Ireland-US Adoptions

From the 1940s until the 1970s, in excess of 2,000 children were sent from Ireland to the United States for adoption. Please note that the Ireland-US adoption scheme is discussed in detail in Mike Milotte’s Banished Babies, and the following is adapted from the Clann Project report, which links to all source materials.

If you are reproducing material from this page please use the following citation:

Maeve O’Rourke, Claire McGettrick, Rod Baker, Raymond Hill et al., CLANN: Ireland’s Unmarried Mothers and their Children: Gathering the Data: Principal Submission to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. Dublin: Justice For Magdalenes Research, Adoption Rights Alliance, Hogan Lovells, 15 October 2018.

The adoption of children from Ireland to the US was State-sanctioned, most notably through its facilitation of the production of passports which in turn enabled the US Embassy to provide visas for children to enter the US. The State facilitated these adoptions even prior to the introduction of legislation making adoption legal in Ireland. Indeed, the Irish-US adoptions were being facilitated by the Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs) throughout the 1940s while at the same time the Department of Justice was actively discouraging the introduction of legislation to facilitate legal adoption domestically. Thus, one arm of the State was turning a blind eye to what another arm of the State was doing, and the contemporary correspondence in the National Archives betrays an awareness of it in precisely those terms. The Department of External Affairs repeatedly told people inquiring about adoption that its only function was to process applications for passports.

However, simultaneously these adoptions were also knowingly omitted from the Adopted Children’s Register and even after adoption was legalised in 1952, the Adoption Board was exempted from overseeing the arrangements. This was confirmed in a Seanad debate around the 1963 Adoption Bill, when then Minister for Justice, Charles J Haughey said that “the Adoption Board have no function in regard to a child taken out for adoption in America” (Adoption Bill 1963 Seanad Debate). In the same Seanad debate Professor Dooge said:

“There is a very widespread feeling that the adoption code is being broken in this manner.  If the statistics were included in the annual report of the Adoption Board, those sufficiently interested to read the report would be able to see the correct position. There should be some annual published Statement”.

In March 1950 Reverend Robert Brown, assistant secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Charities in America wrote to the St Vincent de Paul Society expressing concern that Catholic Irish children were being adopted by non-Catholic parents in the US. Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid was one of those consulted on the matter, and upon reading the letter he ordered that no further children should be sent to the US for adoption until the matter was investigated. Negotiations between Catholic Charities in the US and Father Cecil Barrett acting on behalf of Archbishop McQuaid began on the matter of how to ensure that the Catholic faith of children sent to America would be safeguarded. In Banished Babies, Mike Milotte points out that

“While Archbishop McQuaid and Cecil Barrett looked for the best arrangements to safeguard the faith, and Catholic Charities pondered the possibilities presented to them by an abundance of ‘illegitimate’ Irish children, the civil authorities back in Ireland were letting slip an opportunity to develop a professional, child-centred scheme for regulating and monitoring the American adoptions. This turned out to be a critical lapse since – with disastrous consequences for unknown numbers of Irish infants – Catholic Charities could not in many cases … guarantee the children’s welfare, whatever about their religion”.

Ultimately, the Archbishop would set out a list of criteria which he said must be met before Irish children could be sent to America for adoption:

The prospective adopting parents must have a written recommendation from the director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese in which they live;

The prospective adopting parents must supply for inspection their Baptismal certificates and their Marriage certificates;

The prospective adopting parents must have a written recommendation from the Parish Priest of their Parish;

The prospective adopting parents must submit a statement of their material circumstances, with a guarantee as to their income, so as to ensure a good home and good prospects in life for the adopted child;

The prospective adopting parents must submit medical certificates stating their ages, that they are in good health, physical and mental, and that they are not deliberately shirking natural parenthood;

The prospective adopting parents must swear an affidavit to the effect that they are Catholics, that they guarantee to rear the adopted child as a Catholic, that they undertake to educate the adopted child, during the whole course of its schooling, in Catholic schools, that, if in the future the child is sent to a University, it will be sent to a Catholic university, that they undertake to keep the adopted child permanently and not to hand it over to any other party or parties. (Banished Babies, p34)

Despite the fact that the criteria were more concerned about Catholicism than child welfare, McQuaid’s scheme was described as “very satisfactory” by the Department of External Affairs. Copies of the list were dispatched to Irish diplomats in the US, who were told that the Department of External Affairs had “independently” come to the same conclusions as McQuaid. According to Milotte, in practice, this meant that passports would only be issued to children whose prospective adoptive parents had sworn an affidavit on McQuaid’s criteria.

