Adoption is an alternative to parenting, not an alternative to abortion. This was the opening line and the core tenet of the two week Adopted People Together For Yes campaign prior to the recent referendum in the Republic of Ireland. The voice of adopted people had been conspicuously absent during the previous years as the campaign for repeal ramped up towards the referendum and indeed we are a voice that has both been silenced and silenced itself in the previous decades; with just two weeks to the referendum we decided to remedy that.
The last Irish Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996 with the last mother and baby home closing around the same time. The youngest woman to have given birth in a Laundry is now only 40 years old; those of us born in the Laundries and mother a baby homes are not some dim and distant memory from a dark and shameful past, we are 1000s of living breathing difficult-to-deal-with testaments to what can happen when women’s reproductive choices are controlled and this is why our voice in the campaign was essential. We managed to reach over 150,000 people via just two social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, in that time. We struck a chord, we were a voice others had previously not heard, we were a voice that had previously carried too much shame to be heard because we embody that chapter of Irish history; it lives within us as our direct experience and for most of us it is, or has been, life-shaping and deeply painful.
Thousands of stories have been gathered of the estimated 35,000 women who lived and gave birth in the homes and Laundries, they speak of birth without pain relief and sometimes penicillin too, even if infection was clearly present, stitches deliberately not being given to repair vaginal tears, women being beaten, abused both physically and verbally, being made to kneel nightly while heavily pregnant by the side of their beds and pray for forgiveness for their sins; the sins of lust, love, longing and sex at a time when contraception was illegal in Ireland between the years of 1935 and 1980. This dark stain of shame on Ireland’s past is well documented.
It is also well documented that those of us born in the institutions were sold by the hundreds, trafficked in our thousands to the USA mostly, but other countries also. We had our birth records falsified by the state and it is now emerging that these records may also number in the thousands. We were experimented on in vaccine trials and died in our 1000s, at a rate much higher than the national averages at the time, with an estimated 7,000 buried in mass and unmarked graves, many more of which, it is claimed, are yet to be discovered. This is a legacy of shame, shame that has penetrated through to the core of the fabric of Irish life, one that is finally seeing the light of day so it can be grieved, apologised for, responsibility can be taken and we can move forward.
“Ireland failed you,” President Higgins said at the Dublin Honours the Magdalenes event on June 4th. Ireland has failed many of her daughters and sons. I’m interested in us taking responsibility as a nation and so use the language of ‘we’ when I say we have failed to reclaim our power when we freed ourselves, for the most part, from British colonialism, and as a consequence we handed that power straight over to the Roman Catholic Church who took it and continued to hold us. We allowed it to disempower us in relation to our schools, our laws, our bodies and most importantly, in regards to many aspects of our sexuality. The tide is changing in Ireland, rapidly and wonderfully. I am mindful that we need to welcome and cultivate this new power and I am also mindful that there are still many steps to be taken for most adopted Irish people to feel that the past has been revealed in full. Adopted people need to mourn and know that responsibility has been accepted and that we can move forward individually, in families, communities and nationally from that place.
“Even today, in so-called ‘modern Ireland’ adopted people are denied the most basic rights, which are taken for granted by the rest of the population. We are denied access to our birth certificates and adoption files.’’, said the Adoption Rights Alliance in its position paper on the recent referendum. The truth must out, there is potency and power in its revelation. The truth must out, organisations and agencies must take responsibility for what was done and not done, apologies must be issued. Not only though does this truth need to be laid bare at a governmental and institutional level, but also, and perhaps most importantly, within families and communities where those silences and secrets are still most painfully in place 30, 40, 50 and more years later.