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My mother went really quiet, then she said: "Yes, I am your mummy, but you had another mummy"

For years, she came up against secrets and bureaucratic lies, but Marita Conlon-McKenna eventually managed to trace the woman who put her up for adoption in the late 1950s

By Marita Conlon-McKenna
Irish Independent, Saturday February 25 2012

I found out I was adopted during a fight with the girl next door. It was the early 1960s and we were both about eight.

She wanted to play up in The Back Fields, the wild undeveloped land behind our houses in Goatstown, Co Dublin, but I told her my mum and dad didn't allow me to go there.

"But you don't have to do what they tell you," she said knowingly. "They are not your mummy and daddy."

"They are so. They are so," I shouted again and again, but while I was running home I remember that this cold feeling of worry hit the pit of my stomach; what if it was true?

I was so different from my parents physically: they were dark haired and I had white-blonde hair and sallow skin.

From the time I was tiny, people had been asking them where I had come from.

I ran home and my mother heard me slamming the door. I remember running into her bedroom and telling her why I was so upset.

"She's such a liar," I blurted out, and I waited for my mother to agree.

But my mother went really quiet. Then she said: "I am your mummy, but you had another mummy."

She tried to explain that she and my dad couldn't have a baby but they had really wanted one. She described going to the children's home and seeing a big row of cots with little babies in them.

"And there you were with your blue eyes and blonde hair -- we had to have you," she said.

That made me feel really special; handpicked. And even more so when she told me about the celebrations that accompanied my homecoming.

When they brought me home, everyone came in for Champagne and they planted a special rose bush just for me.

I was taking it all in. But when I went to tell my sister, Gerardine, who had been adopted a year and three months after me, she seemed to know already. She was always more savvy.

She had somehow picked it up. No more was said about adoption in our family. My parents, Mary and Paddy, refused to discuss it, or even acknowledge it.

But despite the upset with the girl next door, all was still well. And things got even better the following summer when my mum went to the hairdressers in Greystones and came out a blonde -- just like me!

I remember looking at her and thinking that half the family was now blonde and the other half dark --it was a perfect balance.

People started to say I looked like her and that made me so happy.

It also helped that one of my friends at school in Mount Anville was also adopted. In fact, we looked alike and I used to imagine that we were secret sisters.

I could do that a lot; see somebody on the street or in a newspaper and imagine that we were somehow related.

When I was younger, I used to dream that my unknown mother was a singer, an actress or a film star, but as I got older, the doubts set in.

The words 'illegitimate' and 'bastard' began to register and I started to suspect that maybe my start in life wasn't such a good story -- maybe my mother was a drunk or a loose woman, or worse.

I just had no reference points at all. I didn't look like my parents, my sister or any of my cousins. At times, I felt I didn't belong in the family.

My sister and I talked a lot about it. She was far more obsessed about adoption than me, and sometimes she got angry about it.

But my parents couldn't have done more for us. My mum and I were so, so close. She would have moved heaven and earth for us.

Her sister Eleanor never married and was like another mother to us, so there was no shortage of mothering.

We had a fun, mostly happy childhood. I'm very lucky to have a very optimistic outlook -- maybe I inherited it -- yet I still felt that there was something missing.

I wrote from a very early age and that helped to fill the void, but I still wanted to find out where I came from.

I contacted and wrote to St Patrick's Guild in Dublin, one the biggest adoption societies in the country, but got little response.

When I got the courage to visit the place, I found it very cold, bureaucratic and unwelcoming. I remember going to see a nun and feeling as if I had done something wrong.

I felt like a stupid, silly little person. There was very little warmth or understanding of my position.

I wrote a letter to my mother and hoped they would pass it on to her. In it, I said I was happy, that I wondered about her and would love to meet her.

I was hoping that some magic would happen and that I would be able to break through a chink in the barrier that had been put up. But there was no response.

I wrote again in my 30s when I was facing a serious operation. I just wanted her to know that if anything happened to me that I was thinking of her.

I sent that to St Patrick's Guild. They sent back the letter years later, after I found out my biological mother had died. She never got it. It had been sitting there for a few years unread.

When I had my first child Mandy in 1978, it really hit me how hard it must have been to give a baby up for adoption.

It made me think a lot about my mother and how hard it was to go through the months of pregnancy, the birth and the days we spent together, although I'll never know how long that was.

I was adopted when I was about three months old and was moved from St Rita's, a nursing home in Ranelagh where I was born, to the Temple Hill Children's Home in Blackrock.

When I tried to find out more, I was told all the documents had been lost in Ranelagh and had been destroyed by fire at Blackrock -- or was that the other way around?

I can't quite remember.

In any case, every single document pertaining to me seemed to have vanished. It was as if I didn't exist.

