. And there is no guarantee that all that time, effort and emotion will result in a successful adoption.
The willingness that some will go to was thrown into sharp relief this week when it emerged that unscrupulous agents in Mexico were procuring babies-to-order for wealthy parents in the US and Europe, including couples from Ireland. Arrests have been made and the spotlight was shone on the risks, legal and otherwise, that some desperate people will take in order to start a family.
And, on Monday night, RTÉ screened the controversial documentary Her Body, Our Babies which followed a fiftysomething Clare couple to India as they pursued the expensive surrogacy route, having been unsuccessful in their attempts to adopt a child. (See panel)
It has never been more difficult to adopt. Since The Hague Convention -- the child-centred laws which seek to regulate the process globally came into effect in late 2010 -- the number of countries open to Irish prospective parents has dwindled. This, coupled with increasing levels of domestic adoptions in those countries and strict laws here, have greatly reduced the chance of being able to adopt successfully.
In 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were 117 foreign adoptions.
Just four years earlier -- pre-Hague -- there were 387 adoptions. In 2008, 182 children were adopted by Irish people from Vietnam. By 2012, as a result of that country not being part of the Hague Convention, no children were adopted from there.
"On paper, Hague is a great thing," John says, "but in practice it has made it far more difficult than before to adopt -- and it had always been a long, involved process anyway. And yet, there are still a huge number of children in care worldwide who would almost certainly be better off in a family environment."
Lisa Fennessy and her husband, Michael, know more than most just how difficult it has been to adopt in the past three years. They were in the process of adopting a child from a Russian orphanage and had assumed that they would have the little boy, Alex, before October 31 last year.
That was the deadline the Government had given to those adopting from countries that are not signed up to Hague, including Russia. But when the Russian authorities changed a rule that stipulated that children for adoption would have to stay on a federal database for 12 months rather than the six months which had long been the case, Lisa and Michael -- and several other Irish couples -- found themselves facing the prospect of not being able to adopt after all.
"Luckily, the Government has supported us and we are hoping that the adoption of Alex can happen soon," Lisa says. "I don't want to tempt fate and put a time on it, because I won't relax until Alex is here with us in Ireland, but we are very hopeful it will happen.
"The final months of last year were incredibly stressful when Russia changed its rules and we had many sleepless nights hoping that the Government would extend the deadline. We had met Alex for the first time in June of last year and really bonded with him over the few days we were there. We have another son, Lee, whom we had adopted from Vietnam and we wanted to be able to give him a sibling."
Shane and Breege Clarke, from Ballylynan, Co Laois, adopted a boy and girl, John and Le, from Vietnam in 2006 and 2008, respectively. "Ireland had a bilateral agreement in place with Vietnam," says Shane, "and while there were some difficult moments, especially when we were adopting John, there's no doubt that it is a lot harder to adopt now than it was then.
"Nobody enters into adoption lightly, but you really have to prepare yourself for several years of ups and downs. There are very thorough checks put in place first and a social worker is assigned to you. You have to wait for a declaration [of suitability] and then a referral [to meet a specific child]. There's an awful lot of paperwork, too."
The Clarkes spent the best part of six years securing the adoptions of John and Le.
For others, time is running out. Seán and Una Kelly, from Galway, are in their early 50s and have become resigned to the fact they may never have the family they dream of. "It's not just the bureaucracy," Seán says, "but the huge fees that agents are looking for. We've already spent thousands, and then all of a sudden, we're asked to pay another €12,000."
The Kellys' hopes could be quashed once and for all if Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald puts into law the recommendation from the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) that the prospective parents' ages be capped at 42. Such a ruling would cause heartache to hundreds: it is thought that the majority of people in Ireland seeking adoptions are in their 40s with more than four in 10 above 45.
When contacted by Weekend Review, acting CEO of the AAI Kiernan Gildea said he did not want to comment on the controversial age cap, suggesting instead that interested parties look at the annual report for 2012 which makes the recommendation on age.
Shane Downer, director of the Dublin-based ARC Adoption agency, says such an age ceiling does not take into account the fact that most people who seek adoptions tend to do so in their late 30s or 40s when they have exhausted all other options, including the costly course of IVF. "It's also a time in which they have the financial wherewithal to attempt to adopt," he says.
ARC charges clients €15,650, of which roughly €2,000 of that is refundable. A set amount goes to Bulgaria -- the country that the agency operates in -- with €8,500 going to ARC, according to Downer.
Tortuous as the process may be, those who have managed to start a family thanks to adoption say all the pain was worth it.
"When we talk about the difficulties in adoption," Lisa says, "we shouldn't lose sight about what a wonderful thing it is to be able to give children who need it a whole new life. It brings such great positives for the child and the adoptive parents."