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Foreign adoptions and the evolution of Irish adoption policy, 1945-52.


In recent years it has become increasingly common for childless couples from the U.S. and Western Europe to look overseas--to Eastern Europe and Asia--to adopt the "unwanted" children that are no longer so readily available for adoption in their own countries. While some social observers would argue that this trend reflects a positive humanitarian impulse, others suggest that issues of culture, ethnicity, identity, and parental rights are not given due consideration. In Ireland at the turn of the twenty-first century the fact that Irish couples are enthusiastic participants in this "trade" has been juxtaposed with the stark and unpalatable reality that, as late as the 1960s, thousands of healthy Irish children were sent to the United States for adoption simply because they were illegitimate and thus "unwanted" at home. The State's "disposal" of these children in the mid twentieth century has received a great deal of attention in the popular media in recent years but has been virtually ignored by historians. ( 1) This interest has been generated by mounting allegations of the abuse and neglect of unwanted children in industrial schools and other state institutions in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In hindsight it is clear that institutionalization was not the ideal solution to the problem of caring for children who, for whatever reason, could not be cared for in their own homes or by their own parents; however, until 1952 there was no statutory mechanism by which substitute or adoptive families could be provided for such children. Although various legislative initiatives provided for the boarding-out of children who otherwise would be consigned to an institutional existence, the boarding-out system was notoriously badly administered and inspected, many families fostered children for purely financial reasons, and children could be removed from one home to another with little notice, and little consideration of their needs and best interests. Until the 1952 Adoption Act provided for the legal transfer of parental right s from biological to adoptive parents, the only alternative to an institutional existence or an insecure boarding-out arrangement was adoption by foreign, primarily American, families. From the early 1940s to the mid-1960s thousands of Irish children were sent abroad under an informal (and probably illegal and unconstitutional) adoption scheme.

The story of Ireland's overseas adoption scheme, and the evolution of adoption policy are part of a twentieth-century social history that has for the most part been neglected by historians. General histories of the twentieth century ignore these issues outright or treat them in a cursory manner that underestimates their significance. Mike Milotte, a journalist, has examined the overseas adoption practice drawing on Department of Foreign Affairs files that were released in 1997. However, Milotte's book, Banished Babies, is aimed at a popular rather than a scholarly audience, and Milotte does not conform to scholarly standards and conventions in substantiating arguments and citing evidence. John Whyte, in Church and State in Modern Ireland, published in 1971, examines the evolution of adoption legislation within the context of Church-State relations in twentieth-century Ireland. Relying almost exclusively on interviews with key figures (including Archbishop John Charles McQuaid) and press accounts, Whyte conclu des both that the Legal Adoption Society was single-handedly responsible for fostering a positive public opinion on the question of adoption, and that the change in government in 1952 was the main reason that the issue was finally resolved. At the same time, he acknowledges that adoption legislation seems to have taken on a new urgency in government and ecclesiastical circles in 1951, but he was at a loss to account for this sense of urgency. (2) When it was published Whyte's work was regarded as noteworthy and path-breaking; however, Whyte's analysis, especially of the adoption issue, did not have the benefit of Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Justice, and Dublin Diocesan Archive files that have been released since 1997. This material allows for a more thorough (and less simplistic) evaluation of the process by which the government finally enacted adoption legislation in 1952, and it is clear that while the Legal Adoption Society did have a role to play, political expediencies and not public pre ssure and opinion were primarily responsible for forcing the government's hand on the issue.

American Adoptions of Irish Children

The legality of sending Irish children out of the state for adoption under foreign laws was scarcely questioned by those involved in the process; civil servants and Catholic charitable agencies were concerned only that the children in question were sent to "good Catholic homes". Indeed, the Hierarchy and civil servants were so concerned with the Catholic question that they refused to allow children to be removed to Northern Ireland or England for adoption lest they fall into the hands of Protestant families or proselytizers. (3) On the surface, those involved in the unofficial adoption scheme expressed reservations about the wisdom of sending children out of the state for adoption. In fact, however, it was an ideal solution for most of the parties concerned. For the matrons of the mother and baby homes and boarding-out societies from which the majority of children were adopted, it solved an accommodation problem that often reached crisis proportions when babies were born or admitted faster than they could be boarded out or sent to industrial schools. Sending children to America also relieved local authorities of the financial burden of maintaining them in industrial schools, extern institutions, or foster homes. The only player that did not win, in the official sense, was the Department of Foreign Affairs which, because of its responsibility for issuing passports, left itself open to allegations that it encouraged and indeed fostered emigration at a time when the Irish population was in a steady decline due to low birth and high emigration rates. But as long as the Hierarchy sanctioned the informal adoption scheme the Department of Foreign Affairs facilitated it. However, it was not the DFA but the Hierarchy, and in particular John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin from 1940-1972, who determined the conditions under which passports would be issued to allow children to leave the state.

It is not possible to ascertain, from Department of Foreign Affairs or Dublin Diocesan Archive files, the number of children sent to America under the informal adoption scheme. (4) The Department of Foreign Affairs began keeping statistics only in 1950; from the beginning of 1950 through October 1952 the DFA issued 330 passports for children to travel to America for adoption. (5) Anecdotal evidence suggests that children were exported to America beginning as early as 1940 with one agency, St. Patrick's Guild, Dublin, arranging 61 American adoptions between 1948 and 1950. (6) However, official statistics are not an accurate indication either of the time frame in which the adoptions occurred, or the numerical extent of the practice. Department of Foreign Affairs files reveal that some American couples brought Irish children home without a passport under the United States Displaced Persons Act of 1948. (7) Others, mostly US servicemen stationed in England, registered the births of illegitimate Irish children as their own biological children. (8) Given the apparent ease with which some couples secured and removed children without passports, or registered illegitimate Irish children as their own, the practice was clearly more widespread than statistics would suggest and, likely, than government officials or religious agencies would wish to admit.

