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Where did I come from?

Irish Times Tue, Feb 14, 2012

Tracing your birth parents can be rewarding, but don’t do it on your own, writes SHEILA WAYMAN 

CHANTAL RYAN, who was adopted as a baby in 1960s Ireland, had never seen someone who looked like her until the birth of her own daughter.

Growing up in Limerick and of mixed race descent, she was conscious of looking very different to her parents and their two birth children, one older and one younger.

“I always wanted to know where I came from, why was I so different.”

As an adult she moved to Costa Rica, where her daughter was born. And it was only after returning to live in Ireland that she started the search for her birth parents in 2006.

All she knew at that stage was that she had been born to two students, she Irish and he Portuguese (Ryan was later to discover he was half Angolan), and that a foster mother had handed her over to her mum and dad at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin after the adoption had been finalised.

Motherhood is a common trigger for the tracing of birth parents, she says. “When you become a mother yourself, that’s when questions come up. You have this baby in your hands and there is no way you would give it up for anything and you start wondering how and why . . .”

For adopted men, it is more often when their child is a bit older, she suggests, that they become intent on finding their birth parents.

Ryan put her name on the National Contact Preference Register, set up in 2005 by the then Adoption Board to look for matches between adopted people, natural parents and any natural relatives of adopted people. She also contacted the agency that handled her adoption.

It was her birth father she most wanted to find, having always had a very close relationship with her adoptive mother. She also had it in her mind that her birth mother was the one who made the choice to put her up for adoption, while her birth father didn’t have a say in it.

“It was a father figure I was looking for more than anything,” she says – but she needed to find her birth mother first.

Only a couple of months after Ryan filed all her documents with the agency, a social worker came back with details of her birth mother, who also wanted to be reunited. They started corresponding in July 2006 through emails and letters, and had their first phone conversation on Christmas Day.

When they met the following February, in Bewleys on Grafton Street, Ryan was disappointed that she could see no physical resemblance in her birth mother and was left still yearning for that person she could look at and connect to. “This person was not it.”

With added information and the help of the same “brilliant” social worker, she tracked down her birth father in July 2007. Although he was living in Dubai, his sister still lived in the family home in Portugal and she forwarded the letter informing him that Ryan wanted to get in touch. He was very enthusiastic about the idea and they met for the first time in Paris.

Even before that meeting she had felt an “immediate” physical connection through photographs he sent of himself and his family. “There are baby pictures of me and my youngest half-sister – and they are the same baby!”

She soon found that she not only looked like him, but they also shared personality traits. Their reunion was a great cause for celebration as all his family knew of her existence – in stark contrast to the family secrecy on her birth mother’s side.

She remembers being with him in a cafe when he phoned his sister and asked her to guess who he was sitting beside. “And all you could hear were these screams of delight.”

Another bonus of finding her birth parents was the additional siblings, nieces and nephews it brought into her life. Her birth mother also has a son, while her birth father has three other children.

“I think a lot of adopted people would agree that [this] is one of the best things that comes out of it because the relationship with siblings is a lot easier than, necessarily, with the birth parents, as there is no baggage.”

Adopted adults who are thinking of looking for their birth parents should not do it on their own, advises Ryan, who attended a course run by the Barnardos Post Adoption Service when she was tracing hers.

One of the aims of the course, says Christine Hennessey, project leader with Barnardos Post Adoption Service, is to help people prepare psychologically for life after reunion with a birth parent, when they face issues such as merging relationships, trying to find time for everybody and, possibly, the unresolved grief of the birth mother.

Course participants tend to stay in touch with each other and occasional follow-up support meetings are arranged.

There were days during the tracing process when Ryan thought she was going to go mad.

“You are getting so much information and have so many different emotions going on. You have to go back in your head and often rewrite your own history. It’s mentally and physically draining.”

You can talk to people who haven’t been adopted and a lot of them will be really interested in your story but they don’t “get it”, she explains.

“They think, you had good parents, a good upbringing, why do you want to search for these other people? They don’t get that sense of loss that’s always there, whereas when you are in the groups with Barnardos, everybody gets it, they all know what you are talking about.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Martin (61) who also did the course at the end of last year. “At that stage I thought I had identified who my mother was but I hadn’t actually spoken to her and I still haven’t.”

It is a very confusing situation, he explains, “and your head gets very muddled”. Hearing other people’s stories helps to validate your feelings. “It is like a jigsaw somebody has taken a piece out of and it can never be completed because a piece is missing.”

The fact that he was adopted was not talked about at home and he only found out by accident. “When I was about eight or nine I was rummaging around in my parents’ house and found my father’s will. The first line said: ‘To my adopted son I leave . . .’”

He was left wondering and it came out about two weeks later, when his parents noticed he was a bit withdrawn and asked what was wrong. They told him it meant they were his parents now, “and it was never ever mentioned again”.

