In search of a
By Conall O Fátharta
Irish Examiner, Monday,
April 19, 2010
TRESSA REEVES was born
Teresa Mary Donnelly in England to an Irish father and an English
In 1960, at the age of
20 and unmarried, she became pregnant. She had been involved in a
relationship with an older man which did not last.
Given the stigma which
surrounded unmarried mothers and so-called "illegitimate"
children at the time, Tressa’s mother made arrangements with nuns in
their local convent in England and she was sent to Dublin to enable the
birth to be hidden from neighbours and relatives and be placed for
Many years later in her
home in Penzance in England, Tressa, now married and with other children
and grandchildren, acknowledges that once she had left for Ireland, the
topic of her son was never spoken of by her parents ever again.
"I never spoke to
them about it, ever. I could have been gone shopping for four months. It
was never talked about," she says.
To understand the
stigma around births outside marriage at the time, one statistic is
enlightening. In 1967, 97% of all children born outside of marriage in
Ireland were placed for adoption.
Tressa had presumed her
child was to be legally adopted like so many others. However, that was
not the case.
When she arrived in
Dublin, Tressa was told her child was to be adopted through an adoption
agency called St Patrick’s Guild, then based in Middle Abbey Street in
For the first while,
she stayed in a private house in Howth along with some other unmarried
pregnant girls. This house was run by Marie Norman, who also ran a
nursing home called The Marie Clinic on the Howth Road in Clontarf in
It was in this nursing
home that Tressa gave birth to a baby boy on March 13, 1961. She called
him André and baptised him herself, alone in her room.
Innocently, she thought
that by giving him an exotic sounding name, he would be easier to find
when she came looking for him.
"Yeah, I gave him
an exotic sounding name because I thought that when I came to look for
him, he would be easier to find that way. Of course, that wasn’t to be
the case," she recalls.
The morning after his
birth André was taken away. She hasn’t seen him since.
Nine days later, a
21-year-old Tressa was brought by a Fr Moloney, who used to visit the
girls in the house in Howth, to St Patrick’s Guild to sign the
adoption consent forms. There she was told to sign the documents and
never contact her son again. These forms also contained an address in
Dublin where she had never stayed.
These documents, Tressa
presumed, were signed in order to carry out a legal adoption. However,
as became clear many years later, this was not what happened and Tressa,
in essence, signed fraudulent documents.
In fact, her son was
not going to be adopted but merely given by St Patrick’s Guild to a
couple seeking a baby. This couple then took the boy and pretended it
was their own child. To this day, Tressa’s son, now aged 49, has no
idea he was adopted.
Mrs Norman, who ran the
nursing home, then allowed the birth to be registered in the names of
this couple, enabling André to appear as the natural child of the
It would be more than
30 years before Tressa would discover all of this. However, her memories
of the day she signed the so-called consent forms are vivid.
"I signed an
address in Northumberland Road and I questioned it at the time. I was
told something like: ‘Oh we always have to do that, it’s part of the
form’. And I said: ‘Oh alright’. There was no solicitor there to
my knowledge and the form when it was sent to me 30 years later was
signed by a solicitor," she explains.
Tressa first went back
looking for the son she presumed had been adopted in June of 1977. She
was met with silence, obfuscation and a generally dismissive attitude by
the very agency that allowed for her child to be illegally adopted.
Upon visiting St
Patrick’s Guild, she was told by a nun that no file existed on her or
her son and that she "must have imagined" she had given birth
to a son. It would be a further 20 years before the agency finally
admitted it had her file.
Upset by her treatment
by the nun at St Patrick’s Guild, Tressa went to the nursing home
where she gave birth, looking for answers. There she met the midwife who
had delivered her son and with whom she was friendly with at the time
she gave birth.