It is easy to understand why charitable agencies seized on overseas adoptions as a solution to what they regarded as an overwhelming problem. Letters from the matrons of mother and baby homes to Archbishop McQuaid documented their dilemma: "Girls are flocking here daily, some of them in great distress, and the best I can do for them is to hold out hope that they might be relieved in December or the New Year. Many of them will become disheartened, no doubt, and who can be sure that the children will be safe." (9) There is little doubt that Catholic agencies received more requests for assistance than their human or financial resources could grant. Many women turned to these agencies in desperation, often after being rejected by their families or released from employment when their pregnancies were discovered; many more gave birth in county homes, mother and baby homes, or magdalen asylums, and then were strongly encouraged to give up their children. But it must also be remembered that the philosophy that underp inned measures, both lay and sectarian, to assist unmarried mothers was the firm conviction that unmarried mothers were fundamentally unfit to have custody of their own children. Pressure was brought to bear on many unmarried mothers, by social workers, family, and friends to relinquish custody of their children to agencies that then boarded them out or sent them overseas for adoption. Those involved in overseas adoptions justified the practice on the grounds that it was virtually impossible to convince Irish families to adopt illegitimate children. This claim is somewhat dubious in light of the fact that inspectors of boarded out children repeatedly reported that foster families wished to adopt the children entrusted to their care but were precluded from doing so because of the absence of adoption legislation. (10) Additionally, in the first year of legal adoption the Adoption Board received 2,500 requests for adoption orders, and thereafter received at least twice as many applications as could be processed in a year. (11)

In spite of the legal and ethical dilemmas that the overseas adoption policy presented, healthy children were sent out of the state in their hundreds from the 1940s into the 1960s. (12) American couples acquired illegitimate Irish children almost for the asking, earning Ireland a reputation, particularly among American servicemen stationed in England, as a "happy hunting ground." (13) In some cases American couples called on institutions in person to inquire about adopting a child; other hopeful adoptive parents wrote to convents or adoption societies such as the St. Patrick's Guild asking for a child to be sent to them. (14) In virtually all cases children were sent with no paperwork and very little fuss. Preliminary transactions often occurred through the mail, the adopted child was accompanied to America by a paid attendant, and no one in a position of responsibility ever met the adopting family or inspected their home and qualifications; the adoptive parents did not meet the child until s/he actually arri ved in their home. Adoption societies were so eager to secure adoptive families for the children in their charge that, at least until 1950, they required little or no information about an adopting couple's background, home life, or financial position. What they did require was an affidavit in which the adopting parents undertook to raise the adopted child as a Catholic, although ironically the couple did not have to prove that they were practicing Catholics. These overseas adoptions carried on, in virtual silence and secrecy, from the early 1940s until 1950, when two high-profile incidents shattered official complacency on the matter. These incidents marked a turning point in Ireland's adoption policy: the first incident prompted Archbishop McQuaid to shut down overseas adoptions temporarily until guidelines could be put into place to regulate them, while the second forced the government's hand in introducing adoption legislation.

In March 1950 the New York Times published a photograph of six children departing from Shannon Airport for adoption by American couples. The photo was accompanied by a story about the children's origins and backgrounds and details of their adoption by American families. (15) This press attention, coming on the heels of earlier news accounts in the foreign press of wealthy American businessmen flying to Ireland specifically to adopt Irish babies, prompted Archbishop McQuaid to demand suspension of overseas adoptions until his staff could fully consider the issue. (16) He also instructed his leading advisor, Cecil Barrett, to initiate a ban on publicity at Shannon Airport. (17) At the same time Department of Health officials, who heretofore had played only a negligible role in the overseas adoption process, raised alarming questions about the " ... character, suitability and religion" of potential adopters who were able to remove children from the state without undergoing a vetting or screening process, and see mingly without following U.S. immigration laws. Yet, it was not these practices in themselves, but the international press that the adoptions attracted, that caused concern and embarrassment among Church and government officials. On the other hand, it is a testament to McQuaid's influence that the publicity black-out remained unchallenged domestically for almost two years.

The second incident, which forced the government into action on the adoption issue, involved the Hollywood film star Jane Russell, who traveled to Ireland in late 1951 with the intention of adopting a child:

I hoped I would be able to find a boy in Europe, but it seems to be impossible ... the British law will not allow me to take a child from England. In Italy I could not get a child because I am under 40; and, anyway, there were difficulties because Italy is a Catholic country and I am a Protestant. Now I have been advised to try Ireland; but I am worried in case the same difficulties would arise there. My husband is Irish, and he would very much like to adopt an Irish baby. If it is possible, I would like to fly to Dublin this week to pick out a child and make all the arrangements for bringing him to America. (18)

