In September 2014, Eamonn Burke lay in a cluster of hospital trolleys. The 63-year-old from Arklow was undergoing what he hoped would be his final check-up following the liver transplant that saved his life in August 2006. Amid the chatter and coughs of other patients, the doctor asked him whether he had any children.
‘I told her I had five sons and one daughter,’ says Eamonn, smiling. ‘That’s the first time I could say it.’
The reason this was such a momentous occasion for Eamonn was that, just a week prior to the check-up, he and his wife Mary had met with their 44-year-old daughter Mary for the first time. That meeting put an end to decades of secrecy and uncertainty regarding their eldest child, whom they had been forced to put up for adoption in 1970.
‘We couldn’t find out where she was gone,’ says Eamonn. ‘We didn’t know if she was dead or anything. We knew nothing.’
In fact, Mary had grown up with her adoptive parents PJ and Kathleen McGovern in what she described as a ‘loving family home’ in Cabinteely. She said that she has always known that she was adopted and had been encouraged by the McGoverns to find her birth parents. In recent years, she decided that she was ready to start her search.
‘Life was good and I was in the right frame of mind and the right place,’ she says. ‘I got nowhere at first but then I kicked it off again a couple of years ago.’
Although Mary put her name on the National Adoption Contact Preference Register (NACPR) when it was established in 2005, she was not matched with her parents as they themselves had not registered. Eamonn explained that he and his wife had been prevented from searching for their daughter since they reluctantly put her up for adoption.
‘We would have looked for the first couple of years but they bit your head off for that,’ he says. ‘We were told that we couldn’t contact her, that we’d no right to talk to her’
Mary Snr says that they were always hoping their daughter would get in touch. She gave birth to her daughter — whom she christened Elizabeth May — in her house in her hometown of Arklow. Like many unmarried mothers in Ireland at the time, she faced stigma for giving birth to a child outside of marriage and was forced to put her child up for adoption. Some 44 years on, she can vividly recall the night that her first child was taken from her by a local nurse as Eamonn sat outside on the wall.
‘The nurse warned me I wasn’t to tell anybody, not even my best friend. Mary was put into a black holdall bag and taken away and that was it,’ says the 63-year-old. ‘I didn’t even see her but my sister would have held her.’
Eamonn was unaware that his daughter had been taken until three hours later. Although he had seen the nurse leave with the bag, he was unaware what was in it.
‘They said she was gone, that they took her away,’ he explains. ‘The nurse had put her on the floor of the car, shut the door and drove off.’
The couple were then required to go to the Pro-Cathedral to give written permission to have their daughter put up for adoption.
‘We weren’t even let into the Pro-Cathedral, we had to sign the papers on the steps of it,’ they explain.
The couple, who met in school when they were teenagers, were married two years after Mary was born and went on to have five sons. Their daughter had always believed that she had been given up for adoption for ‘a good reason’ and so, was not deterred from finding her parents when she was not matched by the NACPR.
At the end of 2010, Mary discovered that her adoption records, previously held by the Rotunda, were now under the care of the HSE. In June 2011, she applied for a meeting with a social worker but, due to a staff shortage, did not get her first appointment until December 2013. It was then that she met social worker Helena, who Mary and her parents describe as ‘brilliant’.
‘During my first appointment with her, all she told me was that my birth mother’s name was Mary, she was 17 when she had me, she worked in a library and it was in Wicklow,’ recalls Mary. ‘That’s all I knew.’
She also discovered that, coincidentally, her adoptive parents had given her the same name as her birth mother, Mary Catherine.
She received no more information for several months and by that stage, certain that nothing more would come of her search, she was delighted to receive a phone call from Helena with the news that she had tracked down her birth parents.
‘Helena wrote to an old neighbour of mine looking for me,’ explains Mary Snr. ‘He handed it into my sister Rose because my mother’s name was on it. We rang up the HSE but we didn’t get any answer. Soon after, Helena sent a letter to us.’
After receiving the letter, the couple rang the HSE worker and arranged an appointment with her. ‘Helena knew all about our daughter, it was just something else. We couldn’t believe it!’ says Mary Snr.
They were eager to be reunited with their daughter whom they ‘always hoped’ to meet. However, before a reunion could be organised, Mary had to write a letter to her birth parents through the social worker. Eamonn and Mary Snr received the letter while visitors were staying and admit they ‘thought they’d never go!’.
