Ireland’s stolen children

November 9, 2013
By

Our friend Manus O’Riordan sends along the following:

PHILOMENA, SEAN ROSS ABBEY and ANNETTE v HILDEGARDE

Manus O'Riordan

Manus O’Riordan

 
Michael A. Hess had been Deputy Chief Counsel of the US Republican National Committee under President Reagan and had risen to Chief Counsel under President Bush Senior by the time of his death in 1995. So, what on earth was Manus O’Riordan, Ireland Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, doing last May 25, when he laid a bouquet of flowers on Hess’s grave, expressing solidarity? Manus was, in fact, doing so at the request of his wife, IBMT activist Annette O’Riordan, who had passed away three weeks earlier on May 4. Hess was a man possessed by many demons, which could be traced back to the fact that he had been a stolen baby, the child of an unmarried mother in Ireland who had been sold for profit for adoption in the USA, and his story is told in the recently released movie about his mother, Philomena, with Judi Dench playing the lead role.  Annette had been a companion baby of Hess in the same mother-and-baby home, whose own mother felt compelled to opt for adoption, but who at least saved Annette from export from her homeland. Annette’s solidarity with Hess, therefore, referred to their common search for family identity, and this is what has now prompted Manus’s intervention in the intense debate surrounding the movie.

Ireland’s generation of stolen children deserve to know who they are

by Victoria White

The Irish Examiner, Thursday, November 07, 2013

IF we did not deprive them of life, we deprived them of their identity. That is the hard truth about our relationship with “illegitimate” children which Stephen Frears’s film Philomena makes us face.

Some years we killed half of the “illegitimate” babies we got our hands on. In 1930, the year the Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home opened in Roscrea, 60 babies died out of a total of 120. That’s an infant mortality rate of 50%, more than four times higher than in the general population.

You would have to have to close our eyes very tightly if you were trying to deny that the death of those so-called “illegitimate” babies was a policy.

In all, a quarter of babies born outside marriage in the 1930s in Ireland died before their first birthdays. These were infant death rates from the 17th century.

In the 1940s, the infant death rate for Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Co Cork, was 44.6%, for Sean Ross, 33.7% and for Castlepolland, Co Weatmeath, 9.1%. In the mid-1940s there was a year in which out of 180 babies born at Bessborough, 100 died.

We had made a decision as a society to liquidate a high proportion of these infants. They were a destabilising force and we didn’t know what to do with them. So we let them die.

There was nothing new about this policy. It had been tried and tested all over Europe. Some foundling hospitals reported death rates of up to 90%. Joseph Robins’s brilliant study of children thrown on charity from 1700 to 1900, The Lost Children, quotes this evidence from the Dublin Foundling Hospital in the 1700s: “Between burial days, the dead infants accumulated and the porter stated that he had buried as many as 13 at one time. So frequent were the burials that the field was completely bare of grass.”

The difference between us and the others is how we kept at it. Blame a history of poverty and a mortal fear of having extra mouths to feed if you will. What you can’t deny is that we maintained an industrial process for killing babies we didn’t want.

That’s one of the most shocking conclusions in Philomena. When the terrified 18-year-old’s baby presents in a breach position, Frears makes clear that the senior nun who is present blithely accepts the baby’s inevitable death — and perhaps Philomena’s too. It is the teenage Sister Annunciata who fights for the baby’s life. Motherless like Philomena, she had been corralled for the convent by a visiting “nun-catcher” but had kept her humanity intact.

Anthony is born, a gloriously healthy baby. He would be 61 now, if he had not died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. He had a well-paid job in the Republican administration in the US and could afford a nice headstone for his grave in Sean Ross. If he had died at birth his grave would probably not even have been marked.

We have to dig up these fields full of babies’ bones. We have to ascertain, as far as modern means will allow, how many babies are buried in the grounds of mother and baby homes, when they were buried and what age they were when they died . Then we need to erect a cross or a headstone for every last one.

We must not forget these babies. If we do, we are complicit in their deaths.

The killing fields are not the preserve of any particular denomination. The 219 infants who died in the Protestant Bethany home in Rathgar between 1922 and 1949 died for exactly the same reasons. The unmarked Bethany graves are in Mount Jerome and survivors are desperately trying to raise a measly €6,000 for a memorial. When what we need, really, are 219 memorials.

The McAleese report into the Magdalene laundries was focussed on the issue of redress for the women. It didn’t focus on the deaths of babies. It didn’t concern itself with the Bethany Home. We need a process which attempts to count the babies who died, and shouldn’t have.

And as for the babies who lived? The rage by most of us who have seen Philomena at the fact that the Sean Ross convent deliberately kept her son Anthony from reuniting from his mother before he died, must force action.

