Mary O'Meara and her twin, Ann, with their adoptive St. Louis family, L-R: Elaine and Walter George, sisters Lainee (standing) and Claire.
A woman, in hat and pearls and smart checked suit, smiles radiantly at the camera and holds twins in her lap, little girls with fat, rosy cheeks, their heads tucked into white caps. Behind her, another woman in matching hat and suit smiles down at a tiny blonde girl, whose head is tilted, her expression inscrutable. NEW YORK, Feb. 15– BUNDLES FROM IRELAND, the caption reads. The women, the paper explains, flew in from St. Louis; they’d come to Idlewild Airport to meet these Irish orphans, who they hoped to adopt. On first leg of their journey, on February 9, 1952, the Dublin Evening Mail reported on the twin’s departure:
The Roscrea nine months’ old twins—Ann and Mary Maher—have left for the U.S. after being cared for at Roscrea District Hospital for the past nine months. They are the first girls to be adopted by American citizens living in the U.S. Following their 3,000 miles air trip from Shannon to New York they will be flown to St. Louis (Missouri) their new exile home, an address that has been kept a “secret,” from the parent of the children or the immediate relatives.
A week later, the final adoption papers for Mary and Ann arrived in the mail, sent by Sister Hildegarde at Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea. “You will hear from Mr. and Mrs. A. that we had a spot of trouble of account of the pictures which were taken in New York,” the nun wrote crankily. “So I want you to pray that it will not stand in the light of the other children who are promised.” The night the twins were driven to the airport, she added, “we got a puncture and did not get home until 2.30 A.M. what do you think of Nuns out all night, I wonder what your Bishop would say, nothing I suppose because he is fond of the Babies, but should our Bishop hear it you might find me in St. Louis looking for a good job.” Tomorrow, two more children were headed to the airport. And, PS: “In case you have not paid Revd. Mother, your expenses will be nearly £30.”
This time last year, most Americans would have been hard-pressed to tell you a single fact about Sean Ross Abbey. After the release of Philomena, which was nominated for an Oscar in March, they now know it was the site of the Mother and Baby home where 18-year-old Philomena Lee gave birth to her son, Anthony; that it was where she “worked her way out,” toiling in a laundry without pay; and that every night for three years, she rocked and cuddled her son, before watching him drive off in the back of a black car. His final destination, too, was St. Louis. Though the story of Ann and Mary O’Meara—the newspaper got the names wrong—is in many ways radically different from that of Anthony Lee, the system that brought all of them here, along with thousands of other Irish babies, is one and the same.
If Philomena was a story of mothers and sons, then this is a story about fathers and daughters.
The first father, Walter George, lived in St. Louis. His Greek grandfather, Pericles Demetrius, immigrated to America and founded P. D. George Paint Company in 1919. His art deco factory, with its elegantly curving façade and glass bricks, still stands (and still manufactures paints and coatings under the name Altana PDG). Walter was the youngest of 12 kids, and very close with his mom, the daughter of a New York City Irish policeman. He had a handsomeness that blended Gregory Peck’s brunette movie star looks with something sweeter, softer, and sadder—a bit of Jimmy Stewart, maybe.
The second father, Martin O’Meara, lived in Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland. He was a young dad, the kind who would swing his little girls up on his shoulders to get a better look at the blue sky as they walked down the street on a spring day. He and his wife Elizabeth had two little daughters, Theresa, 4, and Pat, 2. By early 1951, the O’Mearas were expecting twins; Mary and Ann were born on May 9.
Two days later, after slipping into a coma after childbirth, Elizabeth Walsh O’Meara was gone. She was 22.
Mary and Ann celebrated their first birthday in America with a new adoptive mom and dad, Walter and Elaine, in their lovely house in Brentmoor Park. The twins now had two, new American sisters: Claire, 13, and Lainee, 10. Much later, in high school, Mary would develop a huge crush on a red-haired boy. Like her, he had been born in Rosscrae, his adoption organized out of Sean Ross Abbey, just as Mary’s and Ann’s had been.
The sisters, now in their early 60s, still live in St. Louis. Mary O’Meara felt compelled to learn about her Irish roots; her sister did not. Both loved their dad terribly—he became their primary parent after their adoptive mother, Elaine, passed away from cancer when the girls were only 11.
“He never hid the fact that we were adopted,” O’Meara says, with obvious love and admiration. “He was proud that we were from Ireland.”
He also, she says, kept meticulous records of the correspondence between himself, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and Sean Ross Abbey. “The very characters that are in Philomena—Sister Barbara, and Sister Hildegarde—these are the people who were writing back and forth with my father,” O’Meara says. “The only difference for us was my parents were married. My mother didn’t have her children there at the abbey.”
