Caitriona Palmer

Posted by Sue Leonard on Tuesday 22nd March 2016

Caitríona Palmer is almost quivering with nerves when we meet to discuss her adoption story. She’s not worried about the book’s reception; early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. An Affair with my Mother is not only an achingly honest account of Caitríona’s personal quest to find her roots; it’s also a forensic examination of the social issues surrounding it. But putting it out into the world has left her feeling raw.

“I have been a wreck,” she says. “I had to write this book. I was never so determined to do anything in my life. I really needed to get the story down and I felt I would be diminished if I did not.

“Writing is the easy part. I enjoyed that, and the journalist in me enjoyed the quest. But then I was faced with the enormity of having to go out into the public.  I’ve been walking the floorboards at night, wondering if it is really my right to do this. Am I hurting people? Am I doing the wrong thing?”

A high-flying human rights worker turned journalist, Caitríona appears to have it all. Gorgeous looking, with hauntingly large eyes and a heart shaped face, she has a husband she adores and three young children she is crazy about. But underneath the assured exterior, is a person so eager to please, that she puts her own needs after everyone else’s.

Her story started when Liam and Mary, a devoted and devout Catholic couple, unable to have a third child due to pregnancy complications, adopted from St Patrick’s Guild. Six years younger than her brother, the baby was doted on. Given every advantage, Caitríona was the first of her family to attend college; studying history and politics at University College Dublin.

“I am the spoilt member of the family,” she says.

And though, being told, on her sixth birthday that she was adopted came as a shock; and left her feeling a sense of inner dislocation, she felt that the adoption did not make her who she was.

“I didn’t think that it mattered, and I told people I would never search,” she says. “At sixteen I made an attempt, but that, I felt, was because it was a turbulent hormonal time. In general I was cheerfully determined that it would not be an issue.”

That’s not to say that she didn’t have fantasies of who her mother might be. Whilst she was at University, developing her interest in human rights, she wondered whether Mary Robinson might be her mother.

“I tried to work out if she disappeared around 1972, when I was born,” she says. “I would compare photographs of the two of us and see if I could find a resemblance.”

Later, living in Boston with an English boyfriend, Caitríona felt a growing sense of sadness and often anger.

“Poor Chris got the brunt end of it,” she says. “My anger surprised me every time. It happened infrequently, but when it occurred I would be brimming with rage. When Chris mentioned that, maybe, it had something to do with my adoption, I was aghast, and determined that that was not the case.”

That changed when in 1999, Caitríona was working with the exhumation of war graves in Tuzla, Bosnia, first in communications, but then with a broader role. Feeling traumatised by all that she had seen and heard, she found herself sprinting round the city.

“And I’m a non-runner,” she says. “My job was to communicate to the world the grief and the horror of the families left behind. And at the war crime tribunal I had to tell the court of the impact that horror had on their lives. I think my inner dislocation had somehow bled into my career.”

It was then that Caitríona decided to make a concerted effort to find her birth mother. And, with the approval Liam and Mary, she called St Patrick’s Guild. When, a while later, they said that her birth mother was keen to meet her too, she felt overwhelmed. And though the first meeting was highly charged and difficult, in the second, it was like falling in love. Caitríona was ecstatic. But that was far from the end of the story.

Sarah – not her real name – made it a condition that Caitríona and she would meet in secret. She had never told her husband, or her three children that Caitríona existed, and feared that if they knew, the marriage would be over, and the family would reject her.

A teacher, Sarah had become pregnant by a man who went on to marry another girl. When Sarah told him of her condition, he pretended he hadn’t heard her. The National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street gave her a certificate to say she had a kidney infection; the rural school accepted this, and she worked for a married couple in Dublin until Caítriona was born.

Two days after the birth, she left her baby in hospital, and once recovered, went home, pretending nothing had happened. But a neighbour, suspecting, told an aunt, who passed the news to Sarah’s family and neighbours. She fled to the disapproving Aunt; her father didn’t speak to her for years, and her disgrace, though never forgiven, was not spoken of again.

“That part of the story wasn’t the most surprising to me,” says Caitríona. “I grew up under that Damocles sword. In the eighties, and even the early nineties, the worst thing that could happen to you was to become pregnant. During my teens one or two girls went away and no questions were asked.

“What did shock me was how the Irish system was set up to be a Triumvirate church state and society where there was incredibly well oiled machinery in place. Everything was organised for Sarah, and nobody asked any questions, so I felt there was apparatus in place to hide her.

“And because of her good job she could avoid the fate other women suffered having to go in those mother and baby homes. She could pay her way out of the situation. That was shocking to me.

“I was amazed by it and intrigued by it, and wanted to get to the heart of it. I also wanted to trace the history of this stigma; the origin of all this shame towards the women.”

Meanwhile, Sarah and Caitríona were meeting for tea, or drinks in hotels, but never out in the open. And, to Caitríona’s frustration, Sarah was reluctant to talk much about her daughter’s conception and birth.

“It feels very painful to be kept in the dark and to be shunned. It reignites the feelings in me of not being good enough. And this has gone on, not just for six months, or five years, but for ten, and now fifteen.”

Seeing the strain the secret has taken on her, Caitríona understands Sarah’s reluctance to tell her husband. And she has, now, met two of her half siblings, and remains in touch with them.

“They have been immensely gracious,” she says. “They are both very poised and wise. Their reactions were indicative of what generous people they are. And the sky did not fall in when Sarah told them.

“My sister thought she was going to tell them she had cancer. When they discovered they had a secret sibling they were thrilled. My sister said ‘Now it makes sense. There was always a sadness or a haunting about Sarah.’”

Caitríona managed to trace her birth father, but he didn’t want to know her. And that hurt.