It is vital that the new adoption bill which the Government is promising this year ensures all adoption records are held by a single State agency. It was only in the last three years that the Protestant Adoption Society PACT handed back the records of former inmates of the notorious Westbank Home in Greystones, Co Wicklow, to the trustees of that very home. PACT claimed it had no legal right to keep them.

I’ll tell you the only people with a right to those records — the people whose records they are. The constitutional right to privacy needs to be smashed if it keeps people from knowing who they are. What we need, instead, is a constitutional right to your own identity and it is shameful that this was not put forward under the Children’s Referendum.

It is clear from the book on which Philomena is based that Anthony Lee/Michael Hess might not have contracted AIDS if he had been reunited with his mother. Self-loathing drove him to test his partner’s loyalty with drug and drink-fuelled sado-masochistic binges.

By contrast, Manus O’Riordan has come forward in recent days to speak of his wife Annette, who was also born in Sean Ross a year after Anthony Lee and forcibly separated from her mother, but who defeated the convent’s efforts to prevent her finding her birth family.

For the first time, says her husband, she was among people who were like herself. Two weeks before her death earlier this year, she brought her children and grandchildren to spend an afternoon with her birth family which was, says O’Riordan, “snatching a moment from paradise”.

Annette, who was the founding editor of Local Authority News and Environmental Management Ireland for a quarter of a century, believed what adopted people needed were practical changes to give them a right to their identity.

This need is clear from the adoptee connect website which is full of heart-rending entries, like this one: “Born February 24th, 1969. Female. I believe I was born in St Patrick’s on the Navan Road, Dublin. Do you know who I am?”

Yet we are still prepared to refuse women like this their own birth certificates because their birth mothers have not given their consent. And cruelly force them to sit poring over birth records in the General Registrar’s Office trying to answer the basic question: who am I?

Philomena will be seen all over the world and may garner an Oscar for Judi Dench. The critics will be asking what has changed in Ireland? The answer is — a lot. But a hell of a lot more has to change, and fast, if more innocent victims like Anthony Lee/Michael Hess are not to go to their graves without knowing who gave them life.

***
Victoria White in this piece refers to Manus’s account of Annette’s experiences with Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea and her ultimately successful efforts to identify and meet up with her mother’s family. Manus gave this account on Joe Duffy’s Liveline which can be downloaded as a podcast at http://www.rte.ie/radio1/podcast/podcast_liveline.xml. There are several items on Sean Ross there, so go to the date 04 November 2013 and the item called “Mother & baby homes & the film ‘Philomena’ with the sub-heading ”Survivors of mother & baby homes/ Magdalene laundries react to the new film ‘Philomena’” and Manus’s account is there from 14.20 minutes in.


A BOUQUET OF WHITE LILIES

SEAN ROSS ABBEY

ROSCREA

CO TIPPERARY

25 MAY 2013

 

 

 

IN MEMORY OF, AND IN SOLIDARITY WITH,

MICHAEL A. HESS

 

[BORN ANTHONY LEE, SEAN ROSS ABBEY, 5 JULY 1952;

DIED WASHINGTON DC, USA, 15 AUGUST 1995]

 

AT THE REQUEST OF THE LATE

 

ANNETTE O’RIORDAN

 

BORN

 

MARY HENNESSY

 

SEAN ROSS ABBEY, 3 MAY 1953

 

DIED

 

DUBLIN, 4 MAY 2013

 

RIP

 

 
 

[Note: Michael A. Hess was the subject of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,

by Martin Sixsmith, 2009 – later the 2013 movie Philomena, with the role of Philomena played by Judi Dench]

17 Responses to “ Ireland’s stolen children ”

  1. Alison on November 18, 2013 at 11:33 am

    So sad to read this story and can’t wait to watch this movie. What a sad day it is when you don’t know where you came from. It is an overwhelming feeling that you will never truly know who you are. If the records are available to be shared at the very least they need to make it as easy as possible for these people to find their records, and maybe find their families. Getting that information will only start them on their journey to find themselves. It is a very long road and not always successful.

  2. Patricia Carroll on November 18, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    I too was born at Sean Ross in May of 1954. At 16 months old, I was placed in a basket and flown to San Francisco to be joined with my adoptive parents. A year before my adoption, they adopted Joe Bond, another Sean Ross baby. He became my brother.

    We are fortunate that our parents tended our needs. As young children, we had a good and happy life. Our parents celebrated our adoptions and promised that someday we would return to Ireland. Dad died when I was 9 year old. With that, everything in my life changed, only this time life got much harder.

    One thing that has never changed is the feeling of being different than the norm, the feeling that someday I will find the rest of me-my birth family.

