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'I reached out to Bridie from my cot with my bandaged fingers, and it was love at first sight on both our parts' - Joan Burton reveals three decade search for her birth story and fight for change

Joan Burton recalls the casual brutality of how Ireland treated unmarried mothers and their babies


Joan Burton hopes the commission will give adopted people the right to their own information. Photo: Frank McGrath

Joan Burton hopes the commission will give adopted people the right to their own information. Photo: Frank McGrath

Joan Burton hopes the commission will give adopted people the right to their own information. Photo: Frank McGrath

My adoptive mother, Bridie King Burton, told me everything she knew about adoptions, orphanages, mother and baby homes, baby homes and institutions for children.

One comment she made has always stuck in my mind.

Children, she said, died like flies in those places.

This week the Report of the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes will reveal in forensic detail just how true that remark was.

We will learn that 9,000 children died in the care of those homes.

Bridie met me as a lively two-year-old in the Sisters of Charity baby home at Temple Hill in Blackrock, Co Dublin.

From there, the St Patrick’s Adoption Society gave babies to Catholic adopters from Ireland and America.

Apparently, I reached out to Bridie from my cot with my bandaged fingers, and it was love at first sight on both our parts. Both she and her older sister, my auntie Maggie, told me that the bandaged fingers were to stop me sucking my thumbs and finger. Sadly, by the time I was 20, Bridie was dead from cancer. But when I started my quest for my own birth story, it turned out that what she told me was amazingly accurate.

Ireland is one of the few countries in the world which still resolutely denies adopted people the legal right to their own information and files.

Ironically, the writ of the supreme ecclesiastic of modern Ireland, Dr John Charles McQuaid, who was the essential overseer of adoption practice and law in Ireland, still runs.

Both Church and State set out to erect barriers akin to the fabled Walls of Jericho to people who wanted simple answers to their questions of identity.

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For me, and for many of the 50,000-plus people adopted after legal adoption was introduced in the early 1950s, the journey of discovery took almost three decades.

In my search for my own story, I sat repeatedly in rooms under holy pictures of Gentle Jesus Little Lamb, meeting nice nuns and difficult nuns. I recall one who almost shouted at me: “What do you want? Haven’t you got two arms and two legs – go home. I promised your mother on this side of the grave I’d never tell.”

By the time I was finally given information I was in my fifties, had graduated, married, given birth, served as a TD and minister.

I had started the search in my mid-20s, about to get married. I sent a letter to the adoption society to pass on to the parish priest of the church where I had been baptised, to let my birth mother know I was alive and well and getting married. A year or so later, the letter was returned unopened by the society.

The casual brutality of Ireland’s systems for dealing with – to use the language of the day – unmarried mothers and illegitimate babies, was cruel beyond belief. This week’s report of the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes will be a landmark event.

The report will reveal, particularly to a new generation of younger people, what Ireland once did to women who had the audacity to love outside of marriage and to bear children who had to be “given up”.

It will give us as a society an opportunity to ask why this form of brutality was tolerated for so long.

Or was this the religious madness of an Irish Salem for whom sex outside of marriage was an abomination and the child of such a union illegitimate?

I hope the commission will recommend that adopted people have the basic right to information and to see their files, as children in most countries can once they reach 18 years of age.

As a politician, it has been my privilege and responsibility to be a campaigner for key social changes in Ireland — divorce, marriage equality, and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. But the right of adopted people to their own information has never been conceded.

It is amazing that this legacy remains in an era of so much progressive change. I do hope the commission will address this astonishing omission.

Perhaps sometime too, we’ll also get the full story of the American adoptions and why hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of babies in Irish institutions were shipped to America. Did money change hands, and how much?

One of the stories that Bridie always told me was that I was meant to go to America, but wasn’t strong enough and the arrangements for my adoption to the US fell through twice.

When I asked about this, it was vehemently and repeatedly denied, until finally in the late 1990s I was called to another meeting with St Patrick’s Guild. Lo and behold, what was taken from my file but an Irish passport for me as a child with an entry visa to Newfoundland and the US.

On that day when Bridie came to Temple Hill, there were two possible paths in life for me, one to the unspeakable cruelties of a Magdalene Laundry when I came of age, the other through adoption into a loving and caring family, one which ultimately led to the office of Tánaiste.

This week will bring many tears, as did the earlier Ryan and Murphy Reports. I will welcome the public apologies and justifiable redress schemes.

I will welcome even more the essential law reforms that must come as the true memorial to Ireland’s banished babies.

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