Mike Milotte’s analysis is supported by primary material from the records of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which are published in the Royal Irish Academy’s “Documents on Irish Foreign Policy”, Volume IX, 1948-1951. These show that, before the legalisation of adoption in 1952, the Department of Foreign Affairs was prepared to grant passports in 1949 to children being sent abroad on what it described as “a 4,000 mile voyage into the virtually unknown”. There is a memo from Dublin to the consulate in San Francisco from December 1949 which states expressly that “[t]his Department is prepared to issue passports to children who are to be adopted by people in the United States provided the parents or guardians consent is obtained and that satisfactory evidence of the foster-parents suitability is produced”.

However, the Department did not appear to want to be involved in anything other than the passport issuing. As one memo from July 1950 says:

[t]his Department, strictly speaking, enters into the matter only in so far as it is necessary to give Irish passports to the children concerned … It is no part of our function to assist foreigners to remove Irish children from this country for the purpose of adopting them and indeed we would be open to criticism if we were to attempt to do so”. Therefore, US citizens wishing to adopt in Ireland should “address their enquiries to the American Embassy in Dublin”.

The memo then states “there would be a considerable danger of public criticism if official backing seemed to be available for this traffic”. This line was repeated in November 1950 – the Minister did not want to give the impression that he was “fostering emigration of children” – and therefore the Minister vetoed using Irish diplomatic and consular offices to make enquiries with regard to the suitability of proposed adoptive parents. There is a further memo from May 1951 in which the Department states that it is “reluctant to go outside the procedure mentioned above”. And in June 1951, the New York consulate stated that their usual procedure was to explain to prospective US adoptive parents that “we have no function in the matter as it is essentially a private arrangement between the foster parents and the child’s custodian; we then refer the inquirer to the American Embassy in Dublin”.

As of May 1950, the line from the US Embassy in Washington was that “there is at present no Irish legislation with which it is necessary to comply and … the permission of the United States Immigration authorities is all that is required”. A message from the Assistant Secretary at the Department to London from March 1951 also states that potential adoptive parents could be told “that there is no Irish law prohibiting the adoption abroad of Irish citizen children”.

The impression seems to have been that there was nothing that could be done to stop the overseas adoption of Irish children – “[u]nder the existing law [in December 1949], the Minister has no power to intervene once the consent of the mother has been obtained”.

However, there is an interesting memo from May 1951 which refers to the inalienable rights of the family in the Irish Constitution and that “it was our opinion that the mother of a child could not alienate her natural right to bring up her own child; that her surrender of her child to a convent or other institution was all right as far as it went but that if she was to take it back the Court in this country would almost certainly uphold her. However, I also pointed out that [in] our opinion, the foreign decree of adoption, valid in the country where it was given, would be recognised as valid in our Courts in the same way as a valid Foreign Decree of Divorce”.

The Irish Government was also aware that they were one of the chief sources of adopted children going to the US: “Ireland and Italy are the two countries chiefly concerned … the French Government will not allow any children to be adopted abroad; … Belgium was very strict in the matter and … the Netherlands was somewhat less strict”. A message from November 1950 refers to the US Consulate General in Dublin granting 150 visas to children between July 1949 and September 1950 “i.e. an average of 10 per month”. The message frankly goes on to say that “I interviewed recently one adopting parent … and gathered from her that this country enjoys quite a reputation, among the personnel of these US air-bases in Britain, as a place where one can get children for adoption without much difficulty … She told me that she did not attempt to look for a child in G.B. since it was common gossip in her camp that so much red tape attended the getting of a child in G.B. to be taken to America for adoption that it was not worth the trouble to go looking for one … the idea seems to have got abroad that an orphan can be had here for the asking … This looks as if a veritable trade in orphans were beginning”.

The Government was well aware in December 1949 that there could be problems with cross-border adoption:

“The Minister [for Health] considers that there is some cause for uneasiness in this matter since it seems possible that applicants for children may be persons turned down as adopters in their own country and, further, there is no means of knowing or ensuring that children placed in the care of applicants will be adopted legally in their new country or even that they will remain in the care of the original applicants … some measures should be taken to safeguard children’s interests and he [the Minister for Health] would be glad to have the views of your Minister as to whether it might be possible to arrange that aliens wishing to take children out of this country for adoption should be obliged to produce evidence of character, suitability and religion which should be supported by a recommendation from the Diplomatic Representative in this country”.

