Season 1, Episode 4 & 5 of the Soul Seekers with Ellen Podcast
Sharon Lawless, Ellen Shilling
Ellen Shilling 00:03
Welcome to the soul seekers podcast, today we have Sharon lawless sitting with me on the soul seekers podcast, I have known Sharon for a number of years, I think about 10 years
Sharon Lawless 00:17
it’s even longer, I was trying to think of who introduced us, like who recommended you. And I think it’s going back to the late 90s or the early 2000s.
Ellen Shilling 00:32
So I was only 10.
Ellen Shilling 00:39
I think I was pushing 11 I was very old for my age, I was a guru you know, even at that young age, gosh, probably is that it probably was when I first started I think would have been early 2000s. And I was in Booterstown. That was my first ever premises. Yeah. So I was so excited this week when Sharon said that she would come on the podcast. My mom is a massive fan on her work. She was the first person I rang when I heard that Sharon had agreed to come on and I have followed Sharon and her work since we first met. I’ve been so proud. I’m so delighted and telling everybody about adoption stories, the killing of father Niall Malloy. And recently as well with the work in the hospice, the three parter. It’s inside the hospice. I went blank there for a minute. Thank you, Sharon for prompting me. So we had a chuckle there a minute ago. And I think we’re going t have a few chuckles here about the fact that our roles are reversed, and I get to interview you, instead of you interviewing people, and we’re probably bit both bit nervous about that.
Sharon Lawless 01:46
It actually doesn’t feel weird. No, because, you know, I think we have very easy conversations. So the fact that there’s a microphone there, you know, there is kind of a little bit of a thing of “other people are going to be hearing this”, you know, but by the same token, it’s like I say to everybody, after a couple of minutes, you’ll forget about the camera, you forget about the microphone, and you just have a conversation.
Ellen Shilling 02:11
Yes, yes. And yes, and, exactly. You’re 100%. Right. And that’s the whole thing that I wanted with this podcast, as well. These are conversations from a big blue chair, (which is meant to be a comfy chair). And the whole premise of this podcast is not about getting experts on to tell us what we need to do in order to have a, “successful life”. It’s not about experts telling us what they did in order to achieve their dreams. It’s about getting people on who’ve had adversity who’ve had trials and tribulations. And not really what the end result was as such, but more so what they learnt in the process and how that was for them.
Sharon Lawless 02:52
Ellen Shilling 02:54
So Sharon, I suppose to start off really is to ask you about how you are today, and a brief synopsis of perhaps your journey over the last 20 years where you came from, to where you are now, whatever you want to share around that, just to give yourself an introduction.
Sharon Lawless 03:14
I suppose like a lot of people who would work in a creative industry or semi creative industry, your life and your career can be very much intertwined. You know, because if you’re creative, if you want to tell stories, it’s very much part of who you are. It’s not like a nine to five job where you leave, and you forget about it, and you go and live your actual life afterwards. You know, it’s a 24/7 kind of job. So, I suppose when I started out, I always wanted to work in film and television, like we’re talking about the late 80s, when there wasn’t really an industry to speak of, at all, RTE ! & RTE 2 but I am not even sure if RTE 2 was there. If it was, it wasn’t there that long, you know, maybe five or six years. So there wasn’t a huge amount to do. So I kind of took a few, I suppose sideways steps always with the intention of getting to make TV or film or whatever. So I started out and very much had that attitude a lot of people do when they’re leaving school or leaving college, where you think you can take on the world….I could still do with a bit of that today, because at the time it was kind of like – “What? You won’t give me a job? Then I’ll create my own job”. You know, so I did I set up an ad agency. And the thinking behind it was well, if I can make ads, then I’m producing stuff. But then you kind of get bogged down with administration and selling which I don’t feel is my natural form and looking after clients, that kind of thing. But I did that for a long time. And and you know, that was fine. I ran nightclubs for a while, just to take a complete break. And I’d always liked the idea of that business. So for maybe five or six years, I worked in different clubs around the place like completely different clubs, everything from the Clarence when U2 bought it, and they opened the kitchen nightclub first to a couple of clubs on Leeson Street and Rathfarnham. You know, so that was like, all of that, and I had a ball. But the itch was still there to go back into the media.