On February 20, a few days after the twins arrived in St. Louis, George mailed a letter to Sisters Barbara and Hildegarde. “We rather feel that eventually as they become of age they will desire to get in touch with their family,” he wrote. “If you agree with our reasoning, do you not feel it might be a good idea for us to learn more about the O’Meara family—names and ages of the Brothers and Sisters, their address, etc.? Perhaps it would be possible to procure pictures of their Mother and Father as well as a brief background of the family.”
Though the nuns declined to fulfill that request, the sisters did send along the girls’ Irish birth and baptismal certificates. Walter George continued to send generous checks (he wanted to provide for the O’Mearas, as well as donate to the clergy), and the two Irish priests who had hand-carried the babies to Sean Ross Abbey, Father Harty and Father Bergin, made several trips to St Louis to visit the Georges. When O’Meara decided she wanted to go to Ireland and find her birth family—an act she says her adoptive dad solidly supported—she started with a letter to Father Frank Bergin.
“And I contacted him on the phone several times, over several years,” she adds. “Each time I would ask and say, ‘Hey, I want to come back and try to find the family.’ And he would always discourage me. I never quite understood—he would make up some story like, ‘Oh, they’re poor, you don’t want to come here, blah blah blah…’ I didn’t know what to think.
“I finally contacted Father Bergin, and I said, ‘I’m coming over. No disrespect, but I’m coming. So I did. I came there with two of my children, and part of my family. I landed in Shannon in August of ’98. My sisters, who grew up in Ireland, and who I left behind, met me at Shannon airport.” It is a memory that still brings tears. “When I saw them,” she says, “I knew immediately that was my family.”
In 1997, nearly two decades before Philomena’s Oscar nomination, Mike Milotte published Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business. Then a public affairs reporter for RTÉ Television in Dublin, Milotte’s antennae went up after chatting with a former Aer Lingus stewardess, who described seeing Irish babies and toddlers regularly bundled onto flights headed for America. She also told him she’d overheard an American couple, who’d dropped by the airline’s headquarters, thanking the staff for “the babies they bought.” (They were here, they said, to buy another.)
Using travel documents released to the National Archives by the Department of Foreign Affairs and the papers of former Archbishop Charles McQuaid, as well as interviews with American adoptees, Milotte’s book drew a disturbing picture of collusion between the Irish Catholic Church, the Irish government, and U.S. Catholic charities. According to his findings, at least 2,200 Irish babies born out of wedlock between 1949 and 1973 were forcibly adopted into American families. The number two source for these adoptions was the Mother and Baby Home at Sean Ross Abbey. Though the church did feel it was doing the right thing—rehabilitating “fallen” women and sending the children far away, so the women could re-enter Irish society—the homes received state support for the mothers and their children, and the mothers worked for the nuns, receiving no pay. Milotte says the nuns would write letters to adoptive families, dropping hints about financial struggle. Quite a bit of money unofficially changed hands, sometimes for years (this pattern is visible in O’Meara’s letters, where George almost always mentions that a check is enclosed).
Milotte’s book is the source for the term “Banished,” which grown Irish adoptees sometimes use to describe themselves. “It’s our unofficial designation, if you will. And self-imposed,” explains Mari Steed of the Adoption Rights Alliance. Steed, who was born in Ireland and adopted by a family in Philadelphia as a toddler, reunited with her mother, Josephine, in 2002 with help from people who had struggled through the process before her. Wanting to “pay that forward,” Steed, with colleagues both in the States and in Ireland, organized the Alliance, as well as a Justice for Magdalenes (Josephine, like an estimated 30,000 other Irish women, toiled in the brutal Magdalene Laundries. Run by the church, these industrial facilities made money taking laundry orders from hotels, villages, prisons and hospitals, yet never compensated the women incarcerated there, who scrubbed laundry all day as a way to atone for their “sins”). JFM spent several fruitless years seeking redress from the Irish government, and eventually approached the UN Committee on Torture for help in putting together what became The McAleese Report (after then-Sen. Martin McAleese, who chaired Ireland’s Inter-Departmental Committee to investigate the laundries). After reading the UN’s findings, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny formally apologized to the Magdalenes in February of 2013. The government also outlined a plan to financially compensate them, calling what happened “the nation’s shame.”
“It’s not what the women deserve,” Steed says. “It’s not what I would call full restorative justice. But you get to a point, you’re dealing with an elderly population, and we knew we couldn’t continue dragging this fight on forever. Or you’d have none left, and it would just be the same case of ‘deny till they die.’”
Now, Steed says, for similar reasons, “We hope to apply some of the same methodology with adoption rights. That’s pretty much the last piece of carpet to be torn up in Ireland.” This January, while on her way home from England after holding vigil at her dying mother’s bedside, Steed got a call from Jane Libberton, Philomena Lee’s daughter, wondering that with all the energy around the movie, maybe it was time to set up a formal organization.