A member of the Church of Ireland Moral Welfare Organisation advised Russell that she would be unable to adopt a child from a Protestant institution without the requisite home studies and background investigations, so Russell set her sights on a young Irish boy who resided with his parents in England. The chain of events that led Russell from Ireland to England is sketchy at best, but somehow Russell convinced an Irish couple, the Kavanaghs, to allow her to adopt their son Tommy, and within hours the Irish legation in London issued a passport in Tommy Kavanagh's name. The British press gave considerable coverage to the incident, which in turn fueled a flurry of reports in other European newspapers about Ireland's adoption policy. (19) Irish legation staff in London insisted that they had acted correctly as, in spite of the press that had already surrounded the case, Russell swore that she was taking Kavanagh to the United States for "a holiday", and Kavanagh's own father had applied for the passport. The Depa rtment of Foreign Affairs responded by issuing the following memo to all Irish legations and consulates abroad:

As from the receipt of this minute, we would be glad if you would refer to the Department any application for a passport made to you by or on behalf of a person of either sex under the age of 18 years ... You may have noticed in the Irish papers of the beginning of last week a reference to a case in which the Embassy at London granted a passport to an infant, on the application by the father, and that the child was subsequently brought to the United States by an American film actress. The whole business received a great amount of undesirable publicity in the Press (particularly the English Sunday papers of the 11th inst.) and the reason for this instruction is that we wish to ensure that an Irish passport will not again be issued in such circumstances. (20)

Although Russell's adoption of Tommy Kavanagh violated both British law and Irish regulations, and shortly after returning to the United States Russell admitted that she was considering returning Kavanagh to his parents because she really wanted a girl, it was the ridicule to which Ireland was subjected in the foreign press, and not the violations of law or concern for Tommy Kavanagh's welfare, that precipitated official action on the matter. (21)

When Archbishop McQuaid undertook to regulate the overseas adoption scheme, following the New York Times story, religion was the defining issue, as it would also be in the 1952 Adoption Bill. McQuaid's regulations required that prospective adopters produce a number of documents, including: a sworn affidavit of a couple's religious devotion and their willingness to raise and educate adopted children in the Catholic faith; a recommendation from the diocesan director of Catholic Charities branches in the United States; financial statements; and " ... medical certificates for both adopters, stating ages, and that they are not deliberately shirking natural parenthood." (22) Prospective adopters were also supposed to undergo a home study conducted by Catholic Charities, an American Catholic organization with branches throughout the country. However, a leading official of Catholic Charities admitted to DFA officials in 1955 not only that many of the home studies relied more on the word of the prospective adopters th emselves, and references from family and friends, than on the assessment of qualified social workers, but also that" ... the Catholic Charities Organisation was not in fact equipped at all its Branches to deal satisfactorily with adoptions." (23) In other words, while the home study theoretically was the centerpiece of Archbishop McQuaid's regulations, in fact it did little to ensure that adopting couples were suitable in every way to adopt Irish children, and paper religious guarantees remained the sole factor upon which decisions were made regarding the issue of passports for the purpose of adoption.

Civil servants worked assiduously to carry out Archbishop McQuaid's requirements to the letter, denying passports when there was any question about a couple's standing in the Catholic Church. Given that the overwhelming majority of the Irish population was Catholic it is likely that a corresponding majority of children involved in overseas adoptions also were Catholic. The question of Protestant children and overseas adoptions is scarcely raised at all in Department of Foreign Affairs files. DFA staff certainly did not work as closely with Protestant as with Catholic agencies, nor did they take great pains to ensure that Protestant church leaders approved of the policy regarding the issue of passports for the purpose of adoption. It could be that Protestant children were placed in informal adoptions within the State, although this is not an adequate explanation for their absence in official discussions. The official emphasis on Catholicism as the determining factor in overseas adoption was, in part, a functio n of demographics, but it also reflected Archbishop McQuaid's influence over the development of Irish adoption policy.

The State's reluctance to accept responsibility for the regulation of overseas adoptions persisted following the implementation of McQuaid's regulations. The DFA issued a standard response to all requests for information on overseas adoption: "This department has no function in connection with the adoption, outside the State, of Irish children beyond the issue of a Passport to enable the child to travel." (24) This reticence can be traced primarily to a concern that the DFA not appear to facilitate adoption at the same time that low birth and high emigration rates were thought to jeopardize Ireland's demographic stability. One DFA official rejected a plan to involve Irish consulates abroad in vetting potential adoptive couples because this" ... might place the Minister, and indeed the whole Government, in the embarrassing position of appearing to actively encourage the export of Irish children abroad." (25) DFA officials were well aware that the government had, in the late 1940s, established the Committee on Emigration and Other Population Problems to examine Ireland's population crisis and recommend solutions, and they would have been placed in an awkward position if their activities in the area of adoption had come to light at such a critical time, particularly as the percentage of the population in the 0-14 years age group fell consistently from 1901, and began to level off only in 1951. (26)

While it would be easy to fault agencies and individuals of Church and State for the callousness that seemed to characterize the overseas adoption scheme, one could argue that official attitudes merely reflected the social hostility toward illegitimate children, and their mothers, that underpinned most efforts to deal with these populations. The majority of illegitimate children were sent overseas for adoption precisely because their mothers and fathers could not or would not keep them, and because their extended families and communities refused to acknowledge or accept them. There was an absence of public opinion surrounding the care and protection of illegitimate children that made it easy for Church and State to conspire in sending them overseas in virtual silence and secrecy. (27) This secrecy was indicative of the success of Archbishop McQuaid's press blackout, but it also epitomized the prevailing attitude, in twentieth century Ireland, toward poor, vulnerable, and illegitimate children. No one cared en ough about these children to question overseas adoption policy or to demand that the State accept responsibility for providing for children at home in ways that served their best interests rather than political or religious expediencies.