Martin did not start trying to trace his birth parents until the 1980s, after the deaths of his adoptive parents and during a period when he was becoming a father himself, to five children. Initial inquiries to the Dublin orphanage that had handled his adoption yielded nothing. The process dragged on over many years until a nun gave him a little information, which he was able to use in his own research. In the end it was through a set of pure coincidences that he discovered the identity and location of his birth mother.

Another thing that spurred him on in the search was the fact that several years ago his wife, who is in the reverse situation to him, was reunited with a son she had given up for adoption as a baby.

“He is now so much part of our family, like he never wasn’t,” says Martin. “That was a happy ending on one side – it doesn’t look like mine is going to be.”

However, he feels much more at peace with his situation now. “If this contact doesn’t come about, it is not going to be catastrophic. I know where I come from, I know who the person is.”

A particularly valuable part of the course, he says, was to hear a birth mother talking about her experiences.

“With your own children, you always wonder, how could somebody give up their child? But you have to try to put yourself in the context of the person at the time. You tend not to think that the birth mother is grieving as well.”

Meanwhile, Ryan, who is a life coach and works voluntarily with adopted adults, will give an adoptee’s perspective at a Barnardos workshop for adoptive parents next month. Although adoptive parents can feel threatened when children want to trace their birth parents, in her experience it can often strengthen the relationship.

She brought her adoptive parents along with her in the search for her origins, sharing details and photographs as they emerged. Her dad was always into family trees, she says, and for him it was like a big project; he wanted to know everything. “Mum was a little bit more cautious.”

She is very glad that, before her dad died last May, they had both met her birth parents.

“I am extremely protective of the position that my [adoptive] parents hold. I am their daughter,” she stresses. She does not like her birth parents introducing her as their daughter. “The parents who brought me up can only truly call me that.”

The next Barnardos course for adopted adults, exploring issues around being adopted and searching for birth parents, starts on February 23rd and will run for four consecutive Thursday evenings, 7.30-9.30pm in the Hilton Kilmainham Hotel, Dublin 8. For more information and booking, see barnardos.ie, which also has details of a half-day workshop for adoptive parents on Saturday, March 31st, in the same venue.

The Barnardos Post Adoption Service runs a confidential helpline, 01 454 63 88, or email adoption@barnardos.ie

‘The adopted person’s needs are considered last in the equation’ 

Susan Lohan was always afraid that she would not be a good parent because, having been adopted as a baby, she felt she had never experienced the true mother-child bond.

But the arrival of Conall seven years ago proved her fear unfounded. She was not “fundamentally flawed” and unable to bond with her child.

“There is an easiness between us, which I didn’t have with either of my mothers,” says Lohan, co-founder with Claire McGettrick of the Adoption Rights Alliance.

Having previously worked on the board of Adoption Ireland, they set up the alliance in 2009 when they were “horrified” to discover no provision was being made for information and tracing rights in the Adoption Bill, which came into law in November 2010.

Unlike adopted people in the North, the nearly 45,000 people who have been adopted in the Republic since 1952 have no automatic legal right to their birth certificate or to gain access to information in their adoption files.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, has indicated that she is considering inserting this into the Adoption Act, but Lohan is not hopeful of anything happening soon.

“The adopted person’s needs are considered last in the equation,” she says. Often the former, religious-run adoption agencies make the process so difficult, people just give up. Irish society, she argues, needs to be far more respectful of adopted people’s need and right to know who their birth parents were.

“I had a deep-seated need, hunger, to know who my mother was and, beyond that, who my blood relatives were,” explains Lohan, who was born in 1964 and started searching for her birth mother in the 1980s.

“Meeting my mother was a profound experience for me and I felt it went some way to filling this vacuum I felt all my life – not to take away from my adoptive parents.”

It was wonderful, she says, to see the similarities between her and her birth mother, not only physically, but also in mannerisms and interests.

“If she had brought me up, I might have cultivated those interests more and done something different.”

Her mother was a 30-year-old unmarried civil servant when she had the baby, and would have had to resign, leaving her without any financial means to raise the child.

Lohan believes her mother was emotionally scarred by the experience; she never married nor had any more children. “She had spent so many years erecting this wall around herself after she was forced to give me up that, when we did meet, she was a very closed, frigid, rigid person.”

They had 17 years of contact before she died in 2000. But, living in England at the time, Lohan only heard about her birth mother’s death “through the grapevine” and she had to behave, she says, like a stranger at the funeral.

Her mother had confided her daughter’s existence to only two other people.

Lohan encourages adopted people not to delay in starting to try to trace their birth parents. “They should be mindful of the fact that, even if they don’t want it for themselves, if they go on to have children they are talking about their children’s ancestors and it is very important for that generation too. Unfortunately,” she adds, “people can realise this all too late in life – and then it is too late.”

For more information on the Adoption Rights Alliance, see adoption.ie

2012 The Irish Times


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“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 loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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