Tuesday 24 April 2018

'Tuam is just the tip of the iceberg' - man born in mother and baby home examines Ireland's 'adoption machine'

Paul Redmond has played a lead role in ­exposing the inhumanity of Ireland's mother and baby home system. He told our reporter that ­Tuam's mass grave is just the tip of the iceberg

Secrets and lies: Author Paul Redmond outside the site of the former mother and baby home at St Gerard's, 39 Mountjoy Square, Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Secrets and lies: Author Paul Redmond outside the site of the former mother and baby home at St Gerard's, 39 Mountjoy Square, Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
The Adoption Machine by Paul J Redmond
John Meagher

John Meagher

Paul Redmond was 21 before the shadow that had been following him for his entire life started to take shape. It was then that he discovered the name of the woman who had given birth to him in the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home, Co Westmeath, in 1964.

She was Adeline, she was from the northside of Dublin and, he was told, she was 21 when he was born - although he later learned that she had, in fact, been 20.

"I vividly recall that day," he says. "I was told in St James's Hospital by a social worker and she sat there with my file and I thought, 'That's my whole life - and I want it!' There isn't an adoptee that hasn't sat there and not thought 'Give that file to me - that's my life'."

It was a moment of joy - one that he'd thought about for years before that fateful moment in 1985. "I remember getting out of the hospital and literally running across to the sunny side of the street and singing Van Morrison's 'Bright Side of the Road' to myself. I was so happy."

But the satisfaction of finally learning something about his mother would not bring the sort of happiness he dreamed of. Years later, when he had eventually tracked her down, he was devastated to discover that she wanted nothing to do with him. The trauma of giving him up had been so great that she had blocked much of the memory out and she simply wanted to get on with the rest of her life.

Today, Paul Redmond is at peace with that. He is happily married to Siobhán and has two children who light up his life, and he no longer has to dwell on what might have been. "I'm actually luckier than most adoptees in that I found out who my natural mother was and I got to speak to her, even if it was by phone and only for 40 minutes," he says. "So many people never get to find out that much - and they have to live their entire lives not knowing how their mother was."

Redmond was adopted at 17 days by a Dublin couple - who, he says, were the sort of parents any adoptee might dream of. "My father died in 2015 and I miss him terribly every day, but I really was one of the lucky ones - I had a great upbringing."

He has just written a book about the nine mother and baby homes known to have existed in Ireland, and while he doesn't shirk from telling his own story, The Adoption Machine is cut from very different cloth from Martin Sixsmith's The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which went on to become the hit movie, Philomena. Redmond's book is more an academic study of the institutions that were part of Ireland's dark and - for much of the 20th century - secret history. And it's utterly engrossing.

The Adoption Machine examines, in great detail, the scale of the mother and baby home industry, the shocking mortality rates in these makeshift maternity hospitals and the illegal adoption trade that separated mothers from their babies and netted religious orders millions of euro in today's money.

It also looks at the mass grave scandal at the Tuam mother and baby home - a story that has disgraced Ireland internationally - and presents evidence that suggests the nationwide picture is far, far worse.

Painstaking work

"Tuam is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "It was the fourth or fifth biggest of nine homes. Somewhere like St Patrick's [Dublin], you're looking at least over 2,000 dead there - or up to 3,000 if you go right back to 1900 [when it opened, although information is sketchy for its first 20 years]. We know now that at least 200 died in Castlepollard. Bethany [Dublin] is at over 250. Sean Ross [Roscrea, Co Tipperary] - we're sure of 800. Bessborough [Cork] will certainly run to over 1,200 - maybe even 2,000.

"For years, I was going around this town like a crazy conspiracy theorist, banging on about thousands of dead children - and people were going, 'Yeah, right'. I went to politicians and garda stations and journalists, and some people took an interest, but by and large it was just dismissed. Now, I keep saying, 'Thank God for Catherine Corless'."

The Galway woman was the one who brought Tuam to the world's attention thanks to painstaking work tracing all 800 babies who had died there. She paid €4 for each death certificate.

"Catherine's extraordinary, and so are people like Derek Leinster who did so much work on the [Church of Ireland-run] Bethany House. What people mightn't appreciate is that mother and baby homes were terribly secretive. Files were destroyed, and for years very little was known about them. They were often behind high walls and nobody really knew what went on there. It took a lot of digging - I mean none of us knew until recently that a mother and baby home called St Gerard's [Mountjoy Square, Dublin] existed. It only operated for six years in the 1930s."

He rejects the notion, frequently espoused over the past three decades, that the deeply religious Irish society at the time was complicit in the shame. After all, single mothers were treated appallingly for most of the 20th century in this country and with abortion prohibited, many felt there was no option but to "go to the nuns" when they became pregnant.

"The vast majority of the public didn't know what was going on," he says. "They knew there were terrible places but they didn't realise that the horror behind the walls was because of the church. They had assumed the clergy were just doing their best. They thought the people in them were the problem.

