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State played important role in denying the
adopted a sense of their origin
Robbie Roulston, Irish Times November 11th, 2013
Tracing legislation, to enable adopted individuals to identify their
biological parents, has recently become a subject of debate, with TD
Clare Daly, in particular, pressing Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister
for Children Frances Fitzgerald on the matter. In response to Daly’s
questions in March last year, Fitzgerald agreed reform was very
important and voiced her support for “the strongest possible legislation
to deal with this issue” but warned there were constitutional obstacles.
In addition to the commitments of Fitzgerald and the parliamentary
questions of Daly and other TDs, a number of organisations, such as the
Adoption Rights Alliance, Adopted Illegally Ireland and Adoption Rights
Now, are working to shed light on this issue, thereby dislodging another
skeleton from the Irish church-State closet.
Adoption Act, 1952
When the Adoption Act, 1952, was crafted, formalising the adoption
process in the Republic, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was given
an unusual degree of control even by the prevailing standards in the
Every line of the proposed Bill was sent to the Catholic Archbishop of
Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, for his scrutiny. McQuaid proofed the
legislation and insisted “the safeguards must be such as the church
considers sufficient to protect faith and morals”.
To ward off “the evils of proselytism” these safeguards sought to bar
couples in mixed- religious marriages from adopting children, and more
glaringly prevented the child of such a couple, for instance in the case
of an orphan, from being adopted.
Similar restrictions were placed on children of no religion and children
aged eight or more. In the case of a mother who changed her religion
within a year of giving birth, a subsequent child could not be adopted
until a year had passed after the change. This last measure was to
safeguard against mothers switching their denominational adherence to
find a suitable home for their child.
The Department of Justice also made sure no measure connected to the
Adoption Act would enable traceability, and prevented the Department of
Health from introducing reforms that would have provided a more
straightforward, State-registered paper trail. The Department of Health
requested that the adoption register include the county of birth, a
proposal rejected by the Department of Justice, which argued: “The
number of children involved would be so small in this country that in
many cases such an entry would enable any person to trace with a strong
degree of probability (and sometimes with certainty) the connections
between the two entries by a comparison of dates, etc, in the register
of adopted children and the original register of births.”
Thus the paper trail was to be burned as a matter of State policy.
This was not the last time that these two departments would clash over
the welfare of children, carrying an important lesson from the period:
the State did not act as one on matters of church and State. Different
government ministers, different departments and different civil servants
pursued varying and often contradictory agendas.
When the Department of Health introduced reforms in 1957 that required
adoption societies to notify public authorities before they placed a
child with the intent of adoption, so that local authorities could
inspect the prospective adoptive home, Catholic Social Welfare Bureau
director and McQuaid’s point man on adoption issues Msgr Cecil Barrett
Barrett confided to McQuaid: “All the Catholic adoption societies
objected strongly to this particular section as it cut right across the
confidential nature of the work as provided for in the Adoption Act,
1952. I drew the attention of the Department of Justice and the Adoption
Board to what had happened and it was the first either of them had heard
of it. It was the Department of Health which was responsible for the
introduction of this offending section.” Of the adopted child, he argued
“legally its original surname is buried”.
Barrett concluded: “No substantial change should have been made without
the approval of the hierarchy”. He had the 1957 reforms reversed in the
Adoption Act of 1964.
In response, McQuaid sent Barrett his “very grateful congratulations”,
and he also wrote to the minister for justice, Charles Haughey, to
“express to you my own gratitude and the appreciation of the bishops for
your courtesy and for the unfailing co-operation of the department [of
justice] in all that concerns the adoption of children”.
The State played an important role in denying some its more vulnerable
citizens a sense of their origin. Those who argue today that it has a
commensurate duty to address this have a strong case.
Dr Robbie Roulston lectures in the UCD School of History and Archives
© 2013 irishtimes.com
|“In all of us there
is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are
and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there
is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting
Alex Haley, Author of Roots