Church, State, and Adoption Legislation

By lawmakers' own admission, Ireland lagged woefully behind its Western counterparts when they introduced adoption legislation in 1952. (28) And yet, when lawmakers finally did act on the issue they did so not because they accepted that such legislation was desperately needed, but because they were shamed into it by foreign press coverage of Ireland's heretofore informal and unregulated adoption practice. Not only did the Jane Russell incident prompt a flurry of negative reports in the foreign media, it also raised a host of questions in the Dail, where individual TDs demanded an accounting from government ministers on the practice and extent of overseas adoption. (29) Once the "secret" was out lawmakers had little choice but to act on the issue.

Given the general lack of concern on the part of both Church and State for the fate of illegitimate children at home, or adopted overseas, prior to 1952, perhaps it is not surprising that there was no sense of urgency to initiate legislation that would legalize adoption at home and regulate the overseas process, especially as such legislation ran the risk of angering or offending the Hierarchy. Until the Jane Russell incident put the adoption issue on the national agenda, government officials insisted that adoption legislation was unnecessary because there was no public demand, and no apparent need, for it:

No pressing need for legislation on this subject has been felt in Ireland until relatively recently. In recent years there has been demand for enactment of legislation enabling the adoption of children. This has arisen, partly as a result of the activities of certain aliens who wish to adopt Irish children and held out the inducement of large sums of money to induce Irish parents to allow their children to be taken out of the country. To deal with this situation the government have recently decided to introduce a Bill to legalise adoption in the case of illegitimate and orphan children. (30)

At the same time, lawmakers conceded that by the time the issue was discussed in the Dail many county councils, trade unions, and other interested parties (including Department of Health inspectors of boarded-out children) had been agitating for adoption legislation for nearly a decade. (31) The Legal Adoption Society of Ireland, founded in 1948, also lobbied for legislation that would transfer parental rights from biological to adoptive parents. (32)

The adoption issue was first discussed in government circles in 1939 when a question was raised in the Dail about the introduction of adoption legislation. This question seems to have arisen as the result of representations from Department of Health inspectors who could attest, from first hand experience, to the potential benefits of legalized adoption. However, the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society and other Catholic charitable agencies made representations of their own highlighting the "undesirable results" that could arise from adoption legislation. (33) In 1946 civil servants in the Department of Justice engaged in discussions with members of the Hierarchy and with theologians from St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, on the possibility of introducing adoption legislation that was not contrary to Catholic teaching. At this time proposals were put forward that would ensure that adoptive parents shared the religious persuasion of the children they proposed to adopt. In other words, by 1946 not only was the government fully aware of the need for adoption legislation, but Department of Justice officials had already formulated the religious safeguards that were an integral part of the 1952 Adoption Act. (34)

In private, government officials admitted the real reason that adoption legislation was not forthcoming before 1952: an unwillingness to enact legislation that might infringe on the Church's authority, and the difficulty of convincing Archbishop McQuaid that the proposals put forward as early as 1946 would effectively protect Catholic children from the threat of proselytizm. (35) In an address to the King's Inn Law Students' Debating Society in 1951, Attorney General C.F. Casey articulated the government's dilemma:

The subject ... had received much publicity in recent years and efforts had been made to prevail upon the Government to introduce legislation dealing with it, and severe criticism on this has been leveled against the Government for its failure to introduce a Bill. I would ask those who are concerned on this topic to be patient and to avoid emotion ... This country is a predominantly Catholic country. That does not mean that Parliament should penalise any other creed, but it does mean this, that Parliament cannot surely be asked to introduce legislation contrary to the teaching of that great Church. (36)

Casey's statement implicitly acknowledged that there was, in fact, sufficient public opinion to warrant a fuller discussion of adoption than had yet occurred, but also that, short of an absolute disaster (such as the Jane Russell fiasco), the government would take its cues on the matter from the Hierarchy. In delaying the introduction of adoption legislation until they were forced into it, lawmakers placed Church-State relations above the well-being and best interests of thousands of illegitimate and unwanted Irish children.

Given that, by 1952 the government was already well aware of the pressing need for adoption legislation, and that religious safeguards had already been formulated, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the negative press attention surrounding the Jane Russell case, more than anything else, was the primary motivating force when the government finally took action in 1952. While McQuaid's blackout on publicity at home proved to be extraordinarily effective, not even McQuaid could control the foreign press's treatment of Ireland's overseas adoption practice. The most damning and worrying article appeared in 1951 in the German 8 Uhr Blatt newspaper, in response to English press coverage of the Russell case. The article struck a nerve with both the Hierarchy and government departments because it raised the specter of a black-market baby ring that sold "unwanted" Irish children to the highest American bidder, the irony being that while Irish agencies were willing to do almost anything to rid themselves of the moral and financial burden of caring for illegitimate children, American couples were willing to pay dearly for the privilege of adopting healthy white Irish children.

According to a DFA translation of the 8 Uhr Blatt article, an Irish welfare worker in England accused the Irish government of turning a blind eye to the export and sale of Irish children: "'Our country has today become a sort of hunting ground for foreign millionaires who believe they can acquire children to suit their whims just in the same way as they would get valuable pedigree animals. In the last few months more than one hundred children have left Ireland, without any official organisation being in a position to make any enquiries as to their future habitat.'" (37) Department of Foreign Affairs officials were hard-pressed to refute the article's allegations and simply wondered at the source of the author's information. Irish legation staff in Bonn were inclined to demand a retraction from 8 Uhr Blatt editors but DFA staff advised against this: "I have to say it is our considered opinion that no such action should be taken--more especially so since, with the exception of the figures given, the article is largely not incorrect." (38) It is indicative of the ambiguous legal and ethical position in which overseas adoptions placed the government, as well as the illegitimate children involved, that government ministers and civil servants were unable to defend themselves against 8 Uhr Blatt's allegations.