Usually, I'm a feisty, strong and intelligent person. I've been published internationally, but I felt that I had been stripped of all power.

But bits of information did seep through. For instance, my aunt once let it slip that my biological mother wanted to take me back and had refused to sign the final adoption papers.

She said my parents were in such a panic they had considered fleeing to Australia so that they could keep me. I thought that was very romantic when I found out about it, and I felt my biological mother hadn't just walked away.

But I wasn't ever going to get a scrap of information from the Guild, despite my last plea.

When my daughter was 13, she was in hospital with heart problems and the doctors needed some family medical information.

I phoned the nun again and asked her to please supply my medical history as it would help my daughter. There was no response. The lack of medical history is a huge issue for people who are adopted.

I would have left the whole issue there, but after my own mother died in 1999 -- and I call my adopted mother 'mum', as she's the one I consider to be my real mother -- I had to get a death cert at the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriage.

I got the cert and, as I was leaving, I saw the section that dealt with births. I never had a birth cert and only a few weeks previously I had written to Judge Mary Fahy applying for one.

I thought I had nothing to lose and began to trawl through the ledger of the year of my birth. When I got to the day of my birth, there was nothing there. No entry at all.

But then I remembered another piece of information my father had let slip and saw an entry under a different surname -- I found an entry under my date of birth and details about a baby at St Rita's home where I was born. It had to be me.

It was five minutes to closing time and I went up to the desk and asked for a print-out of that birth cert.

I was shaking on the Dart on the way home: I had my mum's death certificate in one hand and my own birth certificate in the other.

When I got home, the phone rang. It was Judge Fahy's office to say they would issue my birth cert.

My heart froze. For a moment, I thought they had cameras at the Register office and they had seen what I had done.

I felt I had committed some kind of crime.

But a few weeks later, the birth cert came and the information I had was confirmed.

Thanks to another snippet of information from my dad, I knew my mother had married two to three years after giving me up for adoption. I went back to trawl through the marriage ledgers and eventually came up with one name.

At this stage, the nun I was dealing with was dead and new social workers had taken over at St Patrick's Guild. They were much more helpful when I asked them to confirm that the name I had uncovered was in fact my birth mother.

Previously, I had been told she was living in England, that she was abroad, that she was down the country; so many conflicting things, but in fact she was living in the same city as me.

They had done everything to put me off the track. It's heartbreaking really.

I didn't tell my husband or kids that I was going to phone her. I didn't trust the conventional way of doing things any more so I got her number from the phone book, dialled it and when a man answered, said I was a friend from way back.

"I'm very sorry," he said. "Didn't you hear?"

She had died around the same time as my own mother.

The man -- I presumed he was her husband -- asked if he could help me at all. He sounded really nice and I thought, I can't do this to him now.

I couldn't arrive at the door and say to his children that you are my long-lost half-brothers and sister. Not when my mother was no longer there. They would have been devastated.

It's a call I've made and I think it's a good call. I think you have to remember that there are three sides to an adoption story: the adopted person and both mothers.

That is something that I really tried to explore in my latest book, 'Three Women'.

Later, we drove up by the house to see where she lived. It gives me comfort to know that she wasn't despondent or lonely and went on to have children and had a life.

She wasn't a film star -- she was just an ordinary woman. I'm a nice person. I hope she was a pretty nice person too.

I have a wonderful family here. I'm not short of people to care for now. I have four children -- Mandy, Laura, Fiona and James -- and two grandchildren, Holly and Sam, but I'm glad I got the information about where I came from.

When you are adopted, there's a gap, something missing in you. It doesn't matter how good your parents are, there is no getting over that void unless you know who you are.

I feel I have filled that void now, even if I didn't get to meet my mother.

If you can trace, don't be afraid to do it. There's a contact register now and things are a lot more open for the 43,500 people who were adopted in Ireland since the Adoption Act was introduced in 1952.

I've heard of many adopted people meeting their mothers. Some work out and others don't, but I think you have to confront it and find out for yourself.

When we were selling my parents' house, my sister and I went through everything and couldn't find a single piece of paper about us.

We stripped the house apart but all we could find were a few school reports and cards we had made. There was nothing to prove officially we had existed.

Nowadays, nobody has a secret life. If you want information, all you have to do is use Google.

Obviously, it's better to go through the proper channels. And it's very important to see tracing in terms of the people who have adopted you and the woman who put you up for adoption.

You have to consider all the people involved -- it's a balancing act.

I know of one person who got her mother's details and simply drove to her house and parked outside. That was enough.

You may never want to ring that doorbell, but I think every adopted child has a right to know where they came from.

'Three Women' by Marita Conlon-McKenna, published by Transworld, is out now.

The book is reviewed in our Review section. See page 22

- Marita Conlon-McKenna

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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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