Adopt an Open Approach to Historic Secret

Irish American Child Legacy needs State Help to Unravel, says Valerie O’Brien
Published in The Sunday Times, 17th Nov 2013 p 17.

History and story-telling is something that we, as Irish people,think we are good at but many realise now there are some stories that get told more readily than others. In the wake of the recent Ryan, Murphy and McAleese reports, many previously untold stories have come forth.

Stephen Frear’s film“Philomena” shines a light on another aspect of Irish life in need of urgent attention. It has brought the story of the clandestine adoption of Irish children by US families to the fore. These stories have been both ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ here in Ireland. Mike Milotte’s book ‘Banished Babies’ suggests that at least 2,400 children were adopted in the period from early 1940’s to early 1970’s. These children are now adults predominantly in their 50’s and 60’s and their mothers are elderly. We know that many have been searching for their Irish families and likewise many Irish families have been searching for their lost children.

The stories of the adoptions are invariably linked with unplanned pregnancies and the very limited options open to young womenin Ireland at the time. Unplanned pregnancy can still be a major shock but, historically, it was greeted as a great trauma with very limited and stark options open to the single woman who found herself pregnant. If marriage was not a possibility or wanted, the ‘situation’ necessitated a solution that would deal with the sin, shame and secrecy associated with her ‘condition’. The fathers were kept largely invisible by a society who saw a role for a father only if marriage was an option.

It was as a result of these circumstances that banishment to the ‘Mother and Baby Homes’, run by different religious orders came into being. The most well-known ‘Homes’ were located in places such as Bessborough in Cork, Castlepollard in Westmeath, Stamullen in Meath, St Patricks in Dublin and “Sean Ross” abbey in Roscreawhich features in Philomena Lee’s true story.

For some women, these homes may have offered a lifeline but for others, as depicted in the film, experiences were characterised by trauma, humiliation, fear and slavery. The pain of the birth of their children was seen as God’s punishment for their sin and was rarely acknowledged by the family who put them into these institutions or the communities in which they had lived and become pregnant. The method of separation of young mothers from their children – so movingly portrayed in this film – remains a shocking reminder of how awful the reality was and why it remains a life-long pain that many mothers and children endure in isolation.

There were, no doubt, some good outcomes for children placed with families in the USA,but the manner in which these adoptions occurred raise many questions. There are still many unknowns including the actual number of children sent and the age range of the children. We do know that many mothers minded their children into toddlerhood and beyond, but there is evidence that many American adoptive families were not told that the child being given to them had been cared for in this way by its mother. The story of a poor orphan fitted more easily with a problem that needed to ‘go away.’ Also, the extent to which mothers were told that their children were being sent to USA is far from clear and the issue of how consents were given and understood are a central concern. This aspect has a resonance with recent stories about Irish adoption from countries such as Vietnam and Mexico. The fact that Ireland finally joined the Hague Convention in 2010 is a welcome step forward but does not necessarily eliminate the darker suspicions about inter-country adoption. It is for this reason that we, as a society, have to link our past history with present practices and in the process be open to the lessons that need to be learned.

The time has surely come to open up the Irish American adoption stories. Knowing who you are is a basic human right. It is essential that all legal impediments are removed and the adopted person’s difficult task of searching for their origins is facilitated actively. The people involved do not have time on their side and both the State and religious organisations have a part to play in resolving the very real difficulties faced in theadoption search.

So, where do we start? We know that the religious orders created a record for each Irish child sent abroad. The children travelled on Irish passportsin their original birth names issued by the relevant Irish authorities. The children were subsequently adopted in the USA following their arrival. Their adopted families usually had access to documentation containing the original names.

The adopted people who are fortunate enough to have access to the documentation giving their original name are generally able to access information and resources both in Ireland and in the USA. The many adoptees who do not know their original name have experienced particular challenges in dealing with institutions, a position compounded if they were adopted in one of the USA states which continues to seal adoptionrecords. There is also a cohort of people whose real names were misrepresented on official documents and unravelling the truth of their cases is particularly hard.

Likewise, the obstacles facing mothers like Philomena Lee and their families who wish to search for siblings, cousins and nieces or nephewsare also immense. Who can they turn to when denied access to information, what are they entitled to ask for and who in this state’s institutionsholds the responsibility to help with search and reunion?