Even once they were forced to introduce adoption legislation lawmakers, true to form, took their cue from the Hierarchy. The first reference in official sources to government ministers actively discussing an adoption bill appeared in Department of Foreign Affairs files in May 1952. However, earlier that year, in January 1952, the Hierarchy's Episcopal Committee issued a statement that laid out the position from the Catholic point of view, and this position paper served as the basis for subsequent adoption legislation. (39) The Hierarchy acknowledged the State's right to provide for children, and in particular to ensure that "unwanted" children were given good homes, but not at the expense of their Catholic faith and birthright. (40) On the other hand, children's officers and social workers argued that adoption legislation should serve the best interests of vulnerable children and would merely regularize relationships already in existence, albeit without the protection of law. In the end, the State deferred to the Hierarchy rather than the "experts" in formulating adoption policy. The fact that lawmakers were willing to defer to the Archbishop on such matters, and to place religious obligations above their own civic responsibility to one group of Irish citizens--illegitimate children--lends credence to the view, held among some critics in the 1950s, that Ireland was a confessional state with Archbishop McQuaid the equivalent of an "ecclesiastical Taoiseach." (41)

Lawmakers' singular obsession with religious as opposed to more worldly (and, one could argue, pragmatic) concerns is further underscored by a comparison of the debates on adoption that occurred in the British Parliament in 1925-26, and the Dail in 1952. The primary distinctions centered on differing perceptions of the State's responsibility for children who lacked the protection and care of "natural" or "normal" families, how far the State could and should go in protecting the rights of the natural mother, and the role of a religious test in assessing the fitness of prospective adopters. Unlike their Irish counterparts, British MPs highlighted the benefits that would accrue to the State as a result of legalized adoption:

I feel--and I believe my views are shared very largely by all Members of the House--that the English character has been built up on home life. God knows, some of the homes are not worthy of the name; but nevertheless, there is a spirit even in the meanest tenement that has developed the British character, which as made the British nation what it is. I find, too, that institution life tends very largely to a return to institution life, either in the form of prison, workhouse, or homes of that description. It saps the independence of character. It tends to make men, at any rate, with less moral fibre than we associate with the average Britisher. To a person who has been brought up in an institution--even a good institution--prison has not the same horror that it has to the average man or woman, and we complete the vicious circle very often, as magistrates well know, with people who have been brought up to appreciate institution life. Therefore, I welcome the Bill, because I think it will assist us to enable orp han children to be brought back into the normal life of the nation, and to become normal citizens. (42)

The practical benefits that would result from adoption legislation were all but ignored by Irish lawmakers.

Virtually all MPs who spoke in support of the adoption bill insisted that an adoptive family was a far better environment for a needy and vulnerable child than even the best institution, and they acknowledged that wealth and religion alone did not determine a family's ability to love and care for an adopted child. Under English law, a couple wishing to adopt had to file a petition with the courts and submit to a thorough home and background study. Only people resident in England and Wales were eligible to adopt, and only children who were similarly resident could be adopted. As MP Galbraith pointed out, the State retained responsibility for adopted children's well-being even after the court issued an adoption order; allowing people to remove children from the state would also remove those children from the protection and jurisdiction of the English court system. (43) This is in stark contrast to the Irish overseas adoption practice, where government departments and charitable agencies disclaimed all responsi bility for children once they left the State. In a further effort to protect children from unsuitable foster parents, English law authorized courts to issue interim adoption orders for a two year period of assessment and supervision.

Although English legislation was concerned primarily with safeguarding the physical and emotional well-being of illegitimate children, English lawmakers also acknowledged the hardships and pressures faced by biological mothers who gave their children up for adoption. The law prohibited the making of an adoption order without the mother's consent, and it required magistrates to "... be fully satisfied that the parties understand the nature and effect of the proposed transaction and are acting of their own free will," in other words to ensure that women giving children up for adoption were not pressured into doing so, and understood the irrevocable termination of parental rights that adoption entailed. (44) British legislation implicitly recognized that, just as some women might in desperation seek unsuitable alternatives for dealing with an unwanted child, so too many women were pressured into giving their children up for adoption, either by religious institutions who thought they knew what was best, or by des perate couples willing to pay hefty fees for the privilege of adopting a healthy white child. The question of maternal rights, as well as the best interests of the child, were virtually ignored in the Irish debates.

The most conspicuous distinction between the British and Irish debates was the role of religion in matching children with adoptive families. English legislation acknowledged the importance of religious faith but also insisted that religion was not the most important criteria for determining the suitability of adoptive parents:

In these matters we have, first of all, to consider the welfare of the infants. I am not for a moment suggesting that the question of religious belief is nor a most important thing, but it is not the only thing, and if we put in the Clause words which make it peremptory that the only person who can adopt a child must be of the same religious faith we may be doing something which in certain cases may be against the interests of the child. Of course, due regard will always be paid to this matter, but I ask the House to leave it to the discretion of the tribunal which will have all the facts before it, and which will see that full consideration is given to the paramount welfare of the infant. (45)

The child-centered tone of the English debates contrasts sharply with the obsessive concern among Irish lawmakers with questions of religion and faith, at the expense of the rights and interests of children and their biological parents.