One of the minutes from July 1950 then states that “some of the cases where children had been taken to America for adoption have already attracted a good deal of attention, not only in America but also here” and that “the Archbishop of Dublin apparently has instructed all Catholic institutions in the archdiocese of Dublin to close down on any more applications pending a full investigation of the matter”. Records in Archbishop McQuaid’s papers demonstrate that his embargo was causing a backlog of infants that had been promised to US families. One religious sister from St Patrick’s Guild wrote to Archbishop McQuaid’s office:

“I beg His Grace to allow us to send these little children. It would be such a bitter blow to the adopters to be denied their little child just when their hopes were about to be realised. Also, I would be very grateful if you would advise me what to say to the many others whose applications I have already received. All are vouched for as excellent Catholics and they have beautiful homes. It is difficult to know what to say to them. … Lest there should be any confusion I would like His Grace to know that the six children whose picture was in the paper recently before they embarked for USA were not from St Patrick’s Guild. We have always been most careful to avoid publicity”.

As to the actual checks undertaken, despite the suggestion in the document that checks were carried out, there is also a memo from May 1950 in which enquiries had been carried out as to who in the US could carry out checks on parents – mentioning the Board of Public Welfare:

“From informal enquiries at the Board it was learned that they carry out investigations as to the character and general suitability of persons in this country adopting American children” and although “they had not been asked to perform such services in the case of adoptions from other countries … they indicated that they might be prepared to do so subject to approval from the Department of State”.

There were then further enquiries in June 1950 with a consultant on Foster Care at the Federal Security Agency. But, a memo from June 1951 says that “No public authority in New York … will make the inspection necessary for such a certificate [of suitability] when the adopted child comes from outside their area”.

The Catholic Church seems to have been entrusted with carrying out some checks. A memo from December 1950 states that:

“From the Mother Superior of St Patrick’s Home, I learned that His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin, though in principle opposed to the taking of children out of the country in this fashion, has given his agreement in individual cases on the understanding that the adopting parents are vetted by the Conference of Catholic Charities of which there is usually a branch in each parish in the United States. From our point of view here this is very satisfactory … The Conference of Catholic Churches furnish, I understand, a comprehensive report on the adopting parents and also follow up the career of the child when it has arrived in the States and see that it is in fact adopted according to law. Even then they still continue to follow it up”.

The memo (by the Acting Head of the Consular Section) states that “in the cases of all institutions, both Catholic and non-Catholic, the Superiors do in fact follow up the child after it leaves them and that in fact they do receive regular reports on its welfare” and that he did not authorise the issue of a passport unless (a) the person handing over the child is in fact the guardian of the child and was authorised by the mother to arrange for its adoption; (b) “That satisfactory references, including references from clergy men have been produced In respect of the adopting parents” and (c) “In cases where a satisfactory report has been furnished on the adopting persons by the Conference of Catholic Charities, I take that as satisfactory evidence of the parents’ character, etc”. (see pages 630-631). This is later repeated in a memo from June 1951 – “satisfactory evidence from our point of view would be a vetting of the foster parents by the Catholic Charities or a kindred organisation”.

The problem for adoptive parents appears to have been that “the New York Catholic Charities will only give their approval when the entire adoption is being arranged through their organization” – so that adoptive parents dealing with institutions in Ireland directly were “frequently” caused “great disappointment and grief” when they had difficult in completing their adoptions. It is important to note that the US Catholic Charities were insistent on ensuring that the proper procedures were followed, as evidenced in the minutes of their National Annual Meetings. The ongoing concerns for Irish children being adopted by US families, in particular the issue of appropriate back-ground checks, placement, and follow-up services, were discussed at both the Annual Meeting of Directors of US Catholic Charities and at the bi-annual meetings of the Standing Committee of Directors of US Catholic Charities through the 1950s, as reflected in the agendas, minutes, and dedicated memoranda discussed during these sessions. The religious sisters in Ireland and some US adoptive families were inconvenienced and consequently as a result of various interventions on the part of US Catholic Charities, and there are indications in the archive that both some nuns and families sought to circumvent the processes put in place. Thus, while US Catholic Charities remained focused on the religious wellbeing of these children, they did at some level play a role in professionalising Irish adoption processes, at least indirectly.

At least part of the concern of the Government and Archbishop McQuaid in conducting checks was in ensuring that the adoptive parents were Catholic – “part of the difficulty from the religious point of view in making investigations through the qualified agencies is that while the Agencies usually have the power to enquire into the religious background, in practice they often tend to disregard this aspect” . There is a memo from September 1950 suggesting using Irish consuls in the US to help investigate the suitability of adoptive parents – this suggestion seems to have been rejected for the reasons given in the documents referred to in paragraph 1.128 above. But the memo mentions later the situation in the UK and whether the Dublin Board of Assistance should assist Children’s Officers in Great Britain make the enquiries necessitated by “the British Adoption of Children Act 1926. The procedure under that Act does not, of course, afford the safe-guards for religion which Catholic opinion in this country would regard as necessary”. There is also a memo which records the conditions under which the Archbishop of Dublin would allow children to go to the US, which was “confidential” and “should not be used officially in any circumstances”. This required the adoptive parents to sign an affidavit undertaking that “we are both Catholics”, would rear the child “as a Catholic, and to educate such child, during the whole course of its schooling, in Catholic Schools, and to send it to a Catholic University”, if s/he went to university. This again corroborates Milotte’s analysis, which was that it was Archbishop McQuaid who drew up the list of criteria which had to be met before Irish children could be sent to America for adoption – and that those criteria were focused on the Catholic faith of the potential adoptive parents, as well as their standing in life, but completely omitted any express mention of whether the prospective adoptive parents would be able to provide good care for the child.

