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Foreign Adoptions and the Evolution of Irish Adoption Policy, 1945-52.

Article from:Journal of Social History, December 22, 2002
Author: Maguire, Moira J.


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 concludes 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 underpinned measures, both lay and sectarian, to assist …