The differences between English and Irish lawmakers' approach to the adoption issue reflect an investment, on the part of Irish lawmakers, in a particular concept of family life as the foundation of social life and stability. This is not to suggest that English lawmakers discounted the importance of the family, or that vulnerable English children necessarily fared better than their Irish counterparts, but rather that the English conceptualization of "family" was broad enough to include adoptive families consisting of two parents and adoptive and biological children, and also families comprised of unmarried women or men and adopted children. Although Irish lawmakers were willing to solve the problem of illegitimacy by establishing "non-traditional" families, neither lawmakers nor members of the Hierarchy anticipated displacing the traditional, nuclear family as the foundation of Irish social life and in fact were adamant that adoption legislation not" ... substitute an artificial for a natural family." (46) Th e language of the Episcopal Committee's statement regarding the place of the family in Irish society was inserted virtually verbatim into Minister for Justice Boland's opening statement on the Adoption Bill:

The Constitution recognises the family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law. The purpose of this Bill is not to allow the relationship of adoption to be substituted for the family, but to enable children who do not belong to a family, to secure through adoption the benefits of the family. (47)

Because officials were concerned that adoption not supplant or alter "natural" or "appropriate" models of family organization, unmarried people were prohibited from adopting except where an unmarried woman petitioned to adopt a child who was related to her by blood (the same did not apply to unmarried men wishing to adopt blood relatives).

The adoption of legitimate children also presented a challenge in the context of the government's conceptualization of "normal" or appropriate family composition and of parental rights. In the speech in which he presented the Adoption Bill to the Dail, Minister for Justice Boland stressed that the government could only legalize the adoption of illegitimate children:

I am advised ... that there is a danger that the Bill would be held to be unconstitutional if it provided for the adoption of legitimate children whose parents are alive. The Constitution declares the rights and duties of patents towards their children to be inalienable, and any provision for the permanent transfer of those rights and duties, even with the consent of the parents, might be unconstitutional. The main need for adoption arises in connection with orphans and illegitimate children. (48)

Here is a clear statement that constitutional rights were not seen to apply to unmarried mothers or their children. Even under the informal, pre-1952 adoptions, DFA officials were quite willing to issue passports to allow illegitimate children to travel overseas for adoption, so long as Archbishop McQuaid approved, but consistently refused passports to legitimate, even orphaned, children.

Their refusal was linked to their understanding of parental and family rights enshrined in the 1937 constitution, as outlined in a 1954 internal DFA memo relating to the adoption of a legitimate child:

In my view it would not be proper for us to issue such a Passport [to a legitimate child of parents still living] notwithstanding that on the face of it the child's material interests might well be best served by facilitating her adoption. It is relevant to remark in this connection that our own adoption law does not envisage the adoption of legitimate children under any circumstances. This no doubt is based on the principle of the State maintaining so far as is in its power the unity of the family, which is enshrined in the Constitution ... In the light of the above my view is that ... having regard to the terms of Articles 41 and 42 of the Constitution, it would not be open to the parents of this child to execute a valid surrender of the child to a third party, and that consequently the Department could not consider the issue of a Passport in a case such as this. (49)

Yet not all civil servants agreed with this interpretation:

... the Constitution insists upon the natural and imprescriptible rights of the family and refers throughout to the parents, that is to say, both to the mother and the father. It is clear therefore that the Constitution so far from imposing a restriction on the family, recognises that it is entirely free to carry out its own moral obligations which are anterior to positive law. For this reason, if a parent wishes to allow his child to be adopted in America, there is nothing in the Constitution to prohibit it. (50)

The seeming conflict in these two interpretations was one of form more than substance. There was no question that "legitimate" parents possessed fundamental, 'inalienable' rights. What was at issue was how best to protect those rights; the question at the center of the debate was whether the State had the right to override a parent's decision to give his or her legitimate children up for adoption. And yet, the fact that illegitimate children were sent out of the state with no official oversight or regulation, and sometimes without the consent of their mothers, suggests that the constitution would be used to protect the rights only of those who conformed to the State's image of a "normal" family. Adoption legislation represented an implicit acknowledgment on the part of lawmakers that those who fell outside the pale were not entitled to full participation, as citizens, in the life of the state, or to full constitutional rights and protections as parents. Indeed, the irony in this debate was that while legitima te children could not be adopted, in Ireland or abroad, even with their parents' consent, an unmarried mother's consent was not required to send an illegitimate child overseas for adoption.

Although the Adoption Bill was intended to remedy the defects of the informal overseas adoption, brought to light by the foreign press, the Adoption Act did not stop the outward flow of children and, in fact, the safeguards established to regulate the adoption of children at home did not apply to overseas adoptions. The debate on this question is revealing and indicative of the fundamental lack of concern on the part of Church and State for the fate of illegitimate children. Some TDs insisted that the bill would prevent children from being sent to America for adoption:

We could see these children being taken out, being placed in an aeroplane and going right across to the United States of America to be adopted by parents of whom we had no knowledge except the amount of money they might have for that purpose. There were no precautions in regard to that adoption and nothing could be done about it. The children could be adopted, flown across the Atlantic to America and kept there where they would be under no control of our Minister or of our courts. Under this Bill, they will be under the control of the Minister and of the board set up under this Bill when it becomes an Act, and under the control of this House, if needs be. Deputy Rooney: Does the Deputy mean that the practice will be stopped? Deputy Cowan: Yes, the Bill prohibits it. Deputy Boland: It makes it illegal. Deputy Lynch: It proposes imprisonment if it is contravened. (51)

In fact, the Bill did not halt the exodus of children or enact measures to protect the civil and legal rights of children who were removed from the state, and it certainly did not provide for the imprisonment of people who removed children from the state for the purpose of adoption. The only change in the overseas adoption practice was the introduction of a minimum age for removing a child from the state, and this measure was aimed not at protecting the child but at preventing proselytizm, as it was based on the assumption that desperate mothers would willingly hand newborn infants over to any individual or organization, including Protestant ones, that offered assistance. Imposing an age restriction theoretically reduced the element of desperation that the Catholic hierarchy assumed fueled the proselytizing "menace", and attempted to ensure that children sent out of the state for adoption would not lose their Catholic birthright.