There are many Philomena Lees and adopted children and, to do the right thing as a society, we need to prioritise and address this. There are complexities involved, but search and reunion is a topic that needs urgent and decisive action and resolution. A number of government departments and religious organisations are involved and an urgent co-ordinated approach, involving all interested parties, is required. As the year of the ‘gathering’ draws to an end, we need to ensure that all the people involved in the Irish American adoptions are assisted in getting to the point of their own ‘Gathering.’ We should thank story writer Martin Sixsmith, who first investigated Philomena’s story and wrote the book that the film is based upon; actress Judi Dench, who played Philomena; and Frears for reminding us of what needs to be done.

Note at end: Valerie OBrien is a lecturer in the School of Applied Social Science in University College Dublin. She has been involved in researching intercountry adoption since 2010, along with Joyce Maguire Pavao, Boston.

Adolescents and Substance Use: The handbook for professionals working with young people

We are delighted to announce details of a book entitled Adolescents and Substance Use, which has been co-written by Ann Campbell, Vice-Chair FTAI. This book will be launched on the 9th December 2013.
The unique link to the book on the publisher’s website is:

Adolescents and Substance Use: The handbook for professionals working with young people
By: Philip James, Caitríona Kearns, Ann Campbell, Bobby Smyth
This highly practical manual presents an ideal introduction to adolescent substance use. It offers invaluable guidance for all professionals involved with adolescents including social workers, health and social care professionals, youth workers, family support workers, teachers, counsellors, mental health teams, A&E staff, police and probation officers. The approach these practitioners take in dealing with the problem has considerable influence over outcomes.
It succinctly covers a wealth of information on key matters such as counselling, treatment options, motives for substance abuse, sexual and mental health, policy development, ethical and legal considerations, and the important role of the family.
Adolescents and Substance Use provides a user-friendly foundation for effective, evidence-based practice.

Grown-up sleepovers: Kate Holmquist Irish Times. Terence Herron FTAI, responds to the question

Grown-up ‘sleepovers’
Tell Me About It – Kate Holmquist answers your questions
Tue, Mar 26, 2013, 00:00 – Irish Times

Q I went up to my son’s bedroom one morning to see two heads in the bed, one a stranger’s. In the past, I have allowed my young-adult children to have girlfriends/boyfriends sleep over, but as it happens these have always been long-term relationships. This new girl, my son says, is “just a friend”.
I am worried that she is going to be hurt because I know he is not interested in commitment at this time. I don’t know how to talk to him about this and can hardly ban sleepovers now that a precedent has been set.
A I can imagine your surprise as well as your attempts to remain the liberal mother in this awkward situation, but you can hardly be expected to remain serenely oblivious when passing a stranger on the way to the bathroom. Will your son start bringing one-night stands home on a regular basis? Is his claim that they’re “just friends” credible?
After reading your letter, Terence Herron, family and couples therapist with the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, comments: “The writer feels major concern for a person she doesn’t know, more so than for her own needs and her own home. She should check out her own needs first.”
He suggests that the real issue isn’t the young woman’s feelings, but your own need to tell your son: “I’m not happy with you bringing home strange girls. I was happy with sleepovers in the past because you were in a long-term boyfriend/girlfriend relationship where we knew the young woman, but I’m not happy with this.”
It’s not a moral issue. You are entitled to your space.
“What I am hearing a lot these days is that in some cases it’s very hard for the parents of adult children living at home to assert themselves,” says Herron. Don’t let your son push your guilt buttons.He may accuse you of being too strict, but being liberal doesn’t mean anything goes in your house.

Boys as young as nine struggling to cope with “tsunami of porn”

Lynne Kelleher – 6th March 2013
Children are viewing online pornography at just nine or 10 years of age – and a new study has shown that their shocked parents have no idea how to control what their youngsters are seeing.
A new RTE documentary ‘Generation Sex’ last night investigated the fallout from the easy accessibility of graphic sexual images and hardcore pornography at the click of a button.
Professor Bryan Roche of NUI Maynooth said that young people were struggling to cope with the tsunami of sexual images in day-to-day life.
He said: “The problem with the internet is it is absolutely instantaneous and now, with the advent of WiFi in everybody’s phone and in public places and with phones in their pocket that have internet access, it means you don’t have to wait.
“That moves the relationship with pornography into a more problematic level and basically raises the risk somewhat because it basically harbours and facilitates almost compulsive behaviour with no downside.
Psychotherapist and chairperson of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland Trish Murphy said boys as young as nine or 10 were now viewing pornography in their kitchen while doing their homework.
“Parents are still shocked at how young this can happen. It happens in the living room or in the kitchen while doing homework.
“This is not secret or hidden in their bedroom and the difficulties they experience is that they have nobody to talk to. It is happening pre-puberty and it can be very confusing.”
The in-depth TV investigation carried out by counselling psychologist Deborah Mulvany also revealed how new studies shows Ireland is on par with the rest of Europe when it comes to viewing pornography.
The documentary reveals that many young Irish people are struggling with problems relating to intimacy and sex that are dramatically different from previous generations because of the readily available graphic sexual imagery.
The chairperson of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, Trish Murphy, said: “I think it is having a huge effect. Boys and girls can be critical of their own bodies and they can expect more of themselves sexually.
“Porn can also be highly addictive. We need to offer support in national school and to educate parents about what is happening, so kids can have somebody to talk to about it.”