"She knew me when
I came back all those years later and even told me that she knew I would
come back. She said there was traffic from Ireland to America in those
days and that was where he probably went and, because I was quite
shocked, I didn’t say that I remembered her telling me he was going
down the country to a family. She said that I wouldn’t be able to
trace him as you couldn’t trace them when they went to America,"
"traffic" was the right word as, many years later, it was
uncovered that St Patrick’s Guild, along with many other religious run
agencies, was to the forefront of exporting Irish babies to America.
Done with full official
sanction and facilitated by the state, by 1967, when the practice
finally ended, the agency to which Tressa entrusted her son, had
dispatched a total of 572 children across the Atlantic, more than any
other adoption society.
After hitting brick
walls with the nuns in St Patrick’s Guild and with the midwife in the
nursing home, a devastated Tressa resigned herself to putting her search
By this time she had
married and went on to have four other children, all of whom were told
about their older brother, who they hoped they would meet in the future.
Tressa next tried to
contact St Patrick’s Guild by letter throughout 1995 and 1996 but
received no reply. She finally received a response when she phoned then
director of agency Sr Gabriel directly. The nun suggested her file might
have been "lost in a fire".
The following year,
after St Patrick’s Guild had hit the headlines for giving adopted
people false and misleading information about their natural parents,
Tressa decided to try the agency yet again for information about her
It was at this point
that new director Sr Francis Fahy finally admitted to Tressa, over the
phone, that it indeed had a file on Andre and that he was adopted
through the agency.
LATER that June, Tressa
received her first letter from Sr Fahy at St Patrick’s Guild which
stated that the family with which André was placed "appears to
have taken him as their own and there was no formal adoption order made.
The family had another child adopted in the same way".
Tressa did not realise
the significance of this statement at the time but gradually the murky
affair was to come to the surface.
Sr Fahy eventually made
contact with the "adoptive mother" who told her that neither
of the two boys she had obtained through the agency had ever been told
they were adopted and she was not about to tell them now.
Since then, and despite
numerous correspondence, St Patrick’s Guild has refused to tell André
the truth about his identity, nor about the fact that his natural mother
would like to meet with him, subject to his agreement.
Sr Fahy did mention
attempts could be made to bypass the ‘adoptive’ mother but nothing
was ever forthcoming on that front.
By this time Tressa had
been in contact with the Adopted Peoples Association and the Natural
Parent’s Network of Ireland, the latter of which continue to assist
her with her case.
parents, the group advised her to seek André’s birth certificate from
the General Register Office (GRO), as well as to seek out the original
consent and surrender forms from St Patrick’s Guild, and which she
should have been given copies of at the time.
When the GRO responded
to Tressa, it was with the news that they did not have a birth
certificate for her son André on the register.
Shocked by this
revelation, and how it could have occurred, a letter from St Patrick’s
Guild on November 22, 2001 shed light on the story.
In the letter, which
also included the original surrender and consent forms Tressa signed,
and which she should have been given at the time, Sr Fahy admitted the
birth registration had been falsified and also that the agency was
involved in placing numerous other children in the same way.
"As I explained to
you previously, I do not know the reasons for the particular arrangement
that was made in regard of André. In the course of my work here I have
found that there were a number of babies for whom this arrangement was
speaking, in these cases, the birth of the child is registered under the
name of the ‘adoptive parents’ and this was usually done from the
Nursing Home, Sr Fahy wrote.
Later in the letter she
admitted: "André was placed with a married couple in March 1961.
His birth was registered by Mrs Norman from the nursing home in their
Such activity occurred
routinely prior to 1952. However, the very reason for Adoption Act of
1952 was to regulate adoption so as to prevent such murky activity from
Even more troubling, Sr
Fahy admits in her letter that there were numerous other cases on file
at St Patrick’s Guild, with the tone of the letter suggesting the
practice was not out of the ordinary.