Not only did overseas adoptions not cease, but DFA officials acknowledged that there was no legal basis for them to deny passports for children to travel abroad, so long as the children and adopting parents met Archbishop McQuaid's 1950 regulations:

...I think it essential that I should make it clear that we could see nothing in Section 39 to justify us using the passport machinery to exercise an administrative restraint on the travel abroad, for adoption or other purposes, of children in the exempted categories outlined in subsections (2) and (3) of that Section. Quite the contrary. In fact, we must, it seems to us, regard Section 39 of this bill, even at the present, as a precise statement of Government policy in the matter of what categories of children are to be permitted to go abroad or be restrained from so doing and we must be guided by that in the issue of passports. This being so we have, for instance, decided against the issue of future passports to illegitimate children under one year to travel abroad for adoption purposes. Similarly, we must interpret the Government policy reflected in sub-sections (2) and (3) of Section 39 as specifically inhibiting us from exercising an administrative restraint on the travel abroad of the exempted categorie s of children whose right so to travel the two sub-sections in question so clearly preserve. (52)

Even as DFA officials insisted that they could not impose limits on granting passports to children to be adopted overseas, they continued to insist that they were opposed in principle to such adoptions: "... while refusing to give encouragement in a positive way, we did not mean to suggest that you should refuse passports where a child's guardians want to send him out of the country and there is no legal impediment to that." (53) DFA officials were in a difficult position: on the one hand, they had no choice but to adhere to both adoption legislation and constitutional law when determining whether to issue passports; on the other hand, precisely because their role was to issue the required travel documents, they were vulnerable to the charge that they were facilitating emigration. This dilemma plagued DFA from the time overseas adoptions began in the 1940s, and the Adoption Act did nothing to resolve it.


Ireland's informal and unregulated overseas adoption practice, and the evolution of adoption legislation, are key moments in twentieth-century Irish social history both because they illustrate the nature of Church-State relations in matters related to sexuality, morality, and family life, and more importantly because they reveal the yawning schism between the republican ideal to "cherish all the children of the nation equally", and the way the State dealt with children who for whatever reason could not be cared for and protected by their own biological parents. The practice in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s of allowing illegitimate children to be removed from the state for the purposes of adoption, when considered in light of the pressures that finally compelled the State to act on the issue in 1951-52, suggest that lawmakers and the Hierarchy were more concerned, at least into the 1960s, with the preservation of Ireland's self-image and reputation abroad, and with the preservation of the faith of illegitim ate children, than with the needs and best interests of those children. The overseas adoption practice finally died out in the early 1970s not because of negative public opinion or a sudden awareness that the practice was wrong or potentially harmful, but rather because there was, by this time, a growing acceptance (or at least tolerance) of unmarried motherhood; this, coupled with the introduction in 1972 of the Lone Parent's Allowance, effectively dried up the "supply" of healthy children being offered for adoption. In 1970 the governmentally established Kennedy Commission published a scathing indictment of Ireland's industrial school system, and for the first time in Irish history the plight, needs, and best interests of illegitimate and vulnerable children were considered in their own right and not as part of broader social and political agendas.

The overseas adoption scheme is a vital part of twentieth-century Irish social history, but there is also something to be learned from this scheme in contemporary discussion of foreign adoptions. Those involved in Ireland's overseas adoption scheme placed social and political expediencies above the best interests of the children involved, and they failed to consider the long-term effects that overseas adoptions might have on children. When adults, who were sent to America for adoption as children, returned to Ireland to trace their roots they were faced with brick walls, hostility, and a lack of understanding of their circumstances that only served to compound their already deep sense of alienation, rejection, and loss of identity. They found that the agencies and individuals who operated the adoption scheme failed to keep adequate records about their adoptions, or that they refused to relinquish records on the grounds that the privacy of the biological mother had to be protected at all costs. In fact, it is likely that these agencies refused to cooperate because, by the early 1990s, when the "secret" of the overseas adoption trade first became a matter of intense media scrutiny, public opinion was set firmly against them. The "support network" that existed in the early 1990s to assist children who were sent to America for adoption prior to 1970 did not acknowledge that they had the right to know who their biological parents were, or to reclaim the ethnic identity that was denied to them as children. The Irish experience of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s underscores the need, in the current adoption climate, to balance the short-term needs and best interests of the children involved with the long-term implications of separating children not only from their biological parents but also from their heritage, ethnicity, and identity.


(1.) The term "unwanted" refers to illegitimate children whom unmarried mothers could not care for, and whom the State and charitable agencies found problematic. It does not necessarily imply that all of these children were unwanted by their mothers.

(2.) John Whyte, Church and State in Modem Ireland (Dublin, 1971), 183-193.

