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Tuesday 16 July 2019

'Nuns handed me wrong baby and gave mine away'

Mother's shocking discovery as DNA test reveals baby that nuns handed back to her half a century ago is not her biological daughter

Together: Helen Maguire and her daughter Christine Skipsey. Picture: Damien Eagers
Together: Helen Maguire and her daughter Christine Skipsey. Picture: Damien Eagers
Happy images from the family album of Christine’s childhood
Happy images from the family album of Christine’s childhood
Helen Maguire and her daughter Christine pictured in Ireland. Picture credit; Family Picture
Helen Maguire's daughter, Christine. Photo: Family Picture
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Tears welled in her eyes as Christine Skipsey recalled the moment her world was turned upside down.

For the first 51 years of her life, the mother-of-two never for a moment questioned her own identity. But last summer, following considerable publicity about the illegal adoption scandal in Ireland, she and the woman she always knew as "mum", Helen Maguire, decided to get DNA tests.

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Helen did not give up her child for adoption, but she did place her for six weeks with the now infamous St Patrick's Guild, which ran an adoption society in Blackrock, Co Dublin, until the 1980s.

The then single mother did this on the advice of "singing priest" Fr Michael Cleary to allow her to get her affairs in order following the birth.

Just over half-a-century later, amid revelations of illegal adoptions and irregularities with birth registrations at St Patrick's, questions arose in Helen's mind.

She had dark hair while Christine had blonde hair and blue eyes and didn't particularly resemble her.

Getting the DNA test done was a simple process and it was something they initially laughed about.

After ordering the kit online last July, they took swabs from the inside of their mouths and posted them to a laboratory. The results came back a few days later and were a major shock. They revealed with 99.9pc certainty Helen was not Christine's mother.

"I felt very lonely," Christine said, her voice choked with emotion as she recalled reading the results.

"I honestly never thought it would come back like that."

Happy images from the family album of Christine’s childhood
Happy images from the family album of Christine’s childhood

For Helen, the outcome was equally devastating. "I just couldn't believe it," she said.

For them, the results point to only one possible explanation - that Helen was given the wrong baby by the nuns who ran St Patrick's when she went to collect Christine all those years ago.

Since getting the DNA results last July, both women have been on a journey to get to the truth, with Helen (71) determined to find the daughter she gave birth to and Christine (52) seeking to find out who she really is.

Speaking to the Irish Independent in Helen's kitchen in Co Westmeath, it is clear both have endured an emotional rollercoaster over the past 11 months.

Happy images from the family album of Christine’s childhood
Happy images from the family album of Christine’s childhood

Also unmistakable is the close bond that remains between them. "Christine will always be my daughter as far as I am concerned. She is still my baby and I love Christine to bits," said Helen.

The story began in 1966 when 18-year-old Helen Carew, as she was then known, left her family farm near New Inn, Co Tipperary, to work in the Avenue Hotel in Dún Laoghaire.

"I felt very lonely," Christine said, "I honestly never thought it would come back like that."

The third eldest of eight children, she grew up in a staunchly Catholic environment. Helen became pregnant while working in Dún Laoghaire, but says when she told the father he brought her to meet a priest and they urged her to go into a mother and baby home. "My reply to them was to go to hell and I walked away," she said.

Helen was determined to keep her baby but was afraid to tell her family about her pregnancy.

She believed her father, Pat, would have forced her to give the child up for adoption and was aware of a stigma surrounding single mothers.

Helen Maguire's daughter, Christine. Photo: Family Picture
Helen Maguire's daughter, Christine. Photo: Family Picture

Growing up she had heard talk of women being put into homes and having their babies taken away from them.

Instead of going home, Helen sailed to England on a cattle boat, picking up work in a pub in Kent.

However, she soon left that job after two men who knew her father came into the pub one day.

A jobs agency in London sent her to see Fr Cleary, who was chaplain to the Irish community in Kilburn and Camden. He helped her get work as a telephonist at the President Hotel on Russell Square.

In the years that followed, Fr Cleary became one of Ireland's most high-profile clerics, appearing regularly on television, hosting a radio talk show and writing newspaper columns.

After his death in 1993, it was revealed he had fathered two children with his housekeeper, Phyllis Hamilton.

Helen said that back in 1966 "everybody knew" Fr Cleary was sleeping with the young Irish women he helped to find work. "It wasn't harmless. I just thought: He's a priest. How can he do things like that?" she said.