"Places like Castlepollard and Sean Ross were off the beaten track and the nuns kept to themselves. I mean, the nuns at Castlepollard did their grocery shopping in Dublin - they had very little interaction with the locals."

He says mortality rates were exorbitant, especially in the 1920s and 1930s - with more than 60pc of babies dying at Bessborough in one year alone. "They weren't hospitals. They didn't have doctors or nurses. And, I'll say it out loud, they just didn't care who lived or died. But they started to care when they realised they could sell the babies, and once the adoption business really got off the ground, the mortality rate went way down. Suddenly, these babies had a monetary value - and they were keen to cash in on that."

Redmond has campaigned for years, but the book was difficult to write - especially when it came to talking about his own situation. "You have to remember that there was such a stigma to being born illegitimate in this country. Back then, you couldn't join the guards if you were born out of wedlock and certain professions were closed off to you, too." (Canon Law prohibited illegitimates from joining the priesthood until the rule was repealed in 1983).

He is angered by the dithering of the Government when it comes to redress for victims of mother and baby homes. "It's shameful that the Government won't accept what happened and say, 'We will look after you guys now'. I'm very angry about that. One of our great comrades was Victor Stevenson and he was in Westbank Orphanage [Co Wicklow] - Victor died suddenly of a heart attack. That man has gone to his grave without getting justice and that breaks my heart."

He believes campaigners like him have been fobbed off repeatedly. "Even since the Tuam story came out in 2014, there's been no sign of apology or redress or even medical cards. There's been no acknowledgement, nothing - and our people are dying.

"I genuinely believe that this is an attempt to reduce the bill by the government in general. I think some politicians have been decent, like James Reilly. Justice delayed is justice denied to all those people who have died. If you're going to do the decent thing, for Christ's sake, just get on and do it."

He has been disheartened by the lack of action from the Taoiseach. "In an ideal world, I'd love Leo Varadkar to stand up in the Dáil and go 'I accept that these people went through hell. I apologise for what they went through and we are going to offer them a redress package that will make their final years of life better."

Redmond believes any redress packages should begin with the mothers first. "Start with them first and then move down to adoptees - and do it in some sort of order where there's some kind of decency involved and, for Christ's sake, get on with it.

"The waiting is sickening and unjust and incredibly frustrating. All that's lacking in this country is political will and that's why I point the finger specifically at Leo Varadkar and [children's minister] Katherine Zappone. It could be sorted out very quickly, but all they do is stall, stall, stall - and by doing so, they are radically reducing the bill. For both the Church and the Government, it's all down to money."

Is he concerned about people becoming apathetic to his cause? "I think there's a worry of that for sure," he says. "How much of that stuff can you deal with it before you just can't handle any more?

"The general public have been battered by this. You'd the horrors of Brendan Smyth and [Seán] Fortune, of Ferns [diocese] and the revelation that not only were the priests doing it, but they were moving them around.

"Then there was the detail that emerged about the abuses in the industrial schools and the Magdalene laundries, the 'banished babies', the Mary Raftery documentary [States of Fear], the Ryan Report… it seems to be never-ending. But we have to face up to the horrors of our own past."

Redmond is concerned that younger people - who are growing up in an increasingly secular Ireland - are simple unaware of how bad the old days used to be. "I don't wish to generalise, but a lot of young people simply aren't interested," he says. "They're on their phones all the time, looking at the latest hashtag and fad, and, unfortunately some of them don't have a grasp of the historical context or the slightest comprehension about how oppressive this country was, particularly in the countryside."

One senses Paul Redmond will never give up fighting for justice. "There are a lot of parallels with the Holocaust - that idea of dehumanising people and the sense that anyone who survives has a duty to bear witness.

"This book is my way to bear witness, a rage against the machine and an attempt to do something. It's to make people realise that this is not just about 800 babies in Tuam, but about the living survivors, too. And those people have to take precedence over the dead."

The Adoption Machine by Paul Jude Redmond (published by ­Merrion Press), is out now, €16.99

Adoption trade in numbers

35,000

the estimated number of women who were in mother and baby homes between the foundation of the state in 1922 and when the last of them, Bessborough, closed in 1996.

6,000

the estimated number of babies who died at mother and baby homes in the time period above and are buried in mass 'angel graves'. Paul Redmond says Tuam is "the tip of the iceberg".

20,000

the estimated number of women who gave birth in workhouses and 'country homes', as various facilities outside the mother and baby home model were colloquially known, since 1900.

34.4pc

the illegitimate baby mortality rate in 1923. By contrast, the mortality rate for those born in wedlock was 6.6pc that year.

2,051

the number of babies and children in 20 nationwide 'care' institutions, including mother and baby homes, who were subjected to vaccine trials between 1930 and 1935.

£8.50

the weekly allowance for 'unmarried mothers' introduced in 1973 after years of campaigning - it would help end the stigma surrounding illegitimacy and hasten the end of the mother and baby homes. Some, including Tuam and Sean Ross, had already closed by then.

Source: The Adoption Machine

Indo Review

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News