The hell of Bethany House: One man's story

At 31, Paul Graham found out he was adopted. Years later he found out more. Today he’s an angry man, writesDanielle McGrane

The hell of Bethany House: One man's story

PAUL GRAHAM is angry: “I was born in that home through no fault of my own. I was abused in that State and the State was supposed to be regulating that, and they didn’t.”

Graham was 31 when he learned he had been adopted, but it was years before he knew the circumstances. was able to put all the pieces of his life’s puzzle together. “I used to cry when I saw kids being abused on the TV and I couldn’t understand why it affected me so much. My doctor also said my leaking heart valve was a sign I’d had malnutrition as a child, and my yellow teeth were a sign I hadn’t been getting the right stuff,” he says.

After Paul had emigrated from his native Belfast to Sydney in Australia, he began investigating his past. He had been born to a single mother in Dublin’s Bethany House.

“I was told, when I was applying for my passport to come to Australia, that I wasn’t a British citizen, just a British ‘subject’. It wasn’t until I found out I had been born in Bethany House that this made sense,” he says.

Graham, 74, is in the early stages of dementia, but recounts lucidly his childhood and the many awakenings he experienced along the way throughout his life. “My long-term memory is fine, I just can’t tell you what I had for dinner last night,” he says.

Paul’s journey of discovery began when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He drank to enter a sort of fantasy world, as a form of escape. “I wasn’t like other kids. I was always frightened. My adopted mother was a terrible woman. She ran a flower shop and had a car — a big deal in those days — but spent her time drinking. She used to get drunk all the time and she would beat me. At about 12 years old, she would wake me up at 1am to go out and get her whiskey. My father was bedridden, but my mother was about 30 years younger than him.”

Like many others who began their life in Bethany House, Paul was sexually abused as a child after he was adopted, Before he joined the Navy, he was sexually abused by an acquaintance of his mother’s. “He was a strong Protestant, went to his church every day, but that didn’t stop him doing what he did to me.”

The man has since died and Paul says it would be unfair to do anything about it now. “It wouldn’t be fair on his family. I often thought about it throughout my life. It ruined my life. It was always there. But I just thought ‘what do you do with these people?’ I haven’t spoken about it with my wife and kids. I think it would be hard for them, too,” he says.

At the age of 14, Paul sought his escape and joined the navy. His wife, Hilary, was a cigarette packer and they began as penpals, when Paul was 17, eventually marrying when he was 21. “She was the only person who ever loved me,” he says. They lived together in Belfast and had three children, but struggled. Drink had taken hold of his life.

“By the time we came out to Australia, with our three kids, I was 31.”

Paul worked in a sawdust factory, but spent his free time drinking, to shut out the horrors of his childhood.

“I kept getting picked up by the police and I dried out in the hospital on a fair few occasions. But, on one hospital visit, I met a guy, who got me going to AA,” he says.

Paul sobered up, got a well-paid job in a chemical factory and focused on doing work within his community. He was elected to the local council, in Mascot, a suburb of Sydney.

“I got elected as deputy mayor here — and I was the first non-Australian elected to the local council,” he says.

While it seemed on the outside that things were going well for Paul, his feelings of emptiness hadn’t subsided. “I just kept crying if I saw children being abused on TV. So I went to my doctor and he told me to see a psychologist. The psychologist said to me ‘I’m going to tell you now, you were abused as a baby, whether sexually or physically, I don’t know’.” His doctor backed this up, saying his leaking heart valve was probably a sign he had malnutrition or consumption as a child.”

In 1986, Paul hired a lawyer in Sydney who began delving. Through an organisation called PACT, Paul found out about his family. “My mother was 24 and employed in domestic service when she was sent down south to Bethany House to have me. It seemed, at the time, Bethany House was the kind of place where you could just pick up any baby if you wanted to adopt one,” he says.

PACT said Paul’s then found out, through the agency, that he had an aunt who wanted to meet him, though his birth mother was dead, and that his aunt wanted to meet him. “I travelled to the offices of PACT in Dublin, and they told me I could pick up the phone to my aunt straight away. It was great.”

Paul began to find out who he was, and where he came from. “I knew I was born in a place called Bethany House, so when I was researching it on the internet, I came across Derek Leinster, the chairperson of the Bethany Survivors Group, who had also been born there, around the same time as me.”

“Derek started to write to me and I started to remember some things about the place — about feeling starving — and I kept having flashbacks. I reckon I spent four years there now, because I can remember, briefly, flashbacks to the long rooms with rows of beds. Something happened in the Bethany Home, which I couldn’t remember, but my doctor told me that and my psychologist told me that — it made me understand why I was the way I was. I ended up in a bloody mess — there had to be a reason for it,” he says

Paul found out more about Bethany House and the fact that 219 babies born there were found buried in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome cemetery three years ago.

“I want the Government to build a memorial for those kids. We were under the care of the State,” he says. “It was supposed to be regulated. This man came out from the Department of Social Services every month and wrote glowing reports, yet 219 kids died. I was born in that home, through no fault of my own. The State was supposed to be regulating that and they didn’t.”

The government offer of modest funding for a memorial for the victims of Bethany House, and the decision not to introduce a redress scheme for survivors, has incensed Paul. He isn’t looking for compensation, but an acknowledgement, and justice for Derek, who has been championing their cause. “I thought the language was absolutely disgusting to say the word ‘modest’. It really upset me,” he says.

“I really think it’s the Protestant/Catholic thing again. It’s the Government saying ‘We’ll do it for the Catholics, but not for the Protestants’. We should probably start a class action against the State and the Church,” he says.

“Even if they said ‘yes, there were problems there, we will erect a memorial’ ... it’s just that word ‘modest’.”

Paul knows he was one of the lucky ones, having survived, but he wants recognition that he was failed by the State and acknowledgement for those who tragically lost their lives. “I thought I was part of the State of Ireland,” he says.

“It’s very upsetting, and upsetting for Derek, who has worked all these years on this.”

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