Getting back to his roots after American adoption as a boy
Christopher Quirin was one of thousands of Irish children who were adopted by American parents in the 1950s. He tells Donal Lynch about his difficult childhood and the emotional reunion with his family
CHRISTOPHER Quirin knows the date of his earliest memory – September 16, 1954. At just four years of age, he was led by the hand off a plane in New York and introduced to his new family. He tried to speak Irish to them and was amazed by their American drawls. They cooed over his shock of red hair and freckles. He was handed a little green metal toy truck. "I'll always remember that truck," he tells me. "It seemed to signify the start of everything."
Quirin was one of thousands of Irish children who were adopted by Americans during this period. In March 1950, a New York Times cover story had shown a picture of six Irish children at Shannon where they were departing to live with American families. News clippings from the time describe wealthy American businessmen flying into Dublin to tour orphanages and find children to take home.
Officially, in 1952 alone, 330 passports had been issued for Irish children to be adopted in America, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual number may have been even higher than that. The illegality of contraception and abortion, and the attitude to children born outside wedlock, forced many young women into a difficult decision.
Post-war American couples placed a premium on being able to adopt white, Christian children. After the film star Jane Russell made international headlines for adopting an Irish boy, the exodus of Irish children leaving the country stepped up a notch.
At that time, our adoption laws were in their infancy and the vetting procedures were nowhere near as strict as they are today. In practice, this meant that many of these children got no better a start in the New World than they would have gotten in the old one.
Quirin was one of the unlucky ones. Growing up in New Jersey, he did not have a happy childhood. His adoptive mother was violent and abusive. "My adoptive mother, in today's parlance, would probably be considered bi-polar or schizophrenic or manic," he tells me. "One day she got pissed off and she looked at me and said, 'you know we didn't have to adopt you'. I always knew I was different though. I was tall – I'm six foot now – and had red hair and the rest of the family is small with brown hair." He has two adopted siblings, both younger than him.
As a child, Quirin "got the crap beaten out of me every single day." His adoptive mother used anything that she could get her hands on – "belts, a chair, you name it." There were times when he couldn't go to school because he had been beaten so badly that the welts on his back were still bleeding. "She tried to blame it on me and, in those years, there were different attitudes to child abuse. At one point I was taken to a mental facility and had to speak to a child psychiatrist. After talking to me for a while, he looked at me and he said 'you're fine; your parents are fu**ed up'."
Quirin left home early and, when his mother died, he did not attend her funeral. He went to live in a friend's place as soon as he turned 16 and paid his way by maintaining one of the friend's family properties. A confrontation with a teacher in high school scuppered his chances of going to college and he went to fight in the Vietnam War, where he "got my ass blown up."
He returned to the US to recuperate and began studying for his degree and masters. Eventually, he set up his own digital media business – it was responsible for putting the embedded TV screens into the back of New York City taxicabs. He married and had a son, but that marriage ended in divorce in the early 1980s. He remarried 25 years ago and has another adult son and daughter from that marriage. "So in some ways you could say that, after a tough childhood, I never looked back," he tells me. "But where I really came from was always on my mind. It kept coming up. Even something as simple as telling the doctor my family's medical history, I had to say, 'I truly don't know'."
Quirin began to research his roots but, as with many adoptive children, ran into a wall of silence from the Church. He did discover some interesting details however: "I was not supposed to be adopted. My parents were just looking for an infant. The Monsignor who was running the Catholic charities in New York had a sister at Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary (the same institution attended by Philomena Lee), who told him there was a child there who was going to end up in the institutional system, so that's how my adoption took place."
He discovered his mother had been a country girl who got pregnant out of wedlock. "The convent's demands were very simple – if you give us one hundred pounds you can leave. And this was at a time when seven pounds even would have been a lot of money to these people. My mother never signed her rights to me away – it was a forged document."
The identity of his mother remained a mystery for many years. Eventually, Quirin got in touch with Bernadette Joyce, of the Dublin-based Adopted and Fostered People Association of Ireland.
"Within three weeks of contacting Bernie, she had sent me my mother's name, her location in London, her married name, the names of my siblings and her phone number. How she was able to get that information while I had been trying to get it for 36 years amazed the hell out of me."
Joyce called Quirin's mother first and explained the situation to her. "I called her afterward and she was very timid. She asked me 'do you have red hair?' I said 'yes' and she said 'you got that from your grandmother'. I told her about general health things like arthritis and she told me she'd had her hips replaced. And then she said, 'Well, it's been nice talking to you, goodbye'. And she hung up. It was a very brief and formal conversation."
It turned out that Quirin's birth mother's husband was "an old school Irishman" and not happy with his family's reputation being "dragged through the mud" with the revelation of an illegitimate child in America. And so, for the best part of a decade, Quirin had little contact with her. He kept the faith that she would relent, however.
The husband died some years ago and, after that, Quirin tried again. "Right after (last) Christmas I called her again and asked how she was doing and we started talking about the film Philomena, and we opened up a little bit to each other." Quirin's mother confided in him that she had actually spent several years in Sean Ross Abbey after he had been given up for adoption. She had never intended to give him up, he says.
"I told her how bad I felt for her (that her husband had passed away) and that I hoped someone was there to take care of her. And she told me, 'Every morning I woke up and wanted to tell them (her children) about you but I didn't know how to do it'. She wanted my advice on it. I told her take a leaf out of the movie, Philomena. I said to her, 'Call your daughter and tell her'." After much trepidation, that was what Quirin's mother did. "The daughter was thrilled, as were the other siblings," he recalls. "They all loved the idea of having a family member in the US and wanted to meet."
That meeting finally took place last month at his mother's home in London. "It was really a surreal experience," Quirin tells me, "but also absolutely natural. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes and sitting in an old chair. They were absolutely wonderful. There were hugs and kisses all round. The nieces and nephew were amazed to have someone in the family from the States.
"We couldn't believe some of the family resemblances. I have a son from my first marriage, who is now 34, and a daughter and son from my second marriage. That younger son looks like one of my brother's kids – they could pass for siblings."
There were still unanswered questions but Quirin is tentative about raising them. He still doesn't know who his birth father is, for instance. "It was intimated that (my father) may have worked with the carnival circuit but the truth is we don't know and I would never broach that subject with my mother. Quite honestly, it was painful enough for her."
While the ending of the story was happy, the whole process, Quirin says, caused him to despair at times. "It was an amazing journey to get to meet my siblings, but it was a tough road; I've had 40 years of being lied to by authorities. I've never seen a more disrespectful process. The rights of adopted people were ignored. The Church and the Irish State have a lot to answer for."
If he remains wary of Irish authorities, he relishes the prospect of returning to this country. A pilgrimage with his wife and children is planned for this coming summer, but one part of the itinerary has yet to be finalised.
"I'm not sure I'm ready to confront the ghost of Sean Ross. We may go there, we may not," Quirin says.
"Maybe I've had enough emotional reunions for one year."
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