Thursday, July 15, 2010
Between the end of WWII and 1965 more than 2,200 Irish infants were adopted out of the country, mostly by hopeful parents in the U.S. All the adoptive parents were, by mandate of the church in Ireland, Catholic. Until the late 1990's and the work of Irish journalist Michael Milotte this was a fact known to few in Ireland and fewer in the U.S. In Ireland Milotte's work, emphasizing both the emotional and physical brutalization of the birth mothers and the country's loss of vital human capital, led to great furor.
Milotte, a senior reporter for the Irish television network RTE, says life was particularly hard for the mothers in these convents, which were largely self-sustaining thanks to the women's labor but also received public funding. In some cases, he says, the priests and nuns received money from the adoptive parents, who paid "confinement and medical costs" associated with their child's birth.
"Where did the money go?" he wonders. "It sustained the people who ran the institutions in a manner they wouldn't have otherwise enjoyed."
But money likely wasn't the primary motivator, he says. Rather, there was a demand for children, and many of the nuns believed they were doing God's work by sending some of Ireland's social outcasts to a better life in the land of opportunity.
"They thought they were doing good," says Milotte in a phone interview from Dublin. "The fact that people might have rights didn't enter into their thinking. They thought they knew best. If, in doing the best thing, there was an opportunity to make money, that was all the better."
In those postwar days, it was not uncommon for Irish children to be adopted by U.S. military and government employees living abroad, Milotte says.
Many of these women were seen as the next thing to prostitutes, and were very often told that when their identities became known. Even when girls got pregnant, very often they didn't get married even if -- because there was the stigma attached to having had sex before marriage. So even where a relationship endured, the child would be given up for adoption. And it was all done in secret.
ZWERDLING: Here's one of the most curious aspects of this story.It's hard enough for most women to give up a baby for adoption during the first few hours or weeks of its life. But church officials forced the young mothers to stay in their convents and raise their own infants for at least one year or more before adoptive families could come and get them.Reporter Mike Milotte says he's turned up cases where young women changed their minds after their babies were born and tried to leave the convents. But the nuns sent guards to capture the women and bring them back.For her part, Mary O'Connor says, she knew she'd have to give her baby away. She felt she literally had no choice. But by the time the nuns came to take her son, she'd been raising him for 17 months. Then one evening, O'Connor says, a nun told her, "Get him ready. We're giving him away in the morning."
O'CONNOR: So she just carried it over to the convent. There was two parts, like there was a hospital part where the children were kept and then there was the convent part. And the child was brought over to the convent part. And there was three steps up. You went in the side door and there were three steps up. And they went to the top of the steps and they said, "Just say goodbye now. That's it."
SOUNDBITE OF O'CONNOR SNIFFING ZWERDLING: Did you say goodbye?
SOUNDBITE OF O'CONNOR SNIFFING
O'CONNOR: Yes. I waved and they went off. I have not seen him since.