Trish Murphy, Chair FTAI, responds to question about relationships – Irish Times 6th March 2013

KATE HOLMQUIST – Irish Times Wednesday, 6th March 2013
Q My widowed father has been in a very happy long-term relationship but is now uncertain about continuing with it and wants to break up.
My siblings, who live abroad, have always encouraged this relationship, as it assuages their consciences about not visiting often enough and the burden of care falling with me.
At the moment he is well and independent, but they like him having a companion to be there to prevent loneliness and to be there in a crisis. But I feel that he should make whatever choice he wants, even though the implications of him being alone will most likely fall to me.
A My initial reaction is that you are right to support your father in whatever pleases him and to pledge your support. Then I wonder why your family is taking sides, when your father is no teenager and has to make his own decisions. If you’re divided now, what about the future when life-and-death decisions concerning your father may await?
“It’s very important to handle this well because this could set the scene for quite serious divisions in the future over issues such as long-term care,” says Trish Murphy psychotherapist and chair of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland.
“This is a classic conflict situation where if you go with one set of family opinion you have a win, making it a win-lose scenario, and a win won’t work,” she says.
Exacerbating the issue is that those sibling rivalries and jealousies never go away and can raise their ugly heads in fraught emails and phonecalls across time zones.
The best solution, she suggests, is for the family to reunite back home and sort things out with your father and each other.
Before you dismiss this as impractical, Murphy warns: “This is a big deal – it would be worth their while because this would be the basis of everything in the future that might happen, such as the possibility of long-term care, decisions about health and even the property and the will.
“It’s not uncommon for people to have to get a ward of court because the family can’t agree on a parent’s future. Division now could result in generations of the family not speaking to one another.”
If you can’t organise a geographic face-to-face, then Murphy suggests a Skype family meeting with a family therapist present.
If a Skype reunion seems a step too far, you might suggest counselling to your father to enable him to make a clear adult decision without worrying about what everybody else thinks.

Death at a distance: the worst phone call an emigrant can get

Death at a distance: the worst phone call an emigrant can get
Friday, February 8th, 2013 at 9:09 am

No one wants to hear a loved one is gravely ill, or worse, but being abroad makes it even harder to bear, writes Ciara Kenny

As Joe Buggy prepared to move out of his parents’ house in Kilkenny and begin a new life with his American fiancee in New York in 2010, the possibility that his father or mother might fall ill in his absence was a thought he chose not to dwell on.

But just 10 months after arriving in Manhattan, Buggy (29) got the call every emigrant dreads. His father had suffered a heart attack and his mother was calling him home. The flight back to Shannon went by in a blur, but he made it to the hospital in time to say goodbye before his father Michael died two days later.

“Being an emigrant when a parent dies leads to the explosion of a million thoughts in your head,” he says. “How will my mother and younger sisters cope? Should my wife and I move to Ireland and leave a good life we have begun to build in the US? Did my leaving somehow contribute to his death?”

Buggy returned to New York a month later, and since then has kept in contact with his family by email and Skype. “We have been able to talk about my dad’s death and share the pain and sadness we felt, but not in the usual manner as if we were living close to each other,” he says.

Trish Murphy, a psychotherapist and spokeswoman for the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, says a call about the illness or death of a loved one while far from home is “all our worst fears realised”.

“For many young emigrants, the worry that something like this might happen is a huge concern,” she says. The first reaction most of us have is to drop everything and run, but Murphy believes it is important to determine how serious the situation is before making any decisions.

“We act to alleviate anxiety, but it might not be best for you, your work or your family to go home immediately. If someone close is gravely ill, of course it is important to try to come back before they die, but if it is not life-threatening they might need your support more at another time.”