(3.) See Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.

(4.) According to Mike Milotte, a total of 2,103 children were sent overseas throughout the duration of the overseas adoption process. See Mike Milotte, Banished Babies. The Secret History of Ireland's Baby Export Business. (Dublin, 1997), 201. These statistics exclude children sent overseas prior to 1951. They also exclude children whose adoptive parents took them out of the country without securing an Irish passport for them, or who were registered, illegally, as the biological children of the adoptive parents. Milotte culled these figures from various DFA files which he does not cite, so it is impossible to confirm the accuracy of his numbers.

(5.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.

(6.) Dublin Diocesan Archives, American Adoption Policy Files 1950-52.

(7.) Under this act, entry visas could be issued to European orphans who were entering the country for the purpose of legal adoption. Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/I.

(8.) In 1955 it came to the attention of the Department of Foreign Affairs that at least 8 children were illegally registered as the biological children of American servicemen stationed in England. All of the adopted children were born in the same nursing home, and it seems that the mid-wife who ran the home arranged the adoptions and facilitated the illegal practice. Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/545.

(9.) Dublin Diocesan Archives, American Adoption Policy Files 1950-52. In expressing concerns for the safety of children whom this agency could not help, this nun was worried not that the children might become victims of infanticide but, rather, that the children would be handed over to Protestant agencies and thus become "victims" of proselytizm.

(10.) See, for example, Department of Health, A124/12.

(11.) Report of An Bord Uchtala (Dublin, 1953).

(12.) The practice may have begun earlier than the early 1940s; however, no one in authority seems to have been aware of it until the late 1940s, and statistics were only compiled beginning in 1950.

(13.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/I.

(14.) Although adoption was not legalized until 1952, charitable agencies such as St. Patrick's Guild and the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society arranged fostering arrangements and informal adoptions and thus they referred to themselves as adoption societies.

(15.) New York Times. 18 March 1950, 11.

(16.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.

(17.) Dublin Diocesan Archives, American Adoption Policy Files 1950-52. Barrett wrote to the chairman of Pan-American airlines seeking his cooperation in this endeavor, and the airline complied without question.

(18.) Irish Times, 30 October 1951, 5.

(19.) DFA Adoption Policy Files contain clippings of articles that appeared in England, Australia and Germany.

(20.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/I.

(21.) Even though Russell stated publicly that she and her husband were not happy with Tommy Kavanagh and considered returning him, none of the extensive correspondence that passed between various government departments expressed concern for his welfare, nor was there any question of prosecuting the Kavanaghs or Russell for violations of British adoption law, which expressly forbid the removal of children from the country for the purposes of adoption even if the children were not British nationals.

(22.) Dublin Diocesan Archives, American Adoption Policy Files 1950-52.

(23.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/I.

(24.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.

(25.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/I.

(26.) Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, Reports 1948-1954 (Dublin, 1954), 17.

(27.) Some individuals and agencies, including inspectors of boarded-our children and the Joint Committee of Women's Societies and Social Workers, sought to raise awareness of the plight of illegitimate children; however, these individual efforts did nor amount to an organized or concerted campaign to change policy or attitudes.

(28.) Dail Debates, vol. 132 (11 June 1952), 1119. According to Whyte, by 1952 only 8 Christian countries did not have legal adoption: Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. Whyte, Church and Stare in Modern Ireland 183.

(29.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/I.

(30.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/I.

(31.) Dail Debates, vol. 132 (l1 June 1952), 1103.

(32.) W. A. Newman, "Legal Adoption," The Bell, vol. 16, no. 4 (January 1951): 62.

(33.) Department of Justice, 93/39A

(34.) Department of Justice, 93/39B

(35.) An internal Department of Justice memo dated 4 April 1933 indicated that although a case could be made for the introduction of adoption legislation, advisors to the Minister for Justice suggested that it would nor be politically expedient to act on the issue. See Department of Justice, 93/39A.

(36.) Catholic Standard, 16 February 1951, 1.

(37.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.

(38.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.

(39.) The Episcopal Committee was established by the Hierarchy in 1951 and was comprised of the Bishops of Cashel, Derry, and Galway, along with Rev. Cornelius Lucey. The Committee's remit was to advise the Hierarchy on whatever matters might be referred to them; in late 1951 the Episcopal Committee was asked to consider the issue of adoption.

(40.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.

(41.) John Charles McQuaid: What the Papers Say, presented by John Bowman, Radio Telefis Eireann, RTE 1 Dublin. The term Taoiseach refers to the head of the Irish Government, the equivalent of the British Prime Minister.

(42.) Hansard House of Commons Debates, 26 February 1926: 940-941.

(43.) Hansard House of Commons Debates, 18 June 1926: 2661.

(44.) Child Adoption Committee First Report, British Parliamentary Papers vol. 9 (13 March 1925): 6.

(45.) Hansard House of Commons Debates, 18 June 1926: 2664.

(46.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 354/164.

(47.) Dail Debates, vol. 132 (1 June 1952), 1107.

(48.) ibid, 1106.

(49.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/II.

(50.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/96/II. As it happens the child in question was born in Northern Ireland and thus not an Irish citizen under existing citizenship laws. The state therefore had no right to issue a passport for the child to travel outside of the country for adoption, even with the parents consent to the removal.

(51.) Dial Debates, vol. 132 (11 June 1952), 1125.

(52.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.

(53.) Department of Foreign Affairs, Adoption Policy Files, 345/164.
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Author:Maguire, Moira J.
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Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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