Philomena author on scandal of Ireland’s 60,000 babies ‘sold’ by nuns to rich American families
The film Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, tells the true story of a mother’s quest to find the son taken from her by the Catholic Church in 1950s Ireland.
She was one of an estimated 60,000 women whose babies were given to new parents in exchange for cash donations.
As part of a new BBC2 show, Martin Sixsmith, the journalist whose book inspired the film, travelled to Ireland and the US to meet those affected by the scandal. Here he talks about his journey.
I am sitting in the backyard of a modest house in Fort Lauderdale. The Florida sun is beating down and Cathy Deasy, a sparky, articulate redhead in her late 50s, pours me iced tea as we flick through a photo album from her childhood.
The black and white pictures show four-year-old Cathy with her smiling, freckled face sitting on a rocking horse, then standing waving, dressed in smart clothes and clutching a tiny suitcase.
She looks happy, but the photos conceal a dark secret. They were taken in the Catholic mother and baby home at Bessboro in County Cork. Cathy was born there in 1955, and for the next four years her unmarried mother had cared for her there, while working in the convent laundry.
“They are what I call ‘prop shots’,” Cathy tells me. “The nuns took them to impress adopters. They dressed us up in nice clothes, made us pose with toys that we would never be allowed to play with, and told us to wave to the camera.”
Like all the other children in Ireland’s mother and baby homes, Cathy was about to be taken away from her mother.
The “prop shots” were designed to attract adoptive parents in the United States. The little suitcase and the cheery wave to the camera were a signal that the child was eager to fly to them over the Atlantic.
In Cathy’s case it had the desired effect. An American couple who had been turned down for adoptions in the US contacted the nuns and were sent Cathy’s dossier.
“My new parents did it all by mail,” Cathy says. “They never came to Ireland. They just told the nuns that they wanted a girl aged four or five, to be a companion for their own daughter.
“They sent a shopping list of what they wanted”.
When I suggest, jokingly, she was a mail-order child, Cathy agrees. “Yeah, straight out of a catalogue.”
The nuns were using a marketing strategy and the trade was lucrative.
Selling babies was illegal but the adoptions were followed by sizeable payments, disguised as “donations”, from the grateful adopters.
For Cathy, the journey to the New World was traumatic. Her American parents paid the nuns to provide a courier to take her on the flight. She says: “I felt very frightened and very alone coming off that plane.”
Her adoptive father later came to resent Cathy’s presence and when the couple’s biological daughter left home to go to college, he issued an ultimatum: Cathy would have to pack her bags and get out of the house.
She says: “He told me they had spent my college fund and were going on a cruise. They wanted me gone by my 18th birthday.”
For an adopted child, rejection is a big thing. The thought that your birth mother has turned her back on you is hard to live with. When it happens for a second time, a sense that it must be your fault is hard to avoid.
Cathy tells me: “Saying goodbye to my adoptive parents hurt. It still hurts now, even after all these years.”
But for Cathy, this second rejection led her to take control of her life. She set out to find her real mother in Ireland discover why she had been given away.
Like Philomena’s son, Cathy wrote to the nuns at the convent where she was born.
She was answered by Sister Sarto Harney, who controlled the records of all mothers and babies in the homes run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
But the answer was not what Cathy had hoped for. She says: “Sister Sarto told me in a letter, ‘Your mother’s probably dead. Why are you continuing the search?’”
Cathy wondered if Sister Sarto was telling her the truth. She had written to her again and again, in a correspondence that spanned fourteen years.
By 2002, Cathy contacted a group of Irish adoptees who had experience of searches like hers, and within a few months they found Cathy’s mother. She smiles: “I was so excited. I called my friends and said, ‘My God, I’ve found my mother’.”
Cathy wasted no time in flying to Ireland and meeting the woman she had last seen almost half a century earlier.
Wiping away a tear, she tells me: “It was the happiest moment in my life. There she was, this little old lady who was my mother. She was smiling and you could see the joy in her eyes.
“I said to her, ‘I’m your daughter. I still have the same red hair’. My mother said it broke her heart that I was taken from her.
“Those were hard words to speak, but they gave me all the answers – I was never unwanted, I was never abandoned. My mother dido give me away.”
Cathy discovered that after she was sent to America, her mother was kept for another 35 years in an institution run by the Catholic Church, just a few miles from the convent, all because she had committed the sin of getting pregnant outside marriage.
Cathy decided there needed to be a reckoning. So she drove to the convent at Bessboro to seek out Sister Sarto.
She says: “I had to do an actual car chase to track Sister Sarto down. I caught her and I confronted her.
“She said she didn’t know anything about my file, despite me writing to her for years. I told her she had to know who I was and that my mother had been living down the street all this time.
“My mother died seven years after I found her. If they had helped me, I could have met her sooner.”
I asked the nuns from the order of The Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary why they failed to give Cathy more information about her birth mother. They said they were limited by considerations of confidentiality.
Sadly, Cathy’s experience is far from unique.
The legacy of Ireland’s shameful history of forced adoptions means thousands of other mothers and children are still looking for each other.
The Irish government is – at last – considering moves that would open up all the secret records that could help them.
But the women whose babies were taken from them in the 1950s and 60s are old now and if nothing is done soon, it will be too little, too late.
Journalist and author Martin Sixsmith has travelled again to Ireland and the USA to meet people affected by the forced adoption scandal for a new TV documentary
Photo – ‘Catalogue picture’: Cathy pictured at the convent home in Ireland to attract and American ‘buyer’
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