Despite this, the
Adoption Board has said it is only aware of one such case as ever having
occurred post 1952. Given that the Board refuses to discuss specific
cases, it is safe to assume that the one case it is aware of is
Although St Patrick’s
Guild has admitted its involvement in such practices and the Adoption
Board’s awareness Tressa’s case, the agency nonetheless remains
fully accredited by the Adoption Board.
Following this letter,
the Adoption Board wrote to Tressa in December 2001 noting it "had
no record of an adoption application or order having been made in
respect of your son".
The Adoption Board also
then requested the consent and surrender forms Tressa had already
received from St Patrick’s Guild and also advised her to take legal
advice if she believed her son had been "directly registered".
THE obvious question in
all of this is why St Patrick’s Guild allowed such an illegal adoption
to be carried out when legislation providing for legal adoption was in
place for almost a decade?
Such a scheme had many
benefits. By falsely registering the birth, the couple could have
obtained a child without having formally adopting them.
By having the birth
registered in their names, a serious offence in itself, the couple could
maintain the child was born to them and the child would never know he or
she had been adopted.
Through this pretence,
any stigma they may have faced as a result of being infertile would have
also been removed as far as friends and neighbours were concerned.
Such a system was also
perfect for those who may have been refused permission to adopt a child
by a social worker for whatever reason.
Throughout 2002, Tressa
received correspondence from the Adoption Board informing her it was
"actively pursuing" the matter with the agency.
However, in May 2002,
the board wrote to inform her it had received and considered legal
advice in relation to her case and apologised for delays in dealing with
On March 20, 2002,
Tressa also received a letter from St Patrick’s Guild informing her it
had sent the contents of her file to the Adoption Board "with the
exception of the name and address of the adoptive mother".
Despite this admission,
chief executive of the Adoption Board John Collins assured Tressa by
letter in 2004 that the Adoption Board was also given the name and
address of Andre’s "adoptive parents" on the same date.
In July of 2003, Tressa
took a legal case against St Patrick’s Guild, The Registrar General
and Ireland and the Attorney General. Her Senior Counsel (SC) outlined
she has an "arguable case" in seeking information relating to
Any hope of a solution
to her case being offered by the law was dashed however. Despite
battling for five years, Tressa was eventually forced to withdraw her
case. Her SC, while initially confident in 2003, put forward a far more
pessimistic opinion in 2008.
In the five years she
had battling her case, St Patrick’s Guild failed to file a defence of
On advice that she
would lose her case and possibly her home if she had to pay costs,
Tressa reluctantly withdrew the case.
However, her battle was
not fruitless. On her wall now in her home in Penzance in England is a
small framed piece of paper. It is André’s birth certificate. Denied
to her in 1961 through the actions of others, André’s birth was
correctly registered for the first time on October 14, 2009. She admits
being given the piece of paper that day overwhelmed her.
"I was very moved
actually. I didn’t think I was going to be. It was a piece of paper I
had been trying to get for a long time. We went into this office and we
talked to this very nice lady and I signed something. She went out and
brought this piece of paper in and I burst into tears.
"It was amazing.
It actually hit me then that the whole thing wasn’t just something
that is going on over there in Ireland but that this is my life. It’s
difficult to explain. I was very shocked and disturbed by it, that all
this really happened," she explains.
Tressa’s sense of
grievance over what was done to both her and her child without their
consent is palpable. Her anger towards the legal system which offered
her no sense of justice is also raw and close to the surface. However,
despite all this, she has refused to lose hope.
She feels by telling
her story, more women who have lost children to adoption might come out
and start to ask questions about the manner in which it was done.
There may be many other
cases like hers languishing in adoption agency files, gathering dust due
to the lack of legislation surrounding tracing and information.
"I remember when
he was coming up to 40 and being sad that he would never see me with red
hair because I used to have red hair. I remember thinking that he would
never know he had a red headed Mum. Now he’s nearly 50. I hope I live
long enough to see the end of this. I never really lost hope. I did a
bit when the court case ended and I didn’t think I could fight anymore
but I am fired up again."
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