Monday 22 January 2018

'I thought people would help me find my birth mum, but all I got was rudeness, coldness' - Noelle Brown

Noelle Brown's 2013 Fringe Festival play about being born in a mother-and-baby home is about to find a much wider audience at our national theatre. In the wake of the Tuam babies, the playwright tells our reporter, it's more relevant than ever

Stigma: Noelle was born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in the 1960s and adopted when she was eight weeks old. Photo: Mark Condren
Stigma: Noelle was born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in the 1960s and adopted when she was eight weeks old. Photo: Mark Condren

Joanne Hayden

Noelle Brown didn't set out to write about being adopted. An actor since her early twenties, she started writing in her forties and her first play began as a piece about "house moves and stuff that you leave behind and what it does to you". But her own story kept surfacing and friend and collaborator Michèle Forbes urged her to pursue it.

"But I said, 'no, I'm not standing on stage talking about my life. There's absolutely no way'," she recalls.

With some additional prompting, she wrote a letter to her birth mother. That one letter became a series of letters and grew into Postscript, an account of her 12-year search for her identity which opens on the Peacock stage at Dublin's Abbey next week.

Brown always knew she was adopted. "My parents were great about that," she tells me when we meet up in the Abbey's Peacock café, which, at 9.30am, is already buzzing, "because at the time, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was still a huge stigma around it. So I grew up with that status of bad blood will out; you will screw up your life because your mother did. From society, not from my family."

Her two older brothers are not adopted and while her family was nurturing, she was aware of being different. "I don't physically look like them," she says.

They lived in Cork, just 20 minutes from the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home where, unbeknownst to her parents, she had been born.

"I was told I was born in Dublin and shipped to Cork."

As a child, she was quite shy and introverted but loved to perform and Ashton, her secondary school, had its own theatre. She got involved in amateur dramatics and, when she was 20, was in a semi-professional show with Jim Bartley and Twink. They sat her down and told her she should consider acting professionally. Then they sat her parents down.

Noelle moved to Dublin at 21 and after a six-week course in the Gaiety School of Acting, learned her craft "the old way, doing tiny parts, then bigger parts, watching and listening and hanging out with older actors".

Being an actor is a crazy life, she says, the uncertainty can be "really tricky", but she considers herself very privileged to have spent 30 years doing exactly what she wants to do.

Though she was always conscious of having been adopted, Noelle didn't start trying to trace her birth mother until she was 35.

"If I'd had children, I probably would have done it sooner because you're wondering about medical history, who they look like."

Her first contact was with a nun in Cork.

"I was going through a lot in my life at the time... I thought I could just pick up the phone and people would go, 'Of course, we'll help you'. But all I got was rudeness, coldness - a sense that I was trouble turning up at all."

Co-written with Forbes, Postscript is framed like a detective story. Brown is obsessed with detective novels but the framework also reflects how difficult it was to find the information she needed.

Following her conversation with the nun, she contacted Barnardos and slowly began to piece together the jigsaw of her birth.

"It's kind of still going on in a way," she says. "You never get all the answers."

The answers she did get are revealed in the play, which was initially staged as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2013.

When Neil Murray and Graham McLaren - the new joint directors of the Abbey - saw a subsequent play of hers, the three began a dialogue and she showed them Postscript.

At one point during the interview, McLaren bounds over and gives her a big hug. "This is good," he says. "This is such a good feeling."

It's clear he's talking about the imminent opening of the play, which is even timelier now than it was in 2013.

Brown's story is particularly poignant in light of what is now known about the mass grave at the former mother-and-baby home in Tuam. The Tuam revelations are horrific for any adopted person or birth mother in Ireland, Noelle says: "It really lashes you with grief and you feel like a bit of trash."

The site of the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home has yet to be excavated.

"Bessborough was a place of horror and I'm still trying to find out whether I was the subject of vaccine trials because they were going on while I was there."

Her birth mother was 18 when she went into the institution. It was 1965.

"Ironically, I have a photograph of the day she went in. It's her and her sister and some neighbours nearby. But I'm in that photograph and I always feel there's something lovely about that."

Eight weeks after she was born, Noelle was separated from her mother. They never met again. By the time she traced her birth family, her mother had died.

"It's a terrible full stop when you don't get to meet and there's a lot of unanswered questions. I've no information on my birth father. No one seems to know who he was. So I have half the story essentially."

She has met uncles, an aunt and a half-sister, some of whom went to see Postscript during the Fringe.

"They've been very supportive and very welcoming to me," she says. "But it's a hard situation. It's a hard situation to turn up after X amount of years and try to be part of a family."

Now 51, Brown has realised that adoption is not something she can put away.

"You learn to live with it... but it does create difficulties," she says.

In Ireland, the difficulties have been compounded by secrecy and obfuscation. She is passionate when talking about historic injustices and the inequality adopted people still experience.

Over the last year she has become an activist, speaking out about what she feels are the shortcomings of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill which recently came before the Seanad.

Under the terms of the legislation, Tusla - the Child and Family Agency - would operate the new adoption information register. In certain circumstances, an adopted person could be asked to sign a statutory declaration that they will never search for their birth parents.

"They are the two things that further stigmatise us and say 'you are a second-class citizen, you are not equal to the rest of us'," she says. "We already have that when we go looking for our birth certs."

Noelle didn't expect to become an activist but says she feels a certain responsibility; she has a voice and now, with Postscript about to open in the national theatre, a platform.

In 2015, the actress and plawright also spoke at the first Waking the Feminists meeting - convened in response to the Abbey's centenary programme, which included just one play by a woman. While she says "there's still a ways to go", she thinks Waking the Feminists has "changed the shape of things for everybody across the board".

But, she emphasises, she doesn't want special treatment because she's a woman. Since 2013, she has been working to get Postscript to a wider audience - even though doing the play is an emotional challenge.

"It's very personal," she says. "But I have to get the message across. I have to tell the story... The more people who come and see it, the more people hear an adopted person's narrative."

Postscript is on the Peacock stage at Dublin's Abbey Theatre June 15 - 24

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