    In 2010, my daughter Kelley & I returned to Sean Ross. In fact, we were there on the my birthday. The dormitory and the gro9unds were so strangely familiar. The nursery had been boarded up, it looked a lot like a prison. Sister Hildegard encouraged us to walk the grounds.., untiol we go to close to forbidden territory. She ran out to us and asked us to change our route, to follow her. Without saying a word to each other, Kelly and I had the same thought…that we had been walking on burial grounds. We stopped for quite a while to stand at Michael’s grave. I have always known I was fortunate. Standing by his graveside, I realized just how fortunate, for I am among the babies who survived Sean Ross.

    It was during this trip that we first learned about the the cruelty & the suffering that took place at Sean Ross – and in the name of god.

    I’ve yet to find my mom, Anne Carroll, though I will keep searching. Who knows, perhaps I have brothers and sisters.

    All I have ever wanted to say to mom is thank you for giving me life. Now that I realize what she went through I want her to know how deeply, deeply grateful I am to her.

  3. Gerard Carney (Eugene Gerard Lynam) on November 19, 2013 at 12:07 am

    I was born at the Castlepollard Mother Baby Home on June 11, 1960. My birth name was Eugene Gerard Lynam and I was born to Patricia Lynam, who I believe was 16 at the time. I was cared for by her for over two years before they sent me off to America.

    I spent my first years thinking that I was orphaned, that I was unwanted. I later learned that my adoption was facilitated more for a money making scheme, on that the Sisters of Mercy were making a great deal of money from.

    I can no longer be a christian, my soul will not allow it. I have seen nothing but falsehood and greed in the Church I grew up with, and of course the crushing betrayal I found out about as an adult. The Country, Government, and the Church need to stop denying us our rights to our heritage and our documents and they also need to make appropriate apologies to both the children the banished from the country and to the young women who’s lives they destroyed and scarred.

  4. jin on December 7, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    I am not surprised that Gerard Carney (Eugene Gerard Lynam) can no longer be a christian. What surprises me is that Philomena Lee still goes to Catholic mass. WHY?

  5. Barbara Mitzner on December 8, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    I saw Philomena and was so moved and depressed, that this could have happened to those girls and their innocent babies. The fact that Philomena and her son both came to the Convent, trying to find one and other and were denied access to their records was just so horrifying. I loved the movie and never knew anything about what happened in Ireland. As a Mother who adopted a child, at birth, and has kept in touch with her birth mother, I am so upset for these children. We told our daughter at a young age that she was adopted and decided that she finally wanted to meet her. She had the option……every Mother and Child deserves that right……..

  6. Marcy Newman on December 18, 2013 at 12:06 am

    I just saw the movie and I cried so much. First time was when Martin said “Fuck the Catholic church.” I’m surprised that comment made me burst into tears, and I know now it is because that is how I have always felt. My own experience being in a large Catholic family, with Irish heritage on my Dad’s side and my mother’s strictness never made any sense to me. I became a Buddhist, but obviously still have a lot of anger at the Catholic religion. And I found myself ranting tonight about Philomena being brain washed, that is why she says, “oh, but some of them were nice!” That’s sad! She probably thinks that is the christian way to be. It is shocking that this could happen right under the people’s noses, I hope the gov’t is embarrassed. The people should be outraged. I hope all the involved parents and children find each other and can find some kind of peace. Good luck to all of you.

  7. Dorothy-Grace Elder on December 30, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    The terrible story of Philomena seems to be, among many other things, a warning to searchers for identity. If only Michael/Anthony had met more local people and asked if they knew any family with the surname Lee (his mother’s name). The family still lived just a few miles away – yet another thing those nuns so cruelly kept from him. In small communities, there is usually someone who knows somebody,you might encounter several dead ends but keep speaking to locals. That counts even when officials and the nuns are not being as outright beastly as the ones poor Michael/Anthony encountered. Also, the voters’ roll can prove its worth. Corny but true. Keep searching an area – and beyond – if you know a last name.

    Until the advent of Martin Sixsmith, a journalist, Philomena’s end of the search was virtually impossible; not knowing the name her son was now under or where he was in the US. However, Michael/Anthony had slight advantage: at least knowing his mother’s surname.

    As Ireland is in the EU, children and mothers should have legal rights to find each other if they wish. In Martin Sixsmith’s book, which is more detailed than the film, there is a particular standout of cruelty among all the other cruelties. That concerned those nuns concealing the fact that the adult Michael/Anthony and his mother Philomena had both contacted the home, searching for each other, and neither was told, even four decades after his birth. Even with that appalling forced agreement for no contact, it applied only to the mother, not the child. No decent person – certainly not one called a Christian – could have continued this vicious secrecy. Michael/Anthony outwitted them only in death, with that poignant tombstone.