In addition to the letter, the envelope contained photographs of Mary and her two children Dawn, 17, and Luke, 12. ‘We burst it open and looked at it and of course the two of us started crying,’ recalls Mary Snr.
The trio arranged to meet for the first time on September 3 in the offices of the HSE in Dublin. Eamonn and Mary Snr say that they weren’t the slightest bit nervous about meeting their daughter. ‘We couldn’t wait,’ says Eamonn, describing how they arrived half an hour early for their appointment.
‘We just cried at first,’ laughs Eamonn, as he recalls the moment he met his daughter.
‘I still cry, so does he,’ adds his wife.
Following the meeting, which lasted for over two hours, they were joined by Mary’s partner Mark Wood for lunch in Brady’s of Shankill, a moment which Mary Snr describes as ‘lovely’.
As a result of her determination and the help of Helena, Mary discovered that she had not only a set of birth parents, but five brothers and 12 nieces and nephews as well.
‘One more nephew arrived a few months ago,’ she smiles. ‘My godchild!’
David, Mary’s second eldest brother, was the first of his siblings to find out about his sister. Eamonn and Mary had hoped to tell their sons about the news together but, as one of their sons Jonathan lives in England, they planned to wait until he could come home. However, despite their best efforts to keep him from finding out, David accidentally met his sister when he insisted on visiting his father in A&E following the discovery of a clot on his liver.
‘She was there holding his hand and they said this is your sister,’ explains the 40-year-old. ‘I looked at her and said, “you may explain this all to me”.’
David said he felt ‘honoured’ to be given the task of telling his brothers Eamonn, Clive, Darragh and Jonathan about Mary, However, as he had to wait until Jonathan flew home four days later, he found it very difficult not to ‘let it slip’.
He describes the moment that he told them the news. ‘I sat them down and told them the story, bringing them back to the Seventies. They were stuck for words at first. I asked them then if they wanted to see their sister and they all said yes. I could see my parent’s car outside and I said, “give me two seconds…”’
The night that David brought Mary into the room to meet her brothers was an ‘emotional’ one with plenty of ‘tears, pictures and champagne’.
Yet, although David now feels that he has ‘known Mary a lifetime’, he is angry about how his parents were treated, describing it as ‘shocking’ and ‘degrading’.
‘I can’t imagine the pain and suffering they went through,’ he adds.
The family are now making up for the time that they lost with Mary. According to David, his father, who he described as a shy man, is never off the phone to her. ‘He’s a changed man,’ he says.
For David and his brothers, the biggest loss is not having memories with their sister. ‘I’ve lost 40 years of Mary but I’m going to make up for it now,’ he says.
Mary and her natural parents feel that sharing their story might help the many other people in Ireland who are going through the same process.
According to figures from the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI), there have been more than 11,600 applications to join the NACPR since it was set up in 2005. The Register is a voluntary database that allows birth relatives and people who were adopted to express their choice for contact with a blood relative. Since its establishment, the NACPR has matched 753 adopted people with their natural parents.
According to Dr. Fergus Ryan, law lecturer at Maynooth University and an expert in family law, the success of the register is ‘modest’ despite the ‘best efforts of the volunteers’ that run the register.
‘The National Contact Registry is useful but it depends very much on both sides,’ he says, referring to the fact that both parties have to put their names on the register in order for a match to be made.
For her part, Mary advises anybody in a similar situation to her to ‘keep persevering’ despite the many blocks in place.
According to Eamonn, finding Mary has completely turned their lives around and the whole experience has been positive. Since September, she has spent many weekends in Arklow with her parents or at matches with her brothers. Soon after they met, she introduced Eamonn and Mary to her adoptive mother Kathleen as well as her children. Unfortunately, Mary’s father P.J. passed away in 2002. According to Mary, both families get on extremely well.
‘I think Mam is delighted. She thinks they are lovely so she knows I’m in good hands,’ she laughs. ‘Mark is up and down to the boys and out with them and having a few drinks. He has great fun with them.’
David echoes their positive sentiments, describing it as a story with a bad start but a fairytale ending. And indeed, to give this fairytale its love story, on Christmas morning, Mary’s partner Mark Wood proposed.
‘I was thrilled,’ she says. ‘I already have everything organised, including the dress.’
The big day will take place in October in the Glenview Hotel in Wicklow. Mary is looking forward to spending the day with both of her families and, of course, the moment that her father walks his only daughter down the aisle.