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Monday 28 July 2014

Maeve Sheehan: Joan Burton was a TD when she found her mother - but too late

Children from the homes tales of success and the need for change

Maeve Sheehan

Published 15/06/2014|00:47

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FAMILY: Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton
FAMILY: Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton as a child with mother Bridie Burton and brother Paul; Joan was supposed to travel to America to be adopted but was thought to be too weak for the journey and instead found a happy home with Bridie Burton in Dublin. Photo: David Conachy

Labour leadership candidate shares her story with Maeve Sheehan and tells of tracing her family and the journey |to find her birth mother

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THERE are thousands of photographs of Joan Burton, but only one of when she was a baby. The sole pictorial record of her infancy is on a very old passport which is stamped with entry visas, one for Newfoundland and one for the United States. She was probably just months old when the Sisters of Charity applied for it, expecting to ship her across the Atlantic to be adopted by a Canadian or an American family.

She was a thin child and it was thought she wasn’t strong enough for the journey. The nuns arranged for her to be “boarded out” with three different families until, at the age of two, her adoptive mother, Bridie Burton, came to the convent in Blackrock, gathered her in her arms with joy and took her home to Rialto Cottages in Dublin 8.

From that one bedroom artisan dwelling, Joan Burton prospered. She won a scholarship to UCD; had a career in accountancy. After 25 years in politics she is Minister for Social Protection and is in a contest with her government colleague, Alex White, to be the next leader of the Labour Party.

Despite her political connections, her journey to find her birth mother was no different than thousands of others born to unmarried mothers or parents too poor to feed them. It was a road littered with bureaucracy, secrecy and long and frustrating delays. Now 65, she saw her passport for the first time more than a decade ago, around the time she also finally found out who her mother was.

“It is difficult looking back with the openness of society now... to understand quite how private these matters were then. When I say private, I mean extraordinarily private,” she told the Sunday Independent.

‘I was, like a lot of adopted people, incredibly lucky to find a second home where I was absolutely loved’

She has highlighted her difficulties in unravelling her history before and now she is raising them again, in light of a local historian’s discovery that 796 babies died at Tuam mother and baby home, their burial place undocumented.

The scandal is the latest from the annals of Ireland’s cruel social history to generate a Commission of Inquiry into how women and their babies were treated in the religious run homes where mothers cast out from society were sent to have babies they were forced to give up for adoption — if the infant survived.

Government departments have begun gathering all of their records. Joan Burton’s has a significant role to play. The General Records Office, which holds records of births, deaths and marriages, comes under her remit in the Department of Social Protection. This weekend, the GRO released for the first time, the deeply moving register that names every single baby who died in the Tuam institution.

“I think the first thing that is important is to use the historical and archive material to establish what happened. The second thing that I would ask is that people who are probably elderly now who live in Tuam and the surrounding area . . . I think they should be encouraged as well to tell what they know,” she said.

“I think the critical thing is that the remains of the babies who died, and indeed the women who died in the home, should be treated with respect.”

As a child born to an unmarried mother, Joan Burton came close to following the tragic trajectory of many children of that era.

But her mother was not banished to a home, she gave birth to Joan at the family home in Carlow. She was taken to St Patrick’s Infant Hospital in Temple Hill in Blackrock when she was a couple of months old. Babies were sent there before being adopted out through St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin. The agency sent 572 babies to the US for adoption between the 1940s and the 1970s.

“I’ve always considered myself born under a lucky star. I might have had a difficult start. But I was like a lot of adopted people incredibly lucky to find a second home where I was absolutely loved and cherished,” she said.

It is Friday in a coffee shop in the Phoenix Park not far from where she lives, and Joan Burton talks matter of factly about unravelling her past. She isn’t given to sentimentality but found it a hugely emotional “journey” and there is much love expressed for the birth family she has found and the ones who raised her.

During her “blissfully happy” years in Rialto Cottages, she remembers her mother and her neighbours pleading with her to eat when she was around four years old. They would take turns, coaxing and plying her with tonics to build her up, which in those days included Guinness, which she now loathes.

Another strong memory is of a number of ladies coming to visit her and looking around the house. Years later, poring through records, she connected the memories: the ladies were social workers, her adoption wasn’t yet signed off, and her mother worried that Joan would be “taken away” because she was such a thin child.

Bridie Burton died when Joan was 20.

“She told whatever she knew. She told me about going up to Temple Hill. She told me about meeting the nun and her joy at taking me home as a baby,” she said. She told her also that she had been intended to go to America and that that hadn’t worked out. I wasn’t probably the strongest child, hence the neighbours feeding me and I was very, very thin,” she said.

She began the search for her birth mother in earnest in her middle twenties. She had met her husband, Pat Carroll, by then through the Labour Party, and they planned on getting married.

“What prompted me really was actually to just write (to her birth mother) and say I’d like you to send a message that I’m ok. By then I had been through university. I was working in what nowadays is Price Waterhouse. I just wanted to send a message to say, I’m ok, I’m alive and I’m happy,” she said.

Her letter was returned. But it started her on a long road. She eventually met a nun who seemed to know who her mother was.

“She said I was from a farming background, that my mother wanted the best for me and that the best was to be adopted, and that... a promise had been given to my mother that her confidentiality would never, ever be breached.”

She said: “Essentially what you were told was look, you’ve been adopted, you have a lovely family, true, now just go off and be happy.”

By the end of that decade, the culture had shifted, several social workers were then working in St Patrick’s Guild, one in particular who was “enormously helpful” in getting Joan’s files.

“After quite a number of visits to the society over a fairly lengthy period of time, they started to give me different pieces of information from my file. One of them, contrary to what was indicated earlier, was that I had been meant to go to America and I saw my passport that I had as a small baby, just stamped with entry visas for Newfoundland and for the United States.”

‘Several people have said to me, we always knew you’d come back, and hugged me’

By the time she discovered her mother’s identity, she was dead — around the time she was first elected to the Dail. She attempted to make an approach to her birth relatives through the local priests. She was of course, a national figure, a Labour politician often on the telly.

“They were just very surprised at the whole idea,” she said.

She was given the name of a woman in America, a first cousin of Joan’s birth mother, who was separately trying to trace |relatives back in Ireland. She had no idea of Joan’s existence

“Eventually through her I made contact locally with a number of relations of my mother, cousins and nephews and nieces and met them, and you know they’ve been incredibly nice to me,” she said.

She pieced together fragments of her mother’s life, and her own history. She learnt that her mother was a farmer, who had two brothers. She never married but remained on the farm after giving birth to Joan. Her father was a cousin of her mother’s, and also never married. He had also died.

“She stayed there, and she lived there all her life. She was very well regarded and very much loved as well,” said Joan.

“There would have been a very small group of people who would have known that she had had a child. I met her eldest brother over a period of a year or two. By then, to be honest, he was very, very elderly. He talked a little bit, but not a huge amount. He talked about her and obviously absolutely adored her. I got the impression that she was very much loved by her family.”

She met cousins, and other people who knew her mother.

“I met elderly women in farmhouses and people who have burst into tears and said look, those were just such different times and nobody would do that now but they were different times,” she said.

“They’ve often said, and several people have said to me, we always knew you’d come back, and just hugged me. And of course, that’s been very moving for me.”

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