“So it was with Jane and Phil’s blessing that we set up The Philomena Project,” Steed says, “to work in conjunction with our group, and try to move the mission forward, try to get it some funding so that we could do things like take a case to Geneva if we have to, fight a court case that might help us in Ireland.” The Alliance reached out to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s office. Would they be interested in a visit from Lee and LIbberton, who were announcing the project? Senator McCaskill, who is stepparent to several adopted children, and had discovered that at least 200 of these adoptions had occurred in St. Louis, said yes.
“I have even been contacted by some of the kids that were part of this group in Kansas City,” McCaskill says. “I think the children were moved to places where there was a large Catholic population, so it’s no surprise that there are a number of these children that would come to St. Louis.”
After meeting with Philomena Lee on January 30, Sen. McCaskill sent a letter, dated February 7, to Irish ambassador, Anne Anderson, voicing her support for legislation that would open the adoption records. In the letter, she notes adoptees often wait three years to even speak with someone at the Irish Adoption Authority; and that organization itself felt updated legislation was needed.
“Claire McCaskill did a bang-up job,” Steed says, noting that she’d already done a great deal of research before she met with Lee in Washington. And, Steed says, adding another strong voice to the chorus definitely helped. On February 18—not so very long after that letter went out—Irish President Michael Steed made a statement to the press about the adoption records remaining closed. He called the practice “horrific.”
In Ireland, O’Meara visited her mother’s grave. She saw the house that she and Ann were born in. She met her mother’s matron of honor. She met her father’s brothers, and her mother’s sisters. She spent time with her own sisters, Pat and Theresa, who had both left for London after leaving convent schools at 18. She also went to Shinrone in County Offaly and confronted Fr. Bergin. She asked him what happened to the money her adoptive father had sent on behalf of the O’Mearas; her sisters say the family never saw any of it. She adds that had she known about Philomena Lee at the time, she would have found Michael Hess’ headstone at Sean Ross as well, and paid her respects.
O’Meara says her road, comparatively, has been so much easier than it is for most Irish adoptees—the only really unresolved piece is finding her birth father. An account of what happened emerges, faintly, in the records and letters her beloved adoptive father so meticulously kept. Martin O’Meara’s name on her mother’s death certificate. An anonymous mention in a letter from Sister Barbara, who writes to Rev. Father Bernard Stolte at the Archdiocese of St. Louis, with news she has indeed found twins for his parishioners Mr. and Mrs. George. In fact, the chaplain “spoke to the Father of the twins, Ann and Mary Madeen…as much as he loves them, he realizes there is little he can do for them and that a good home and loving parents would be wonderful, so he will let them go.” And the article in the Evening Mail observes the twins’ father came to visit his babies every day before they left for America. Though nuns assured him that they would be going to a good, Catholic home, they regretted their inability to supply the name or address of the foster parents and that permission was not given to have pictures taken outside the precincts of the convent itself. Both of her sisters, she says, felt that he had been coerced into giving up his daughters.
“Back in 1952, with the Catholic Church being so dominant in Ireland, they would not allow a father to raise four daughters,” she says. “And so our father left. I think he felt there was no use for him. And we don’t ever know what happened to him. He lost his wife and five children, because Pat, my older sister, was a twin also, and her twin died at three months.
“There’s two thoughts going on here,” O’Meara says. “You think, ‘Oh, these children were adapted to these beautiful homes, how lucky, that was a good thing. And on the other end of it is how were they adopted? That’s the thing that really needs to be looked at. Lord knows, Ann and I, we couldn’t have been raised in a better home or environment. But what did my natural father go, through because nobody would help him to keep his children? How do you take four daughters away from someone?”
She says that if she ever won the lottery, she would go back to Ireland, and try to track down what happened to her father. And that her heart aches for all of the families who are still separated, with no leads at all, just due to bureaucratic red tape. She has given copies of her letters to Reuters, the BBC, and Martin Sixsmith, author of the book that Philomena was based on, in hopes it will help push the issue forward. They do suggest there was a system in place before she and Ann were adopted: In a letter dated December 31, 1951, Sister Barbara writes to Walter George that, “Reverend Father Stolte wrote a very pleading letter on your behalf… We could not refuse [the] request even though we had decided not to send any more children to St. Louis.” Mary and Ann were probably some of the last babies out of the country before Ireland passed its first adoption law, which hit the books in 1953.
Having a twin that did not want to connect with her birth family, O’Meara is very aware that not everyone will want to make a connection. The primary reason given by the Irish government for not opening the records thus far is that the birth mothers may not desire contact with children born out of wedlock. But, O’Meara says, so many more are in the position of Philomena Lee and Michael Hess, desperately trying to find each other before it is too late.
“It’s just not right,” she says. “We’re all adults now. It’s not like they’re little children whose lives are going to be destroyed by knowing something… if we reached out to someone and they said no, I don’t want this, we would turn away and not pursue it at all.
“It’s time to let people find each other.”
For more information on the Philomena Project, or for assistance in tracing birth parents in Ireland, visit adoptionrightsalliance.com.