The Man Who Wanted To Know

Mattie’s was here.

It’s a curious thing to be adopted. You are a stranger in your own skin, in your own family, like a cuckoo that suddenly appears and everyone tries to pretend that you’re not different. But the difference is there every time you look at a family photo, or in the mirror – where did I get my eyes, where did I get that mouth, whose face is this? To grow up adopted is to live in a constant state of unknowing, of unanswered questions – who am I, and why am I here?

The recent revelations about St Patrick’s Guild and their litany of misregistrations should come as a surprise to no-one. The entire adoption system was inherently cruel. It wasn’t about helping parents who couldn’t afford to keep a child, or whose circumstances were such that they just were not capable of looking after it; it was about shame, abuse, and treating human beings as chattel. It’s difficult for adopted people to talk about the experience without sounding like they are bitter, or that they are angry at their parents, adoptive or biological, but in reality adoption made victims of us all – young parents were shamed into giving their children away (or they were simply taken from them), children grew up feeling abandoned or worthless, adoptive parents raised children who often grew up with emotional problems not of their making. But the church’s adoption system was a product of a colder time. In the cruel Ireland of the 1950s-1980s, if you had money, and were a good Catholic, then that was meant to be enough. Emotional wellbeing was a later invention.

My voyage of self discovery started with St Patrick’s Guild in 1996. I found the guild to be most helpful, a fact perhaps related to the then-recent reports into how the clergy was actually treating the children in their care. They knew their world was changing. The nuns reached out to the only address they had for my biological mother, and we waited. They found her, and she was keen to meet. And so it was that in the late Nineties in the basement of the guild’s premises in Dublin I met the woman who gave birth to me and found out where I came from. It came as quite a surprise to discover that I am from Dublin’s north inner city, Sheriff Street to be precise – home to Luke Kelly, Stephen Gately and Mattie’s sweet shop, eulogised by Peter Sheridan as the best sweet shop in Dublin. Mattie’s was owned by my grandparents, and is there that my mother lived until aged 19 she became pregnant, and was shipped off to a home for unfortunate girls in Meath. She gave birth to me in Holles Street in August 1975, and handed me over to the nuns three days later. For 22 years she thought of me every day. She was able to tell me all about my father, who was from Kildare, how they met, fell in love but when she became pregnant his family were not happy with the notion of them marrying. He came to visit her once when she was pregnant and that was it, she never saw him again. She showed me photos of him – I look a lot like him – and told me how to contact him. But I left it too long, and he had died at a young age by the time I got in touch. All those questions I had for him would never be answered. My biological father’s family also informed me that I might be distantly related to Jedward. So a time of mixed emotions generally.  

I’ve only been down Sherriff Street once. For my fortieth birthday, my biological mother drove me around. It is not unlike the Baltimore of The Wire. She showed me where Mattie’s was – now a Chinese takeaway – and told me stories about the people she grew up with. While we sat in the car a kid shot a pellet gun at the bonnet and I thought – is that me? Is that my other life? Because there is no part of my story that isn’t affected by privilege. My dad was a bank manager, my mum was CFO of a holiday centre, I went to a private school, they put me through college three times, they supported me no matter how I screwed up my life, and when they left this earth, they left me asset rich. This isn’t just about economics, but about stability, security and opportunity: There is no version of my story where my mother keeps me and we live happily ever after. This wasn’t The Snapper, it was 1970s Ireland, and all the love in the world would not have given me the opportunities that I have had in this life. It seems a curious thing to admit, but for me, adoption worked, despite being a flawed system that came from a flawed ideology. However, I can see all the gifts it gave us: Adoption also gave my parents the ability to raise a family, and my biological mother an opportunity to build a career, find love, marry and have a family. It left us all damaged, but even that brought its own gifts – the anger gave me wit but kept me poor, it made me creative and compassionate, and taught me that there are no easy choices in life.

I have spent the last 20 years coming to terms with who I am and where I come from, what a family is, and where to call home. Home, in the end, is where my dead lie, and not far from where I live lies the family plot, and one day it is there I will go. I love my biological family, but it is that – family with an asterisk, with an explanation, with a confusing story of who and how and why. My mum and dad were the ones who raised me, who suffered with me as my state of unknowing made me self destruct, they were the ones who contacted the guild about finding my birth parents, and they were the ones who ultimately saved me. I wasn’t a very good son, too lost and damaged to see all they did for me, and now it is too late to tell them how much they mean to me. I used to yearn for a family I didn’t know, now I yearn for the one I took for granted. But perhaps this too is just a side effect of being adopted – to live your life rotten with loss.

I can still say that the life I live is the best life possible, that all the sadness was worth it, because I am one of the lucky ones, who knew he was adopted, who found his biological family, and who, in the end, found some peace. Others are not so lucky.

The hunt is on to find someone to blame for the Irish adoption system – the church, the faithful, the politicians, the power vacuum left by the British, the republicans who used religion to forge identity and make their fight for freedom into a holy war: Perhaps we should just rebrand St Patrick’s Day into a national day of mourning.

The current trend is to blame everyone and thus no-one. But while we point fingers, time is running out for those us of who came through the old adoption system. Biological parents are getting older, chances at reconnection are being lost, and so many people on both sides of the story are scared to reach out, scared they will be rejected, scared they will be hurt. I know other adopted people who have had doors shut in their face, rejected a second time by their parents, who ended up alienated from both biological and adoptive family, people who discovered they were the result of rape, or abuse, or those who still exist in that cruel limbo of not knowing anything at all about themselves and where they came from.

There is a quote from Alex Hayley, author or Roots, on the Adoption Rights Alliance website that captures the strange experience of being adopted: “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness.”

The race to assign blame is not going to lessen the hurt of those who long to find who they are and where they came from, or those who lost children and wish to find them. Perhaps we should focus on that, rather than trying to hold the past to account.

  • This article appeared in the Irish Independent on Saturday last, 2/6/2018, albeit in slightly edited form – the reference to Mattie’s was taken out, at the request of my biological mother.

    If you are adopted and are wondering about whether to go looking for your biological family or not, I would say this – it will be wonderful, it will be traumatic, and it may be a Pandora’s Box that you wish you had never opened. But I know that I could not have lived without finding out where I came from, and that I am a better person for what I found. The joys have always outweighed the sorrows, and I have no regrets.  I just wish it could have been the same for all adopted people. 

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