But being far away from a family member or friend who is suffering is always going to be hard, and it is important to be honest and not to pretend otherwise, she says.

“On both sides, the instinct is to protect the other person, tell them they are fine and not to worry. But when you are far away you can feel very helpless and afraid. Sharing those feelings will help to alleviate them.”

If someone close dies, attending the funeral is an important part of accepting the reality of their passing and saying goodbye, Murphy says. “Going through the process of the funeral helps you to accept what happened, and realise the community support around you.

“Not being there can leave you in a state of unreality or denial, by making it easier to imagine everything is continuing at home as normal,” she says.

The biggest sacrifice

But for many emigrants, flying home may not be possible because of cost, work or visa reasons, even for the funeral of someone close. For the undocumented Irish in the US, not being able to travel to be by a sick parent’s bedside is the single-biggest sacrifice of making a life there.

“It is a different type of mourning that people go through when they can’t be there in person to grieve,” says Orla Kelleher, executive director of the Aisling Irish Community Center in New York. “If you have settled, have a family of your own and see your future here, it is too risky to travel back. Most families understand what the person would be jeopardising.”

Bereavement counselling is one of the most in-demand services offered by the centre, and Kelleher says the Irish community is very supportive when someone loses a loved one at home because most would have experienced a similar loss at some stage themselves.

“There is usually a memorial Mass organised, which is hugely helpful for the person in coming to terms with their loss,” she says. “People experience a lot of guilt when they can’t go back, but encouragement from family and friends here in the US is very comforting.”

Kelleher is hearing more often about funerals being live-streamed on the web or on Skype from Ireland too, as funeral homes respond to the demand from emigrants who can’t be there in person.

Murphy has also noticed a rise in the number of emigrants requesting Skype counselling sessions, and says the internet can be extremely helpful for sharing emotions across geographical distance.

“Being physically able to see someone, even if it is through a screen, makes a huge difference,” she says. “We can tell so much by looking at the people we love. You can’t physically touch them but you are in the same physical space.”

After attending the funeral of a loved one in Ireland, returning abroad where there may be less recognition or awareness of the loss you are mourning can be particularly difficult. Murphy recommends keeping in regular contact with family and friends at home.

“We need to talk to people who knew the person we lost. It is great to have friends abroad, and they can be very supportive, but they probably didn’t know the person and might not have the same understanding of what you are going through.”

It is important for the people who are still in Ireland to remember the person abroad may need extra support, she says. “Even a text message or a short email saying ‘thinking of you’ will let them know they are loved. Send a card or letter. Those things mean so much.”

It shows how powerful social media can be at a time like that


English teacher Luke Kenny (30) was at home in Hanoi in Vietnam, one Monday evening last April when a friend popped up on Gmail chat to say he had bad news.

Another close friend had fallen suddenly ill and was fighting for her life. “Word of her illness spread that day by text, email and Skype among friends in places as far apart as the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Australia and Dubai,” he says. “The intensity built as more people found out about it, and I imagined us like a constellation of stars around the world, sitting staring at computer screens and thinking of her.

“She died on a Friday, and when I heard the news I was online with another friend, looking at the same pictures of her on Facebook. We cried and laughed as we remembered her, just like you would at a wake. It was my way of grieving for her.”

Kenny wrote a piece about his experience for the Generation Emigration blog last June, which was shared among friends and family. “Being away from everyone, it was difficult to talk to them without being there in person, but writing that piece and sharing it online was my way of having that conversation.

“I was home a few months later and a lot of people told me how the piece had moved them, put into words how they were feeling. It shows how powerful social media can be at a time like that.”


“It’s the call that comes to all of us who live abroad. A family member was close to death, and I was a thousand miles away. My race against the clock had begun.

“My brother, at 42 years old, had been admitted to hospital with a serious complaint. I was called home in that offhand yet thoughtful way doctors have when they’re breaking bad news.

“Researching flights from Stockholm to Dublin at short notice, the loneliness struck. This was not a time to be with a plane-load of strangers or sour-faced customs officials, but to shrink the distance between us as fast as possible.

“For the want of something better to do, my wife tearfully ironed a white shirt for a funeral we hoped wouldn’t happen.

“At the airport I turned off my phone for the 150-minute flight to London. When I landed, I didn’t know whether my brother was still alive or not. Running through Gatwick to make the Dublin connection, the messages pinged in one after the other. I ignored them all. I called my younger brother to find out the latest – stable, but still critical and on a ventilator.

