‘We got Theresa but not in the legal way’: Ireland’s secret adoptions
It took Irish woman 48 years to learn that she was illegally adopted, although she always felt she ‘didn’t belong’ to her family
Sat 2 Jun 2018 07.00 BST
She was two days old and in “good condition” when a couple knocked on the door of a house in Collins Avenue, Dublin. It was 1954, a time when Ireland was ruled from the pulpit and unmarried pregnant women were told they were a shameful stain on their families and communities.
As the woman picked up the newborn, Nurse Doody a well-known midwife in the city said they should leave by the side door, out of sight of the baby’s birth mother. The couple and Doody took the infant straight to Our Lady of Consolation church in Donnycarney, where the local priest baptised her Theresa Marion Hiney.
Six weeks later, the birth was registered; the certificate records that she was born at home to James and Catherine (known as Kathleen) Hiney. A caution is printed along the bottom: “To alter this certificate or use it as altered is a serious offence.” There is no warning about giving false information in the first place.
It took another 48 years for Theresa Hiney Tinggal to learn that she was illegally adopted, although she had always felt she “didn’t belong” to her family and she never got on with her mother. And it took a further 15 years, until last April, to track down her biological family in Tipperary. She learned that her birth mother was dead and the man who was probably her biological father had long since emigrated to Canada.
Now almost 64, Tinggal is reconciled to the past, although the decades of betrayal and lies still hurt. But, she said, her case and the cases of another 125 people, to whom Leo Varadkar apologised this week for their illegal adoptions, were “just the tip of the iceberg”.
The taoiseach told the Irish parliament that the 126 illegal adoptions through the Catholic agency St Patrick’s Guild between 1946 and 1969 were “another chapter from the very dark history of our country”. People had been robbed of their identity, and many still had no idea they had been adopted decades ago. The revelation would be traumatic. “I am so sorry,” he said.
Tinggal, whose adoption was not through St Patrick’s Guild, told the Guardian: “The number is a joke. I’d add at least a couple of zeros to that. There are thousands of us. It’s hard to put a figure on it and the government knows that.”
She added: “Those people will like me be completely shocked. They could spiral into depression, and will need support and counselling.”
Tinggal discovered the truth about her past from an uncle, who blurted out the information in a phone call. “He said, ‘I really don’t know how they did it, Theresa, but I went home [to Ireland], you were a baby there, and your father said to me, yeah, we got Theresa but not in the legal way.’”
Moments after that call, Tinggal’s older sister who had always known the truth confirmed the devastating news. She flew to Dublin to confront her mother, who confessed the whole story and signed an account of it before she died last year.
In it, Kathleen Hiney tells how she and her husband longed for a second child but were unable to conceive. By chance, her husband met an acquaintance who said he and his wife had adopted a girl but outside any official process. The man offered to put the Hineys in contact with someone who could help them.
Soon after Tinggal’s birth, the couple were informed by telegram and set off to collect the baby. She was on the floor “in an orange box, wrapped in cotton wool” says Kathleen’s account. Kathleen was told nothing about the birth mother’s background. “There did not seem to be any legal process, I did not sign or was not informed about anything and I didn’t ask.”
When she registered the baby’s birth, “they didn’t ask anything, I just said she had been born at home”.
But two years later, Kathleen admitted the illicit adoption to the health board, through which she fostered a third child. Without knowing it, Tinggal was monitored on a monthly basis by health visitors until she was 16, with notes on her progress recorded in a thick file. All the time, she believed the health board visits to the family home were to check on her fostered younger sister.
“They knew my adoption was illegal, but they didn’t do anything. I think I was just one of many thousands of illegitimate children who had been illegally adopted but as I had a home I think they just saw it as a problem solved,” she said.
As well as the health board file, a register of births about 1,000 were found among Doody’s papers after her death. Tinggal’s birth, with her “good condition” noted, were among them. It was also recorded that £45 a considerable sum in 1954 had been handed to Kathleen, probably to pay for a pram and other essentials.
For a while after Tinggal discovered that she had been illegally adopted, “I was so angry you wouldn’t believe it. I fought with everybody. Friends said, ‘you’ve changed since you found out you were adopted.’ I said, ‘what do you expect? I’m not the person I thought I was.’”
She traced her biological relatives through DNA matching, a long and often disheartening process. “I used to look in the mirror and shop windows and wonder who I looked like,” she said. “Now I know who I am and where I come from.” She visited her birth mother’s grave. “My heart still feels for her and all of the mothers in her situation,” she said.
Ten years ago, Tinggal who now lives near Bournemouth set up Adopted Illegally Ireland, which campaigns for adoptees to be given access to files and records. The organisation claims 42 mother and baby homes were involved in informal or illegal adoptions.
The adoption industry in Ireland spun out of control, she said, because of “the Catholic church and the idea of sin well, a sin for women but all those men got away with it. Now the church has lost control, which is the best thing ever for that country. They’ve destroyed so many lives.”
Varadkar’s apology this week was, she said, “a significant moment. But why have they put a lid on it all these years? Why didn’t they listen? I’ve been raising it for years and in the end I thought, I’m up against a brick wall here.”
She and other adoptees did not want compensation or retribution, but they wanted help in finding the truth. “Everyone I’ve spoken to over the years just wants to know where they come from and what happened. I don’t think this can be swept under the carpet again. Things will change now, and not before time.”
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