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Thursday 23 January 2020

'I was dismissed. The word 'illegitimate' is on my papers' - Evanne Ní Chuilinn tells her adoption story

RTÉ star Evanne Ní Chuilinn tells Tanya Sweeney why legislation to allow adopted people like her access to birth information must not delay

Roots: Evanne Ní Chuilinn met her birth mother when
she was in her teens. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Roots: Evanne Ní Chuilinn met her birth mother when she was in her teens. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Tanya Sweeney

Growing up, Evanne Ní Chuilinn couldn't have wished for a more loving, caring and supportive family. She also knew from a young age about her 'second mum' - Mary, the woman who gave birth to her and had her adopted by Kilkenny-based Cathal and Catherine Cullen.

Yet when the RTÉ sports journalist was growing up, she couldn't help but notice the small differences between herself and her family. Where Evanne is blonde and statuesque, for instance, her sister Aine was "much shorter, and looked like Audrey Hepburn".

"I had friends who hated looking like their siblings, but if you grow up in your family of origin or birth, you don't realise what you would be missing," Evanne reflects. "When I was 16, you have the general insecurity of being a teenager, especially in an all-girls' school, which is when I became really self-conscious about being tall, curious to know more about who I am."

As an adopted child, Evanne knows she is one of the lucky ones. Mary was 'an open book' and also eager to make contact. At 19, she met Mary and the two enjoy a close relationship: "We're more like sisters if anything, but to me, Mam is my mam."

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When she met Mary after she finished her Leaving Cert, some puzzle pieces finally fell into place: where Evanne's family were largely artistic and academic, many in Mary's family shared Evanne's passion for sport.

"We had a brilliant first meeting and it was a really emotional room to walk into," Evanne recalls. "We chatted so long that I missed the last bus to Kilkenny.

"It's been a very positive journey, and everyone in this equation goes to counselling at various stages. When I went to Ballyporeen [where Mary is based], I met loads of new cousins. I've been to loads of their weddings in the last while.

"I can't explain the sense of calm and contentment, and just feeling less 'other', that I had," Evanne recalls.

It's the feeling that 60,000 adopted people in Ireland have longed for, but because of current legislation, can still only dream of. Many of them were adopted at a time in Ireland when, thanks to the stranglehold of Catholic beliefs, unmarried mothers were stigmatised and shunned by their families and communities. We like to think of that culture as being with O'Leary in the grave, but adoptees in Ireland observe that they're still being deeply hurt by Ireland's closed, secret adoption system.

In a new TG4 documentary Uchtú: Evanne Ni Chuilinn, the presenter takes a dive into the current situation regarding adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents. In interviews with lawmakers, activists and those on all sides of the adoption triangle, she uncovers the human side of the ongoing, and increasingly complicated, debate.

Sixtysomething grandmother Catherine O'Sullivan has been searching in vain for access to her own origin story, but her birth mother has refused to meet with her. After decades of dead ends and fruitless efforts, she turns to DNA testing kits in a bid to find at least one blood relative that she can call her own.

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'These people were dismissed. I was. The word 'illegitimate' is written on my paperwork' - RTE's Evanne shares her adoption story on TG4's programme Uchtú: Evanne Ní Chuilinn

It provides comfort for Catherine, but as Evanne notes: "The problem with DNA testing is that it's utterly unregulated and there's no support for people, especially those who are particularly vulnerable in their search."

Dolores Quinlan found out almost by chance that she was adopted on her 15th birthday, and was horrified to realise that her adoption was an 'illegal' one. She, too, is hoping to have her identity recognised by the State.

Sheila O'Byrne became pregnant at 20, ended up at the same Mother and Baby home in Dublin that Evanne herself came from. In the documentary, she reveals the stigma she suffered following the birth of her mixed-race baby.

Patricia Casey, as an adoptive mother and psychologist, articulates the rights of a birth mother's privacy in the debate. "I can understand when Patricia spoke about clients who are terrified of dragging up the past, but when a baby is the only person who had no control or agency at all in this scenario, to put it back on that person is really unfair to me," says Evanne. "I could never get on board with protecting secrecy."

For Evanne, there's a personal slant to the documentary, too. She makes a highly emotional visit to the site of another Mother and Baby Home, in Tuam. She also realises that there is a 'gap' of four months between her birth and her adoption by the Cullens that remains a mystery to her, and to her birth mother and parents.

"When my first child got to four months, it really hit me that we'd bonded so much, imagine landing [on a family] at four months," she notes.

And, when she starts looking for specific answers, Evanne comes up against a labyrinthine tangle of paperwork and jargon that would likely put off less hardy souls.

"Some of the wording in the letter from Tusla [that I received] would be very scary to read on a page," she reflects. "These people were dismissed. I was. The word 'illegitimate' is written on my paperwork. The name Fiona was given to me. To be so flippant like that…"

Evanne's hope is to put pressure on the Government to finally enshrine in law the right of an adopted person to access their information.

As it stands, many adoptees are currently unable to access birth certificates listing their birth parents' names due to legal obstacles, including a constitutional right to privacy on the part of the parents.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Seamus Woulfe cleared the way for a new law that would favour the release of birth information to adopted people for the first time.

evanne adoption 1.PNG
'These people were dismissed. I was. The word 'illegitimate' is written on my paperwork' - RTE's Evanne shares her adoption story on TG4's programme Uchtú: Evanne Ní Chuilinn

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone has also been engaged in extensive consultations with stakeholders and Woulfe over the last number of months in a bid to break the longstanding impasse over the proposed new Adoption and Information Tracing Bill.

As the debate rumbles on, reactions from adoptees, adopters and birth parents have been understandably varied.

"Some of these children were taken against the will of their mothers," explains Evanne. "They're not being helped, where it should be the complete opposite. If someone is struggling with their mental health and feelings of rejection at birth, everything should be done to make that person more content. To think these people were treated so badly at birth, we should be going out of our way to help them.

There is a huge difference, Evanne notes, between an adopted person accessing their own information for a sense of 'completeness', and using it to trace birth parents.

"People are not going to just turn up on someone's doorstep," she affirms. "You wouldn't really understand if you're not adopted, but adoptees are real people pleasers who don't want to rock the boat. They're grateful to have landed on their feel so they avoid confrontation. To think they would take this information and ruin lives is so removed from reality, it shows how little understanding there is of the situation."

There's an unnerving sense that lawmakers may be running the clock down when it comes to legislation. And in some cases, it's already too late. In the documentary, we meet Joe Mangan, who was boarded out to a Donegal farming family as a seven-year-old before adoption laws even existed in Ireland. He spent 30 years trying to find out who is mother was. By the time Joe finally managed to get to the truth, it was too late.

"[Journalist] Conall O Fátharta has noted that they're waiting for stories to die with the people," Evanne observes. "At 38, I'm on the younger spectrum of people adopted in Ireland, but others are going to be denied the opportunity to get closure. No matter who the minister is at any given time, enough time has passed. Let's just get it right. Let's just do the right thing."

Uchtú: Evanne Ní Chuilinn is on TG4 at 9.30pm tomorrow

Irish Independent

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