Nevertheless, she found Fr Cleary "lovely" and "charming" and felt she could trust him.

Helen gave birth at the Royal Free Hospital on Liverpool Road in Islington on November 25, 1966 and named the child Christine.

After her daughter was born, she wanted to go home to visit her family but needed somewhere to leave her baby while she did so.

According to Helen, Fr Cleary suggested she leave the child at St Patrick's Guild, or Temple Hill as it was also known, which was run by the Religious Sisters of Charity.

"He thought I was giving the baby up for adoption. I thought I would go along with that for a bit because if they knew I wasn't giving her up for adoption, they wouldn't have taken her," she said.

Helen said she gave Fr Cleary the money for her airfare and was instructed to buy several sets of expensive baby clothes. These had to be in neutral colours and they could not be blue or pink.

She said she was met at the airport by a woman known to Fr Cleary who drove her to St Patrick's.

Records show Helen's baby was admitted to St Patrick's on December 3, 1966. The intake form shows Helen made an initial payment of £21 and noted her parents were "not aware" of the baby.

The form included the handwritten note: "Girl went to London when she discovered she was pregnant. Girl intends to keep the child."

On returning home, Helen confided in her mother Joan about the birth and they both went to visit the baby in Dublin a week later. It would appear the nuns took Helen's intention to keep the baby with a pinch of salt as she was presented with adoption forms, which she refused to sign.

Helen recalled the nuns were initially nice to her but their demeanour changed and they became "quite horrible" when it became clear she really was not putting the baby up for adoption.

After the visit Helen went back to London on her own, where she set about finding a place for her and the baby to live. She sent money to St Patrick's each week for Christine's care.

On January 5, 1967 she wrote to Sr Xaveria, the nun she was dealing with, saying she would collect her daughter on January 19. The baby would have been there for six weeks by that date.

Her mother accompanied her again to St Patrick's to collect Christine, but Helen felt something was wrong.

"I went in and they brought me over to this basket and I said to them: 'That's not Christine.' But they said it was," she recalled.

"I said: 'Christine was born with black hair. When I brought her in here she had black hair'.

"'All babies are born with black hair' is the answer they gave me. So like an idiot, I believed them. I never thought about it. Back then you believed what the priests and nuns said to you."

Helen returned to London with the baby and married a co-worker later that year. They went on to have two boys and a girl. Christine was brought up as part of the family.

But the marriage ended in divorce and Helen remarried and moved back to Ireland with her second husband, David, around 20 years ago, settling near Kinnegad.

Christine now lives in Hertfordshire, north of London, with her husband and works as a secretary in an estate agency.

Before the DNA test, Christine never once had an ounce of doubt that Helen was her mother.

"Even when mum mentioned it last July, I just laughed," she said.

Since then they have both been scrambling for answers.

"For me, it was all about identity, because obviously I didn't have a birthday, I didn't have a name. I didn't have anything," said Christine.

They got in contact with Tusla, which has had the records from St Patrick's Guild since 2016, and sought the assistance of Dublin law firm, Coleman Legal Partners, which has several clients affected by the St Patrick's Guild scandal.

Norman Spicer, a solicitor with the firm, said he had come across "some considerably egregious actions" at St Patrick's, but Helen and Christine's case was "exceptional" and "unique".

The interaction with Tusla is ongoing and Christine has received information indicating where she was born and her real date of birth.

According to Helen and Christine, Tusla has also identified a woman it believes to be Helen's birth daughter.

As an infant she was admitted to St Patrick's on the same day as Christine and was subsequently adopted by a Dublin couple.

Many questions remain unanswered though and it is still unclear if the switching of the babies was intentional or a mistake.

Arrangements have been put in place for Helen to meet her birth daughter in the near future.

"I want to meet her because I know what Christine is going through and she is probably going through the same thing," said Helen.

"Her life has probably been turned upside down like Christine's life has been turned upside down.

"I am going to apologise to her and tell her it wasn't my fault, that I was told when I collected my daughter that she was my daughter.

"I believed what the nuns told me. And I just feel sorry for the girl as well and I am going to apologise to her.

"It is something I have got to live with now for the rest of my life."

Queries were submitted to the Religious Sisters of Charity about Helen and Christine's case, but it was unable to provide a response before publication.

Irish Independent

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