News of illegal adoptions in Ireland continues to devastate familes across the country. As a child, Charlotte Gunne couldn’t figure out why certain young women would regularly visit her grandmother’s house. Who were they? She was in her 20s before she discovered what had transpired 40 years before …
My grandmother’s house was always something of a sanctuary to me as a child. My mother was her only child and they were unquestionably close with a bond that was evident to me, even as a small child. Her house was my second home, we visited at least three times a week, and she and my mother would sit for hours chatting about their lives as they spoke daily on the phone. To this day, I can still remember my grandmother’s phone number, I dialled it so often in my youth.
growing up different
I always suspected that my mother’s family was different to others, and in my grandmother’s home, an old Victorian house in the south west of Ireland, there was always someone coming or going, whether one of the many students that lodged with her or a friend or acquaintance who had dropped in to say hello. I grew up with a vast number of people that were linked to my family in some way, but that way was never fully explained.
Eileen* was considered family, but was not blood-related. Brigid and Katherine were also women who spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s home, but their relationship to her was never fully explained.
They were a similar age to my mother but their relationship was obviously with my grandmother whom they held in high regard. But it never fully made sense to me how my elderly grandmother had acquired so many much younger female friends who spent Christmas with us and attended our family gatherings.
And then there was Geoff, an American man in his late 20s or early 30s who came all the way from North Carolina to visit my grandmother when I was a child, piquing my curiosity no end. I had never met him before and the obvious affection that he had for my grandmother was baffling to me.
There were a lot of references to how much he had grown, and what a fine man he had turned out to be which just confused me all the more as I had never even heard his name mentioned before his visit.
My grandmother hosted a family lunch for Geoff. I will never forget the tears in his eyes as he clutched my grandmother’s hand before departing. Episodes like Geoff’s visit became commonplace during my childhood and it was only as I got older and friends began to ask who were these people who orbited my grandmother that I began to question everything.
A past life
I had always been aware that my grandmother had been a nurse in her previous life, before she had become a granny. I knew that in her old house there were vast closets filled with medical equipment and more blankets than one woman would ever need.
When I began to question my mother about all these young women in my grandmother’s life, she gave vague answers, eventually telling me in hushed tones that they had their babies under my grandmother’s care and had become close during their stay with her.
Most of these women were now married with families so it made sense of sorts but I still wondered why their relationship had seemed so shrouded in secrecy and why they would remain so close after such a passage of time. No one else I knew had developed such a relationship but I was young and moved on to more pressing things in my life.
My grandmother hosted a family lunch for Geoff. I will never forget the tears in his eyes as he clutched my grandmother’s hand before departing.
illegal adoption in Ireland
Some years later, it was revealed to me by a family friend that my grandmother had, in the 1950s and 1960s, run a private maternity home for women who were unmarried and pregnant. It was not a mother and baby home, but a private nursing home that provided pre and post-natal care to pregnant women. Brigid, Katherine and Eileen were just three of those women who gave birth under her care, Geoff one of the babies born in my grandmother’s house.
As it turns out, during this time, the American Embassy in Dublin reached out to the Irish government and advised them of a spiralling number of American women who claimed to have given birth in Ireland who had requested their children be added to their passports before their return to the US.
After an investigation, it was established that unmarried Irish women were giving birth to their babies in private homes (such as my grandmother’s) throughout Ireland. The babies of these women were then handed over illegally to new adoptive parents. Birth records and certificates were falsified to list the adoptive parents as the birth parents and everyone went on their way.
discovering the truth
There is no doubt that money changed hands. To this day, there are hundreds of people out there whose birth certificates are nothing but a work of fiction. There were more than 40 such homes in the Republic of Ireland involved in this scandal, of which my grandmother’s was one.
Of course, I never knew any of this as a child. All I knew was that my grandmother was a woman of immense strength with more allies than I could count. Never once did I get the impression that people were disapproving of her in any way, in fact, it was quite the opposite.
When these revelations unfolded many years later, I was confused. Had my grandmother been a bad person? An opportunist? And if so, why did these women who gave birth in my grandmother’s home stay in her life and seem to have nothing but love and admiration for her?
The truth is, she was a widow who (misguided or not) spent many years trying to help women who were in an impossible situation to find a solution to a perceived problem that they considered would have ruined their lives. These women had felt such affection towards my grandmother because she was the only connection to their secret babies and the only support they had during that time. And for that, they were forever grateful.
a ray of light
Eileen was one of the young girls who came to my grandmother’s house at the age of 15 when she found herself pregnant by a much older man and her strict Catholic parents had disowned her. My grandmother heard about Eileen’s situation through a local doctor who referred patients to her on an ongoing basis; she took her in and gave her a home. After her baby was born and given up for adoption, Eileen stayed.
She became part of the family and to this day, she is my “aunt”. She has nothing but kind words and love for my grandmother who passed away many years ago and blames Irish culture and society more than anything. When she got married, my grandmother travelled to the US to give her away, my mother was her bridesmaid, and I was her flower girl.
There are many, many opinions about women like my grandmother and her role in one of Ireland’s most shameful scandals, all of which are relevant. She was, however, a product of the time she lived in and I know for certain that the women who came to her in their hour of need were grateful to her, as I too would have been had any of my own daughters found themselves in a similar situation during such a harsh era in Irish history.
With the harrowing stories that have emerged over recent years, I for one am relieved that places like my grandmother’s house existed as a humane alternative to the despicable institutions that so many women ended up in.
My grandmother never judged and made a heartbreaking situation bearable for so many. To this day I hold on to the fact that the people who came to her in their time of need felt loved and supported during a difficult stage in their lives when their country had all but demonised them and turned their back on them.
*All names have been changed.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this feature, support is available. For adoption queries, contact Tusla – Child & Family Agency on freephone 1800 80 56 65 from 10am – 4pm Monday to Friday. For adoption information and tracing services, contact Tusla on (01) 771 8500 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. For Adoption Authority of Ireland Information and Tracing services, contact (01) 230 9300 option 3, or email@example.com. Aai.gov.ie
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