It is clear that a factor in the government allowing children to be sent for adoption abroad was that “[t]he children so adopted are, in the main, illegitimate children with an uncertain future in this country and the Minister [for Health] would be diffident in suggesting that obstacles should be placed in the way of their acquiring a new permanent home”. There is also a mention of the fact that illegitimate children were “a charge on the rates” whom local authorities were “obliged to make provision for their maintenance”.

There is also mention of maintaining the good will of the Irish-American community: “The majority of people who wish to adopt Irish children seem to do so because of some link of blood or religion which makes the country seem sympathetic. In view of the possibility of canalizing such good will for anti-partition purposes, the importance of retaining their sympathy would be appreciated”.

On Christmas Eve 1995, Catríona Crowe, archivist with the National Archives of Ireland discovered the archival records associated with the adoption of Irish children to America. Although these adoptions had been facilitated by the combined powers of the Catholic Church and Irish State, when news broke of the discovery of the files in early 1996, it was the first time that there was widespread awareness of these practices.

In March 1996, then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dick Spring gave an undertaking that people adopted to the United States would be “quickly” helped in contacting their natural mothers. Within months however, the government hit “legal snags”, as it was alleged that legal advice to the Department of Foreign Affairs suggested that natural mothers’ names could not be given to the adopted people in question, because it may breach the National Archives Act and also because it may breach a constitutional right to privacy. However, this view does not tally with the fact that most people ‘officially’ adopted to the US have always known the identity of their natural mothers, because their birth certificates and passports were sent over with them when they travelled. As Clann Project Witness 71 says:

“My adoptive parents had preserved all relevant documents for my adoptive brother and me, including our original Irish passports, Pennsylvania adoption decrees, naturalization certificates, etc. So I’ve known my own birth name since as early as I can remember. I was able to obtain a copy of my original Irish birth certificate through an FOIA request to (then) US Immigration and Naturalisation (now USCIS)”.

Documentary evidence provided by other witnesses corroborates this. For example, in 1997, a religious sister at St Patrick’s Guild Adoption Society wrote to Witness 9 and used Witness 9’s natural mother’s full name in the letter. Yet, when Witness 68’s wife contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs she was told that although they had his records, there were “legal reasons” why he could not have them.

Not all US adoptions were carried out with “official” approval. When the US adoption files were discovered in 1996, it was estimated that approximately 1,500 adoptions took place. Mike Milotte says that at least 2,070 children were sent to America for adoption, based on the number of visas which were issued. However, according to records held by the Department of Foreign Affairs, this total comes to 2,088. Moreover, Milotte points out that St Patrick’s Guild’s own records show that they sent 572 children to America, while the Department of Foreign Affairs cites a figure of 515. Elsewhere, Milotte points out that:

“hundreds, if not thousands, more children were taken from the country without sanction or public record-keeping. Many were handed to foreigners. On October 8th, 1951, The Irish Times reported that in the previous year ‘almost 500 babies were flown from Shannon for adoption’, a number that the paper said ‘is believed to have been exceeded’ during the first nine months of 1951. In the first week of October alone, it reported, 18 ‘parties’ of children departed from the airport”.

Additionally, in the case of some adopted people who have approached ARA for assistance, no record exists for them in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Similarly, Clann Project Witness 29 says in relation to her nephew,

“neither the Department of Foreign Affairs nor the Adoption Board could find a trace of him”.

Despite the promises which were made in 1996, the needs of Irish adopted people who were sent to America as infants have been completely ignored by the Irish State. For example, the “Year of the Gathering” came and went in 2013 without a single invitation extended to Irish people who were sent to America for adoption as infants. This is in stark contrast to the Irish State’s approach to other members of the diaspora who are afforded unfettered access to their history and heritage through free online access to the 1901 and 1911 Censuses and who are encouraged to avail of genealogical services in a dedicated space in the National Library of Ireland. It also contradicts the State’s responsibility under Article 2 of the Constitution of Ireland, which states that:

“It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”.