  8. Ger Willis on January 2, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    With the latest effort in trying to offload Sean Ross Abbey , I have a question for the Sisters .. 60 out of 120 babies died in Sean Ross Abbey in its opening year. Had that rate been maintained,it would have meant close to 2,400 deaths until 1970 when the mother and baby unit closed.
    Considering that 60 babies died in the opening single year of Sean Ross Abbey, it is safe to assume that deaths, at least in their hundreds if not greater, occurred as records to refer to are not available..
    So To The Sisters , My Question is , Who will have guardianship of the Angel plot ? oh and also please can you tell us where are the graves of all the other victim’s?. I am a 1960 Sean Ross Abbey Baby.

  9. John Pierce McCabe on January 2, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    I endorse Ger Willis comment about sale of Sean Ross. I visited their in 1992 very depressing and seen the cometary for my crib mates no even a marker to be seen, they sure didn’t practice what they preach so Holy aren’t they. Sean Ross Abbey 1949, sold to America at age 4.

  10. Trudi on January 8, 2014 at 12:16 am

    I have just seen Philomena. There is so much the church ‘excuses’ itself from placing the ‘blame’ for their actions on those girls who fell pregnant without the benefit of marriage. The treatment of unwed mothers in this way is world wide, yet selling the children seems to be something specific the Catholic Church. The church as much to answer for – they teach ‘forgiveness, compassion and understanding’…..Come little children……heart breaking stories.

  11. Debbie on January 13, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    What an shocking disgrace the catholic church and Ireland’s policies regarding children have been. Story after story of agonizing pain and suffering emerge from families, most so ghastly, one can hardly bear to read them. So many lives ruined by evil hypocrites preaching “Gods will”. Shame on you Ireland and more shame on the catholic church

  12. Elizabeth Murray on February 5, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    It is totally wrong to blame Christianity……….these people & many
    of the Catholic Church are RELIGIOUS not Christians>

  13. Kate on February 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    My dad was born in Sean Ross abbey, he was born August 1955,
    We know who his mum is, he believed she was his sister till he was 35 years old. Then his mum( grandmother) told him different.

    She has never told us anything about his up bringing in his early years,
    We don’t know who his dad is? And believe he was picked up from the home by an Irish family,

    We have tried over the years to contact and find out more from Sean Ross abbey, but always get letters back saying they lwill look into records etc.

    Never get a reply,
    Does anyone know where I can get in contact with possiable mothers who was in Sean Ross abbey around 1955 to see if they know of my grandmother who was in same time.

  14. C Holland on March 12, 2014 at 11:43 am

    My father was born in Bethany Home in Ireland in June 1949. He was adopted at the age of 2 to an American Couple. His birth name I was told was Roland Montgomery (Carson was told to be his father’s last name, his mothers name we were told was Violet or Viola Montgomery). Once adopted name was changed to Ronald Montgomery Roberts. We were told his birth mother was only about 14 years old at his birth and died a few years after his adoption in a car accident in Scotland. I am wanting to find any information I can on his adoption and see if what we were told was the truth. My father passed away suddenly in 2009 from a heart attack and I have always wondered about his birth family. He was raised in a very happy home. He was loved by everyone. I would like any information about finding out how to contact mothers looking for their babies from Bethany Home. I would love to tell her about her son and the wonderful man and father he grew into if she wants to know.

  15. Nadya on March 15, 2014 at 4:57 am

    I saw Philomena when it was first released last fall, & was so touched by the story. The irony that both Anthony/Michael and Philomena each wished to contact the other, but were blocked, & the sadness of the mothers seeing their children daily, and having no recourse but to sign over their rights when the children were several years old was particularly poignant.

    I just finished reading Sixsmith’s book, and as you noted, Michael was haunted by the sense of abandonment and vague memories of his mother which were denied, & which contributed to many of his choices, both in career & in risky behavior. That his adoptive mother would stick to the story that he’d been ‘abandoned at birth,’ and couldn’t possibly remember his birth mum was very disturbing. She was brainwashed as well, feeling it was somehow OK to continue lying to her grown son!

    I was struck by Michael’s comment (to his friend & assistant Susan Kavenagh, shortly after his first unproductive visit to Sean Ross) about taking the job for the Republican committee, though the party line was in conflict with his own ideals: “I was so depressed I was ready to grab anyone who would have me. It’s amazing how willing I am to sell out my principles for the flattery of someone who says they want me!” (p 259)

    The hope of Philomena’s willingness to share her search, her story, her son’s story is that many other mothers & children who were separated by these forced adoptions reconnect & find wholeness! And may the dialogues sparked by both the book & movie lead to peace for others touched by the story.

  16. Ursula on March 21, 2014 at 4:32 am

    Did Philomena, or anyone else, ever try to locate Anthony’s father? Is it possible that Anthony’s father is still alive and knows about Philomena’s and Anthony’s fate?

  17. stephanie on March 23, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    The barbaric act of those nuns in those days can only be judged by God, because I truly don’t know where this hypocrisy is gonna lead the catholic church to, Only God we pray everyday to teach them the right tin to do

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