“If there is anger in this book it is anger at the profound and despicable sexual double standard in Ireland. Men walked away without ever having to confront their role in these relationships.” 

One couple she researched, were married with more children, but didn’t want to know the child they had parented and given away before marriage.

“What is that? How can this legacy of shame even prevent a couple from accepting their own biological child? Why can they not open the door?

“This book was meant to answer that. But I don’t know why Ireland has let so many people down. I was meant to grow up and be grateful and never want to look at my past. Because things worked out well; I was given a wonderful family and have done well; that’s meant to be enough.”

Sounding really angry, Caitríona says,

“I’m still flummoxed. I don’t understand it. When I talk about my experience, even in Ireland, people can’t believe it. It paints such a terrible picture of Ireland. People knew women were being sent away. They knew about the Magdalene laundries. They knew about the mother and baby homes but these somehow challenged the moral superiority of Ireland and the moral code.

“The state, the church and society basically colluded in controlling women’s reproductive lives. They rendered contraception illegal then punished and held women cumulatively responsible when they had a child outside marriage. To me that is the cruellest contradiction. A contradiction that ruined lives and ruined Sarah’s life.”

Deciding to write the book, Caitríona interviewed Mary and Liam; she interviewed Sarah; then researched the various institutions involved in her early life, speaking to nurses who worked with babies at the time. It all makes fascinating reading.

Being a journalist definitely helped.

“It’s a protective device.  Emotional topics are difficult to discuss and having this persona as journalist both distanced me, and gave me immediate access. I wanted the book to be without judgement. I didn’t want to be seen to be bashing the Roman Catholic Church. I wanted people to make up their own minds.”

Caitríona, her husband Dan and their children now live in Washington DC. Around the time Caitríona was researching the book, she was offered a press interview with Philomena Lee –  the Irish woman whose search for her child, taken away from her at three years old, was the subject of a recent book and movie.

“I tried not to bring in my own story, but there is something almost spiritual about Philomena. I felt I was sitting at the feet of an oracle. Her capacity for forgiveness was astonishing. I was amazed by her.

“Philomena was aghast at my story. She could not get over the fact that Sarah had only had me for two days. And, living in England, she could not believe that in Ireland there were still women like Sarah who had not come out. She wanted to help. She wanted to get on the phone to Sarah and fix things.

“Her empathy was almost too much. I’d been detached writing the story. She felled me. I was just a mess.”

That meeting was to change everything. Getting permission from Sarah, Caitríona wrote up her own story for The Irish Independent. Then, asked to write a news piece based on her story, to run a few days earlier, she hurriedly put a piece together.

“I should have said no. I had two hours to write it. I had a toddler at my feet and I could not think clearly. I wrote this rushed piece; there was a terrible headline, and the effect on Sarah was significant.  She was totally flummoxed and terrified by the surge of publicity.”

The articles found her a publisher. She was approached; there was an auction; a book deal, and a five month deadline. And that’s when Caitríona panicked. Meeting fellow writer Lia Mills, she said,

“Why am I doing this now? I have a child in nappies. I am just so busy in the maelstrom of motherhood. This is just mad. And Lia said, ‘That is exactly the time you should be doing this. When you are immersed in maternal concerns.’ And I thought she is so right.”

Writing at weekends in a writer’s room – where she paid a monthly fee, the book, which had been percolating in her head for a decade, poured out, onto the screen.

“And on the day of my deadline my back gave out. It felt metaphorical. The book broke me. And it really did.”

We’re talking the day after publication, when there was an extract of the book in the London Times.

“I’ve been inundated with Facebook and Twitter messages from other secret sons and daughters. They’ve been saying how extraordinary it is that I called the book An Affair with my Mother, because that’s exactly how it feels for them. They say, ‘I thought I was the only one.’ That gives me heart.”

Some of my questions give Caitríona cause for thought.

“It’s such a bizarre time. I’m almost in a state of self-examination. When I talk about the book all these revelations are coming to me. When I saw Anne Enright’s quote for the book, that I have been excluded from the facts of my life, I thought, really? Is that what it is? I had never seen it so starkly.”

Has the book been cathartic?

“I definitely feel the most complete I ever have, and I think that’s because I’m a mother and my children are my focus. I have this wholeness within my day to day life.”

She fears for Sarah. She hasn’t been in contact since Christmas 2014, and, although Caitríona emailed the book to her, she has not responded.

“The book was not some covert way to get her to out herself, and my greatest worry right now is her emotional state. It’s a huge worry. And her silence is painful. Here I am in the public talking about the book, and yet I cannot reach the person who matters most. I don’t think her silence is punitive. I think she is terrified and my heart goes out to her.

“My existence is a source of agony for this wonderful woman, and she wakes up and thinks of me and feels agony, and that is a pretty heavy burden. And I can’t take that agony away.

“I can deal with my own pain and live the best life I can and be the best mother to my children.  I love Sarah. I could not love her more, but I cannot take her pain away. We have never had cross words. I am haunted by her.

“The irony is that after Sarah gave me up for adoption she worried about me constantly. On stormy nights she would worry that I was out, shivering in the cold, even though she knew, logically, that I had a good home. Then I came back and she felt complete. She said that.

“Ironically there was a transference of that worry. I have taken on the worry she felt and I now have it for her because of the bizarre nature of our relationship. I am the mother now, worrying about the child.”

Some years ago, cycling to work in the Hague, Caitríona suffered a near fatal accident.

“I nearly died in that crash,” she says. “I often think it would have been easier for Sarah if the story had ended there.”

An Affair with my Mother – a story of adoption secrecy and love is published by Penguin Ireland: €19.99 Kindle: €12,26.

Published in The Irish Examiner, 12th March, 2016.

© Sue Leonard. 2016

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