By Anthony M. Destefano
Nearly 10 years ago, Christopher Quirin of Manhasset was struck by a story about the adopted children of Ireland — a tale also recounted in one of this year’s Academy Award-nominated films, “Philomena.”
The article, which appeared in Newsday, was about Irish boys and girls who were born to single mothers and then taken away for adoption.
It dealt with the tale of Michael A. Hess, the adoptee central to the film, and jolted Quirin for a very good reason: He was once one of that diaspora of children.
Galvanized by the story, Quirin launched his own quest to find his mother, who he says was one of the many unwed women who gave up their children for adoption in Ireland decades ago.
Many of the women conceived through casual sexual relations, some by rapes or incest. They were considered sinners. The pregnant women were often placed in special mother-baby homes like Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, run by nuns in County Tipperary, where Quirin’s mother gave birth.
Though some of the children were able to remain with their mothers, Quirin and many others were taken for adoption after the young women signed their toddlers away and promised never to try to see them again. An estimated 2,000 wound up in the United States.
A difficult search
Quirin’s search wasn’t easy. The adoption process had been secret, and he said some in Ireland seemed to block his efforts to find out information. But his persistence finally paid off when, through the help of a contact in Dublin, Quirin found his mother in 2004 living in England.
“If you hadn’t printed that article, things would have been very different,” Quirin, an advertising executive, said in a recent interview. A wounded Vietnam War veteran, Quirin, 63, has lived in Manhasset for 21 years with his wife, Patrice, and their three children.
Quirin discovered that some of his own story paralleled that of Hess. Both were at the abbey around the same time, although they never met. Both were adopted by U.S. families. Quirin grew up in New Jersey, Hess in Missouri.
Quirin, who was told by his adoptive parents about his birth mother, also said his mother and Hess’ mother conceived after liaisons with carnival workers in rural Ireland. But while Hess’ birth mother, Philomena Lee — played in the film by Judi Dench — felt compelled to find out what had happened to him, Quirin said his own mother essentially wanted to forget about him and never sought contact.
Turning for help to Bernadette Joyce of the Dublin-based Adopted & Fostered People Association of Ireland, Quirin learned his mother’s maiden name, Margaret Murphy, and telephoned her.
His first conversation with his mother was cordial but a bit formal. Then, while passing through England on a business trip in 2011, Quirin decided to stop by her home. After he rang the bell, she stuck her head out of the window, recognized him from a photograph he had sent in a Christmas card and remarked with a touch of humor, “Ah, go back to America, why don’t you,” before finally inviting him in to talk, Quirin said.
Their relationship is a work in progress, although Quirin believes his 83-year-old birth mother is softening to the point where she will let him meet his half-brothers and sisters.
Today, the film “Philomena” has evoked strong emotions in Quirin and other adoptees.
“It pretty much hit the nail on the head,” said Kathleen Houlihan, 64, an adoptee who lives in Pennsylvania and was 9 months old when she was given to a U.S. businessman and his family in 1951.
“Obviously, the impact has been overwhelming,” said Mari Steed, the U.S. coordinator of the Adoption Rights Alliance, who traveled with Philomena Lee during her recent trip to Washington to talk with diplomats and members of Congress. Lee also has appeared on the talk show circuit.
A controversial subject
The film is based on the 2009 book by Martin Sixsmith. The issue of the women’s treatment is controversial in Ireland.
A 2013 report of the conditions in the Irish laundries where the unwed mothers worked found that while none of the small number of women interviewed suffered sexual abuse, they stated the atmosphere was “cold, with a rigid and uncompromising regime of physical, demanding work and prayer,” with cases of verbal censure. Four religious orders last year apologized for the confusion, hurt and isolation the women experienced in the laundries.
“Philomena has been one of the most incredible ambassadors we could ask for,” said Steed, referring to the push for the rights of adopted people to gain greater access to information about their adoption records and histories..
“It is a positive thing for all of us, it brings into life all that transpired years ago and how the Catholic Church handled it,” said Brian, a New Jersey banker and adoptee who appeared in the original Newsday coverage, but asked that his last name not be used to protect the sensibilities of his 90-year-old adoptive mother.
“I feel that it actually gives these women dignity, so these women may feel better about themselves. . . . I think the movie helps them out,” Brian said.
Film rings true for him
For Quirin, the film also rang very true.
“It further complicated my thinking about the whole [adoption] process,” Quirin said. “I am questioning my own faith, because if the church is capable of doing this and turning a blind eye to this, what else did they turn a blind eye to?”
“It is easy to criticize the church, but I am not sure if [Irish] society would have handled these women any differently,” Brian said.
Others note that the children who were adopted likely fared better in the United States than they would have if they had remained in Ireland.
Years of controversy and now the film have added to public awareness. Earlier this month, Philomena Lee had an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, where he reportedly is planning to screen the film.
James Smith, an associate professor in English at Boston College, who has written a book about the Magdalene Laundries, where some of the unwed mothers worked, said the Irish government accepted the findings of a special commission to give pensions to the women who worked in the laundries and has begun to make disbursements. A year ago, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny made an official apology to those women for what they went through, Steed said.
“We have to be sure this never happens again,” Joyce said.
But for the adoptees, other questions will linger.
“Anybody who has been adopted — there is lack of identity. . . . Even when I found my mother, I still don’t know who my father was,” Quirin said.