Ever since the brilliantprogramme about Ireland’s illegal adoptions, I’ve been thinking about the brave people who took part in it, and about the mothers they searched for. And I’ve been thinking about Éamon de Valera Jr.
He must have had a difficult childhood. When he was three, his father took part in the Easter Rising and was lucky not to be executed after it. For the next couple of years, his father was in prison or on the run.
However, by the time young Éamon was 10, his father was a leading figure in Irish politics. After a tough start, Éamon Jr had a sheltered and privileged upbringing. Dad became president of the Republic when young Éamon was eight and, although he led the losing side in the Civil War, the senior de Valera was soon to occupy the most powerful position in Irish politics. Young Éamon was raised by a man who, despite the vicissitudes of politics, was to be the most powerful man in Ireland for the rest of his long life — and perhaps one of the most conservative (he asked to be buried in the habit of a monk, but we’ll come back to that).
Despite the tough and frightening early years, Éamon Jr was able to turn a life of privilege and comfort into extraordinary success. He was a highly-paid medical practitioner, with a substantial private practice. He was a constant presence at the State occasions hosted by his parents and, throughout his life, he mixed with the great and the good. He was, indeed, part of the great and the good.
He also stole babies from their young unmarried mothers and gave those babies to his own patients.
There is no evidence that he charged for the babies per se, but all of his patients paid substantial fees for his services. Among those services, in respect of women who couldn’t become pregnant, he guaranteed them a baby anyway.
All the women had to do was to wear a pillow under their clothes for a number of months, so they would look pregnant. Then they would check into a private nursing home and emerge with a baby. And, not just that, Éamon ensured that the happy new parents left the private facility with a birth certificate to prove the baby was theirs — Mum and Dad’s names were on the certificate as the natural parents of the child.
Except, of course, they weren’t.
In doing what he did, Éamon de Valera robbed young mothers of their children. And then he robbed the children of their identities — forever.
Everything about it was false. He had a reputation as a bit of a miracle-worker when it came to infertility, but there was no miracle. Only theft and cruelty. And of course, these 'services' of his weren’t advertised. He didn’t take referrals from hospitals and GP clinics — it was word-of-mouth, priests, nuns, the proprietors of some of the more salubrious nursing homes.
His services weren’t backstreet services of course. It was too professional for that. He wasn’t like Mamie Cadden.
In the late 1950s, Mamie Cadden — or Nurse Cadden as she was called — was put on trial in Dublin for being a backstreet abortionist. A young unmarried mother had died, and Mamie Cadden was sentenced to death in respect of the botched operation. (She wasn’t hanged in the end, but was imprisoned for the rest of her life in Dundrum.)
Professor de Valera, as he then was, would have been at the height of his powers when the Nurse Cadden trial caused a sensation in Dublin. You can just imagine the tut-tutting that went on around the family dining table when it was discussed.
So was he a monster and a hypocrite? I don’t like to use words such as monster, but the term hypocrite surely applies. Or else why was there so much secrecy about the babies? Why weren’t his practices out in the open? Why were mothers never told where their babies had gone or where they came from? Why did none of the babies ever get an honest birth certificate?
But in some ways, he, and more of his generation, were the product of a country his father did much to create. A country ruled by the Church and by shame. A country where women and children didn’t really matter. A country of which, in many ways, his father was the architect.
Shame, as promulgated by the Catholic Church, was the core means of power in de Valera’s Ireland. And, in Éamon de Valera, it found a perfect expression. I don’t believe he ever once in his life shook a bishop’s hand. His knee-jerk reaction, whenever he met a bishop, was to kiss his hand, sometimes dropping to his knees to do so.
De Valera Snr didn’t introduce censorship to Ireland, but he thoroughly approved of it, and introduced several pieces of legislation to systematise it.
Until 1935, there was nothing illegal about contraception in Ireland, which generally took the form of condoms. De Valera’s government made them illegal, and they effectively remained illegal for 40 years.
His constitution forbade divorce — the only written constitution in the world to do so — and that remained the law of the land until well after his death. His constitution included a “special position” for the “Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church”, a provision that remained until it was removed by the people in 1972.
Above all, his constitution devised a subordinate place for women — as the married appendage of a man — which, unbelievably, is still there to this day.
The Proclamation of Independence had promised equal rights to all Ireland’s citizens, the Free State constitution had affirmed that notion of equality.
In his speech to the Dáil introducing his constitution, de Valera acknowledged stripping the principle of equality away because, he said, women needed to be protected. His speech made seven references to the “inadequate strength” of women. Not all women, just mothers.
“There is no use in bringing into this context young girls and people who are not married,” he said. “This has reference to mothers whose duties are in the home.”
The constitution we adopted then set out to protect women. As long as they were married. As long as they were obedient. As long as they knew their place. It was not a constitution with any room in it for the girl who got pregnant, or for the child she brought into the world. For them, there was only shame and secrecy.
It is perhaps no wonder that men such as Éamon de Valera Jr felt entitled — perhaps even morally obliged — to steal babies away from their mothers and to steal those babies’ identities from them. They were illegitimate after all, and their mothers had no rights at all.
It’s also perhaps no wonder that our recent history has been so marred by revelation after revelation about the abuse of women and the abuse of children. It happened because they didn’t really matter. It happened in the Ireland built by men and churchmen around a concept of power and shame. And you wonder sometimes will it ever end.