Foreign Adoptions and the Evolution of Irish Adoption Policy, 1945-52
Maguire, Moira J., Journal of Social History
In recent years it has become increasingly common for childless couples from the U.S. and Western Europe to look overseas--to Eastern Europe and Asia--to adopt the "unwanted" children that are no longer so readily available for adoption in their own countries. While some social observers would argue that this trend reflects a positive humanitarian impulse, others suggest that issues of culture, ethnicity, identity, and parental rights are not given due consideration. In Ireland at the turn of the twenty-first century the fact that Irish couples are enthusiastic participants in this "trade" has been juxtaposed with the stark and unpalatable reality that, as late as the 1960s, thousands of healthy Irish children were sent to the United States for adoption simply because they were illegitimate and thus "unwanted" at home. The State's "disposal" of these children in the mid twentieth century has received a great deal of attention in the popular media in recent years but has been virtually ignored by historians. ( 1) This interest has been generated by mounting allegations of the abuse and neglect of unwanted children in industrial schools and other state institutions in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In hindsight it is clear that institutionalization was not the ideal solution to the problem of caring for children who, for whatever reason, could not be cared for in their own homes or by their own parents; however, until 1952 there was no statutory mechanism by which substitute or adoptive families could be provided for such children. Although various legislative initiatives provided for the boarding-out of children who otherwise would be consigned to an institutional existence, the boarding-out system was notoriously badly administered and inspected, many families fostered children for purely financial reasons, and children could be removed from one home to another with little notice, and little consideration of their needs and best interests. Until the 1952 Adoption Act provided for the legal transfer of parental right s from biological to adoptive parents, the only alternative to an institutional existence or an insecure boarding-out arrangement was adoption by foreign, primarily American, families. From the early 1940s to the mid-1960s thousands of Irish children were sent abroad under an informal (and probably illegal and unconstitutional) adoption scheme.
The story of Ireland's overseas adoption scheme, and the evolution of adoption policy are part of a twentieth-century social history that has for the most part been neglected by historians. General histories of the twentieth century ignore these issues outright or treat them in a cursory manner that underestimates their significance. Mike Milotte, a journalist, has examined the overseas adoption practice drawing on Department of Foreign Affairs files that were released in 1997. However, Milotte's book, Banished Babies, is aimed at a popular rather than a scholarly audience, and Milotte does not conform to scholarly standards and conventions in substantiating arguments and citing evidence. John Whyte, in Church and State in Modern Ireland, published in 1971, examines the evolution of adoption legislation within the context of Church-State relations in twentieth-century Ireland. Relying almost exclusively on interviews with key figures (including Archbishop John Charles McQuaid) and press accounts, Whyte conclu des both that the Legal Adoption Society was single-handedly responsible for fostering a positive public opinion on the question of adoption, and that the change in government in 1952 was the main reason that the issue was finally resolved. At the same time, he acknowledges that adoption legislation seems to have taken on a new urgency in government and ecclesiastical circles in 1951, but he was at a loss to account for this sense of urgency. (2) When it was published Whyte's work was regarded as noteworthy and path-breaking; however, Whyte's analysis, especially of the adoption issue, did not have the benefit of Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Justice, and Dublin Diocesan Archive files that have been released since 1997. …