Above: In a personal response to her own adoption story, Jill has created an installation entitled ‘Working Through’, which is particularly resonant of adoption stories in today’s Ireland. ‘Working Through’ was part of the fifth annual Bessboro Commemoration on June 24.
Anyone who has gone through the process of tracing their birth family if adopted or fostered in Ireland will tell you that it can be a difficult and traumatic process. Many don’t know where to start looking; others have to first get past the untruths that may enshroud their adoption. Mary O’Brien hears from two adoptees who have traced their roots; Rachel from West Cork, who went through the Irish adoption process and Jill, who was born and adopted in New Zealand but now lives in Rosscarbery.
As there is no central location for adoption files in Ireland, you may have to apply to a few different organisations to find the information you’re looking for. After approaching an adoption society or you local health office in the HSE about finding your birth family, you will be asked to fill out a form giving details about yourself. Most agencies have long waiting lists, as one West Cork woman found out when she wrote a letter to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, requesting information on her birth parents.
Rachel (name has been changed to protect identity):
“I got a letter back with an appointment to meet someone from Tusla,” says Rachel. “The only information I was given at this stage was my full name and the county my biological mother came from. I also found out that the information the nuns had given my adoptive parents when handing me over was a complete fabrication. Among other things, they had told my parents that my birth mother was from Co. Tipperary, when in fact she was from Co. Kerry.
“The Agency told me that there was a long waiting list and it would be another 18 months before someone would contact me again.”
Out of respect for her adoptive parents, Rachel had postponed starting the search for her birth parents for a number of years already.
“Although relationship issues prompted me to do the search, I had not wanted to start searching until I felt enough time had lapsed after my mother passed away, just out of respect for her. Even when I brought it up with my dad, many years after my mum had passed away, I remember trying to broach it really casually, almost in the same sentence as ‘will you pass the pepper?’ at dinner because I didn’t want his feelings to be hurt by me looking for my birth mother. My desire to not hurt him was totally unwarranted because Dad encouraged me every step along the way and was 100 per cent supportive. Deep down I knew he would be but I still wanted to tread softly, as it is such a delicate issue.
“After being told that I was on a long waiting list, all that was going through my mind was ‘will my birth mother still be alive by the time I find her?’”
Rachel decided to take matters into her own hands and with the information she had, did a search in the General Register Office (GRO). She found her grandfather’s death certificate and the name of the graveyard he was buried in. “I went there with my dad and afterwards we just drove around the area, hoping to find someone who knew the family. As chance would have it, off the beaten track, on a rural road in Kerry, the first person we stopped to talk to turned out to be my uncle!”
Just over six weeks after starting her search, Rachel found her birth mother, but for many it’s a far longer process. Some will never meet or know their birth family.
“It’s very frustrating to think there are people sitting in an office with this information that you just really, really want and they won’t give it to you,” explains Rachel, who found that seeing a counsellor specialising in adoption issues really helped her through the experience. She also attended a Cork-based support group, Know my Own.
For West Cork artist Jill Dinsdale, who was born and adopted in New Zealand, tracing her birth mother was a very different experience. “For me it was so easy,” says Jill, “I just had to fill out a form and send it in and I got my birth certificate and birth mother’s details by return post.”
In a personal response to her own adoption story, Jill has created an installation entitled ‘Working Through’, which is particularly resonant of adoption stories in today’s Ireland.
Her evocative work consists of hundreds of tissue baby dresses suspended in mid-air.
The artwork, which was part of the fifth annual Bessboro Commemoration on June 24, was shown at the Dublin Institute of Technology’s 2018 Graduate Show in Grangegorman and was originally shown on Sherkin Island, as part of the recent BA Visual Art Degree Show. Filling an ex-council house, the dresses became a talking point on the island and during the show, and visitors could be found in groups sharing their own stories and memories.
The dignified service at Bessboro took place to honour mothers and children who died while in the care of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, and who are buried on the property or elsewhere.
“It was such a privilege to be able to install my work there, and I was touched by how it was received,” says Jill. The dresses were hung outdoors under the branches of an enormous copper beech on the avenue leading to the cemetery.