“Into the darkness I plunged again for the flight to Dublin.

“Having left Stockholm in snowdrifts, I clumped into Beaumont hospital in my heavy jacket and winter boots, dizzied by the blast of warm air as I entered intensive care. I had made it in time. He lay sedated and serene but fighting a raging battle for his life inside.

“I went home, exhausted, to my parents’ house, and slept in the bedroom he and I shared as kids. I hoped he would get better, and if he didn’t that we would be strong enough to give him the send-off he deserved.

“But it didn’t come to that. His strength picked up, the infections capitulated, and he began to recover. A few days later, I returned to Stockholm, relieved and a little elated.

“For any emigrant, every time we leave Ireland with the same number of family members as when we got there is a bonus. That call will come again, but for now I’m just glad he’s still alive, even if we are once more a thousand miles apart.”

It’s serious stuff, so call in the experts – Tim Smyth. Irish Times 27th March 2012

It’s serious stuff, so call in the experts


Irish Times Health Supplement: Tuesday, 27th March 2012

MIND MOVES: ‘YOU DO know that the Irish are supposed to be immune to this therapy business, don’t you?” I said to her, trying to sound wary rather than nervous.

“Why is it that the only bit of psychology that anybody can quote is from that film The Departed?”

I shrugged. “Because it’s deadly, I suppose.”

“Well, okay. Fair enough. But it’s also untrue.”

I folded my arms. “We’ll find out.”

I was back in for therapy after a gap of two years. The last time I was in was just after starting a course of anti-depressants. I stopped taking the tablets about nine months ago, and since then I’ve started to build on the lessons I’ve learned from depression.

Never waste a good crisis, they say, and I don’t think I have. Certainly I’ve been affected by the whole thing, but I don’t let it define me. If anything, I make use of it, and try to see it as an early-warning system. If I look too harshly on how my day went for too many days in a row, then I know it’s time to change the way I’m doing things.

That’s what led me back to a psychotherapist. It took me a while, because it’s always struck me as such a strange relationship. You can’t really compare it with anything else. They’re the ones you tell stuff you can’t tell a friend or to someone you’re going out with, but you don’t meet them out for pints or talk a huge amount about TV.

There’s a professional decorum about it all, even when the material under discussion is intensely personal. You have a respect for this person that’s close to parental, but the relationship is an equal one: it’s just two people talking.

Therapy is a kind of work, but you’re not quite colleagues. Most work aims at perfection and discipline, but the watchwords of therapy tend to be “flexibility” and “good enough”. It’s the strangest situation you can imagine.

And that’s precisely the point. A therapist isn’t like anybody else. The reason we can’t quite put words on what they’re for is because they’re there to fill the gap that every other relationship leaves out. They help you take care of the things that remain to be solved when everything else is in place.

Being normal means having things to sort out. Actually, I’d go further with that: having a full life means you have things to sort out. If I didn’t think that I could do something every day to improve my life, I can’t imagine I’d have a huge amount of fun. Looked at from a certain angle, everything we do is because things are a bit wrong, or at least aren’t quite right.

Updating the music collection, giving it loads at the gym, even trying to find the right place to go for lunch: it’s all part of that, even when we don’t realise it.

I don’t intend to diminish the size of the work that goes in to sorting your head out, though. It’s a serious business, and that’s why you get a professional in. I certainly wouldn’t trust myself to fix my laptop if it was acting up, same as I’m not going to try to sort out stuff in my life that I’m too immersed in to see properly.

When I’m in a rough place, all I can see is a mess of wires, like when I look at the inside of a computer. A therapist can help you see how they’re connected. That’s not to make it a question of pure expertise: you need compassion, patience and a serious amount of skill to do this kind of job properly.

If this strikes you as weirdly open, it’s because I genuinely believe we all need some form of mental health practice that helps us through the day. Whatever form they take, these practices are about improving our methods of dealing with the world. They are ways through the obstacles that we don’t even notice half the time.

I’m not going to mistake my initial flush of excitement at taking the first steps for recovery itself. I don’t get to make that call, because I’ve chosen to work with someone who will help me get to that point in life. There’ll be good and bad days, same as there are when you take on any kind of job or project, and I don’t know in the morning how each day’s going to turn out.

One thing I do know though, is that The Departed is still a deadly film even if it is off the mark about the benefits of therapy.

Tim Smyth is Youth Ambassador for Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health (