Adoption, illegitimate children and ‘the bogey of proselytism’ in Catholic Ireland

This is the text of an article I wrote for www.theJournal.ie, published June 29th, 2014, and is based on my MPhil dissertation, which I completed at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2012.  

IN THE 20th century, mother-and-baby homes became increasingly common and, from the 1920s onwards, mother-and-baby homes (or Magdalene laundries run by the Magdalene order), were under religious jurisdiction.

A number of voluntary organisations called for adoption to be legalised in the 1930s and 1940s, to regulate the number of babies being sent abroad for adoption from mother-and-baby homes. But the majority of Europe had legalised adoption by the end of the 1920s (including Britain). DeValera considered introducing adoption legislation in 1938, but was shot down on the basis that ‘the religious problem would almost inevitably involve the government in difficulties’.

Yet a system called ‘boarding out’ facilitated an underhand system of adoption in (and from) Ireland prior to 1952. A 1951 letter from Hollywood actress Jane Russell to the Irish Times, in which she expressed her immediate desire to adopt on Irish child, shows that even prior to the legislation of adoption in Ireland, it was still possible. In 1951 alone, over 120 adoption passports (accounting for 7.7% of “illegitimate” births in Ireland), were issued.

The Welfare State and the Mother and Child Scheme

Ultimately, the procedure for legalising adoption in Ireland was a long, religious battle. The now infamous Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was consulted on the issue of legalising adoption in Ireland in 1945, and even before the end of the Second World War, the heads of mother-and-baby homes were writing to the government to request more funding. The system was feeling the strain.

So why was it still another seven years before adoption was legalised in Ireland? It was mainly due to objections from Archbishop McQuaid, who was concerned about ‘the bogey of proselytism’, ie, that Catholic babies might be adopted by Protestant families. The Department of Justice approached Archbishop McQuaid on the matter in 1948. After a few meetings, Minister for Justice General MacEoin discontinued the matter, stating that the Department had ‘been unable to devise any provision which would overcome Dr McQuaid’s objections’.

Yet neither McQuaid, nor the government, could ignore the issue of overcrowding in mother-and-baby homes, nor the pressure being put on the government by voluntary organisations such as the Legal Adoption Society and the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers. After McQuaid’s victory in the notorious Mother and Child Scheme controversy (in which Dr Noel Browne was forced to resign his post as Minister for Health for proposing healthcare that would provide sexual education to young women), McQuaid was willing to negotiate an Adoption Bill – but on his terms. This took the form of the Episcopal Committee of Legal Adoption – a committee of high-ranking clerics who scrutinised every clause of the Adoption Act before it became law.

Even after they approved it, there were more problems along the way. The Attorney-General, firmly against the idea, stated that Ireland was a Catholic country and while ‘this did not mean that Parliament should be expected to penalise other creeds’, it meant that the government ‘could not be asked to introduce legislation contrary to the teaching of that great church.’ Eventually, adoption legislation was approved with a number of clauses deemed essential by the Catholic clergy – including the clause that children could only be adopted by people of the same faith.

The Adoption Act (1952), became law on 1st of January, 1953.

Overseas adoptions continued

Yet, even after the legalisation of adoption, the overriding concern for illegitimate children was their religion. Deputy Maureen O’Carroll (mother of Mrs Brown’s Boys comedian Brendan O’Carroll) received an extremely hostile reaction in the Dáil in 1956 when she questioned the numbers of children being sent abroad for adoption even after legislation intended to regulate this was enacted.

The 1952 Act made it illegal for children under seven to be adopted abroad, but this did not apply to ‘illegitimate’ children aged over one year – a key example of the attitude towards illegitimacy at the time. Minister for External Affairs Desmond O’ Malley assured the Dáil, in the aftermath of Deputy O’Carroll’s concerns, that ‘the requirements of my Department concerning the issue of passports for the adoption of children are very stringent,’ and he continued ‘in all these cases appropriate religious organisations in the adopting countries investigate the cases concerned’. The matter was then dropped.

Reforms were made to the Act in the 1960s, but it was not until the 1970s that it was overhauled – and significantly, this time it was done without consulting religious authorities. Calls for repeal of religious influence in adoption had come before that – such as in the landmark case of J.McG and W.McG vs. the Attorney-General. The ruling – which allowed J.McG to adopt W.McG’s son from a previous relationship despite not being the same religion as the child – was a direct conflict to a clause which the Church had insisted so strongly on in 1952.

Changing attitudes

Attitudes to the Church’s influence on education was clearly changing, and 1974 was the first year since the 1950s in which no adoption passports were issued – a stark difference from 1951 in which 122 were issued, and a key insight into the fact that Ireland’s attitude towards illegitimacy and overseas adoption was beginning to change. The reformed Adoption Act (1974), reflected these changing attitudes – and crucially was drawn up with no influence from the Catholic Church.

The Mother and Child Scheme controversy is often used an example of the influence clerical opinion had on Irish governments of the mid-20th century. However the subject of legal adoption is another way of illustrating that. The strong influence of the Church – both in withholding the legalisation of adoption and influencing the legislation, as well as the evident fear of ‘the bogey of proselytism’, is evident of the grip the Church had both on government and society in Ireland.

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