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  • "Illegitimate" Knowledge:Transitional Justice and Adopted People
  • Claire McGettrick (bio)

Over the past two decades the Irish state has vigorously pursued a genealogical tourism strategy that encourages citizens at home and abroad to research their family histories.1 Incentives include the provision of free online access to the 1901 and 1911 censuses; thousands of parish records; and historic birth, death, and marriage records. Concurrently, however, through a series of legislative and other obstacles the state impedes attempts by adopted people to access their personal data. Why are nonadopted people actively supported in the quest for family and personal information even as such searches are considered illegitimate for adopted people? This article explores Ireland's closed, secret adoption system, including various state proposals to legislate on information rights. It also considers the many obstacles that deter adopted people from constructing their own identity narratives and exposes the challenges they face in the campaign for adoption rights. I argue, moreover, that a sociological research paradigm offers a possible alternative to the emphasis on emotional damage evident in some fields of adoption research—and also suggest that transitional-justice principles might help the Irish nation to address this troubled legacy.

Closed, Secret Adoption in Ireland

The history of adoption in Ireland is fraught with decades of state-initiated barriers preventing adopted people from accessing their personal data.2 Legal adoption was first introduced on 1 January 1953 [End Page 181] when the Adoption Act (1952) came into force.3 That legislation facilitated a legal and genealogical fiction that the adopted person had been born to her/his adoptive parents and provided for the transfer of parental responsibility of children born outside of marriage to eligible applicants. To ensure that the adopted child passed as the natural offspring of the adopting parents and to facilitate a "clean slate" with no interference from natural mothers, section 24(a) of the act states that after an adoption order is made, the child is considered to have been born to the adopting parents.

Section 22(5), moreover, prohibits public viewing of the index making traceable the link between the register of adoptions and the corresponding entries in the register of births.4 Under the Irish civil-registration system birth certificates have been public records since 1864, and members of the public can visit the General Register Office (GRO) research facility and view the registers of births, deaths, and marriages.5 The index to the adopted children's register is also a public record available for inspection.6 In practice, however, adopted people have no automatic right to their birth certificates and adoption files, and the absence of explicit statutory rights has resulted in ad-hoc policies and practices, often unprofessional and discriminatory. Witness testimony provided to the CLANN project depicts an obstructive system suspicious of adopted people making requests for information:

The … social worker … seemed more interested in finding out about my state of mind than in giving me information about my identity. [End Page 182]

I can honestly say that [the religious sister] made me feel like a criminal, someone unworthy of her time and attention.

I felt like I was treated as a threat to my mother, and that the social worker tried to keep us apart for as long as possible.

It has been the most daunting, depressing, miserable, and lonely search. I have faced umpteen brick walls, and I don't know how to express it. All I know is that it has worn me out.7

Although the first people adopted under the 1952 legislation came of age in 1970, the state failed to offer concrete proposals on information access until 2001, when the Department of Health and Children published a "draft scheme of a bill on adoption information and postadoption contact."8 Had it been enacted, the legislation would have facilitated access to birth certificates for adopted people. However, the bill also provided for a "contact veto" mechanism whereby natural mothers who did not want contact from their adult children could register a veto to this effect. Most significantly, adopted people acting in breach of the veto would be fined or imprisoned.9 Mary Hanafin, then...


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pp. 181-200
Launched on MUSE
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