Review of Banished Babies by Mike Milotte

by Padraig O’Morain, The Irish Times, Thursday 5th June, 1997

This book would make your blood boil. It tells the story of the ruthless determination of the Catholic Church in this country to export “illegitimate” babies to the United States in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s so that they would never be adopted by Irish Protestant families. It tells of the collusion of the Irish State in this traffic despite warnings by – among a few others – Dr Noel Browne. And it tells of the callous failure of the modern State to lift a finger to help mothers and babies separated in those dark decades to meet again.

After the end of the second World War, Ireland gained a reputation as a place where American servicemen and their spouses could obtain babies easily. It was not that babies could not be had for adoption in the United States – but what Americans wanted were white babies with no danger of any “coloured” genes lurking in their DNA. These, Ireland could supply.

On the Irish side Dr John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin who dominated the babies-for-export era, saw it as absolutely essential that Catholic babies born to unmarried mothers be adopted by Catholics. The option of helping the women in question to keep their babies was not considered. In particular, McQuaid feared that Catholic babies from the South would be adopted by Protestant families in Northern Ireland.

Thus, he strongly favoured the export of babies to the United States, a trade of which the nuns were enthusiastic champions and one which brought in a regular flow of money to their Orders. The 1952 Adoption Act was heavily influenced to continue to allow for the export of illegitimate babies to other countries.

A ban was also imposed on the export of babies under a year old. Why? The answer, according to the author, is that nuns had the wherewithal and the buildings and the woman power to keep babies for a year before sending them on to the United States. The Protestant adoption societies, on the other hand, could not have afforded to warehouse babies and their mothers for a year or more. Once again, the purpose was to thwart the Protestants.

Consider the cruelty of this: for the scheme to work, mothers had to be made to stay with their babies for over a year working in the mother and baby homes. They bonded with their babies in this time. Then the day would come when the mother would be given a few hours’ notice of the removal of her baby to the United States. Many have never got over the pain.

The adoption societies and the State are always eager to point out that these women signed away their babies, that they did so under conditions of strict confidentiality. The reality is that these girls were led into rooms and made to sign documents of which they understood nothing; that if they tried to escape from the mother and baby homes they were brought back by the Gardai; that they were prevented from communicating with the fathers of their children and that, on occasion, signatures were forged.

LAST year when the records relating to the export of babies were found in the National Archives, the Tanaiste, Mr Spring, promised to seek ways to make the information available to adoptees and birth mothers trying to contact each other. Nothing has happened. And the Department of Health was given the task of looking at the information issue and at gathering up information about adoption records. Nothing has happened.

This is one of the finest pieces of journalism this reader has come across for many a day. It is gripping but without sensationalism or cheap tricks. The author, Mike Milotte, has done his profession proud.

Padraig O’Morain is Social Affairs Correspondent with The Irish Times

Banished Babies, by Mike Milotte
A new edition of this book, expanded and updated, was published by New Island Books in 2011.