The Grangegorman installation was appropriately housed in a room, which was a former hospital ward, located a short distance from a former laundry. Jill is very conscious that the work has already encouraged discussions about many issues concerning children. She says, “There have been visitors in tears recalling experiences from miscarriages to the Tuam atrocities and forced adoptions. The reactions are very moving and I am grateful that ‘Working Through’ appears to have provided people with a safe space to recall personal events and discuss current ones.”
Jill’s own story begins in 1963, the year she was born and adopted out in New Zealand. “That year, there were 1,775 other children in closed adoptions in New Zealand,” says Jill. “I’d been looking at my old christening gown, thinking about the numbers of people adopted the year I was born, the ghosts that all these people in the adoption process walk with, and I started making a dress out of tissue paper. For my fourth year graduation show, I decided to make a dress for every child who was born and given away in New Zealand, the year I was born.
“I’m the same as a lot of adoptees – most of us feel a lot of love, respect and protectiveness towards our adoptive parents. As a result, a lot of us don’t do the search for our birth parents until our adoptive parents have died. In Ireland, the number of mature adoptees coming up against hurdles in their search is just insane.
“As an adult adoptee in Ireland, you have no rights. So much is shrouded in secrecy, with records ‘supposedly’ lost. I’ve spoken to many adoptees in Ireland and their stories are awful. They regularly get comments like ‘you’re ok aren’t you, sure you’ve had a good life’. I really hope it changes.”
Jill had a very happy childhood. “I was made to feel so special,” she says. “When I was little in school, I used to say to my friends, ‘oh you poor things, I was adopted, I was chosen, you were only born’.” Later on her parents adopted another child, so she had a brother.
“It wasn’t until my own children expressed an interest that I started looking into my birth family. I had overlooked the fact that it’s their story too.”
After receiving the information on her birth mother in 2012. Jill sat on it for four years. “There is so much risk, you could potentially be damaging a lot of people’s lives or it could be really wonderful. I was terrified,” she explains.
She finally sent off a letter to her birth mother in 2016. “I remember it so well. That evening my brother rang to say our mum had had a stroke. So my letter and I flew to New Zealand around the same time.” It was a difficult trip; Jill had to place her mother in a nursing home and organise the sale of the family home. “It was nearly time for me to fly back to Ireland and I thought, ‘I can’t leave without making contact’. So I picked up the phone and called her.”
Jill went down to visit her mother and met her sister for the first time. “Out of the house came me, only with short hair and then out of the house came me again, only an 80-year-old woman. I had never considered the impact of the seeing the similarity,” says Jill.
It turned out that growing up Jill lived only 45 minutes away from her birth family and she has four full-blood siblings. “I was the fifth. Looking back, my birth mother thinks that she must have had postnatal depression after having her fourth child. She remembers feeling really desperate and saying to my father ‘I can’t do this, I can’t have this child.’ When she came home for the hospital, she told my siblings that I was stillborn.
“I’ve never felt any bitterness. I was brought up being told that my parents loved me so much that they gave me away. That’s what I chose to believe utterly, and then when I met her, how could I be angry with someone who suffered such sheer desperation as to give their child away?”
In the space of a few hours, Jill met the rest of her family over Skype, including her three siblings who live in Australia, and also many of their children.
“It was the weirdest, most wonderful experience,” she says.
“There is that risk when you start searching that you can be rejected again, so I feel very lucky.”
Jill didn’t expect her artwork, which stemmed from her own experience, to have such an impact on others.
“I hung the dresses with the hem 5ft 5” from the ground, so I could pass underneath. I saw it as bowing to the sheer number of them. Each dress on its own is so ethereal, so light, emphasising the fragileness of a child. I wasn’t prepared for the reactions from people walking through the house. After sitting down on the sofas, lying on the beds, looking at these dresses, they’d find me and start talking…coming out with stories about miscarriages, their own adoptions, the Magdalene laundries, Tuam…many of them were heartbreaking.
“I am thrilled that the work has been so well-received. Conversations about adoption birth rights need to continue and I hope that the ripples from my work help to keep the issue alive.”
Know My Own Support Group Cork. Email email@example.com. Helpline: 087 2584822 (Open 7-9pm Tuesdays and Thursdays and 5-7pm Sundays).
www.citizensinformation.ie for information on domestic adoption in Ireland.