Sharon Lawless 05:44
Then I went to RTE for a while and down in Cork, which was probably the best six years of my life, I really felt that I come home, and the friends I made there were are just lifelong friends. Once once my Cork olleagues accepted that, that I was from Dublin and that I wasn’t taking their jobs. It was like, you know, one weekend, I think they must have had a meeting and said – She’s okay, because after that they spoke to me, there was a turning point. And I just had the best time there. It was very much like a family, it was like a miniature version, you know, because throughout the whole building there was 80 people working, you know, compared to a few hundred people in Donnybrook, and there was just that lovely, warm feel, and fun and working for an organisation that was very well respected. And certainly in sales, which is what I was doing at the time, Ad sales. You know, it was not an easy sell. but people could kind of put you in a category. You know, when you say, I’m from RTE, and they go, okay, yeah, that’s standard, you know? And then when I’m back out on my own again, you know, it’s always fine for a while, but it just, you know, if you’re not doing something you love. It becomes hard work,
When you were going back out on your own were you’re going back into Ads?
Sharon Lawless 07:24
Yeah, yeah, because I had some fantastic clients when I was with RTE, and they came with me, then I just set up an ad agency. So that I could sell advertising for all media, not just RTE. But that was kind of at the height of the Celtic Tiger and the market was very hot. So where I would have been working a lot with SMEs, and kind of working with them in building up their business and their profile, then they were being poached. And I think we would have been talking at this time, because it was almost like watching the signs to make a move. And you know, that I would wake up one morning and see an ad on TV for a client I’d been working with for years, but it wasn’t an ad I placed, you know, that they’d gone with somebody else, you know, and all of these things were kind of happening, and really was a sign of; you’re not doing what you want to do, this is not your, your best self. And I kind of thought, well, you know, I’m not enjoying this, I’m not making any money at it. So I might as well go and do something that I enjoy, not make any money out. So I just started pitching programme ideas to or RTE and Virgin and that. And it’s funny, because I think anybody who is self employed, you know, who, who needs to kind of pitch and particularly into an industry that is quite niche. Even though I’d been running my own company, and even though I’d been producing commercials, and you know, running events and doing all the things that are involved in production, and that I trained in TV production and film production, when I went to pitch because I haven’t worked in other production companies. I didn’t have like a track record that they could go, oh, well, you worked on that programme, and then you were made producer on that programme. And, you know, there was no point of reference for them. So even though, you know, I could say to them, “Look, I have this idea. You know, this is how I think it should be made. I can employ these people to do it” It was that they didn’t have sight that you know, “I’m from RTE thing” you know, and the perception was there that you were okay, but I didn’t have that then. So, I found that really difficult to get across. “I can do this. I have been doing this.” I’ve been doing more, because I’ve been running my own business and having to do everything every aspect of it, more than a normal producer would in a production company, if, you know, that’s all they do, I find that really frustrating. And that I just wasn’t being given the chance when I felt I had achieved an awful lot, you know, and I’d kind of made myself, you know, train up and learn things and put myself out there. And that then, when it came to, okay, this is what I really want to do. I’m really passionate about it, this is what I’ve always wanted to do, this is what I started off doing, and then they were kind of going “Thanks. But no, thanks.” You know, I found that really hard.
Ellen Shilling 10:38
The work that you were doing was production, there is the filming, there is the editing. There’s everything that’s involved in it. So from what I’m hearing is, is from a young age, like looking at the TV anda want and a spark of, something there Was there a moment where you saw something on the TV and you were – that’s what I want to do.
Sharon Lawless 11:05
I don’t know. I mean, I certainly would have been a telly addict when I was growing up
Ellen Shilling 11:12
Dallas and Dynasty and all that?
Sharon Lawless 11:12
Oh. They were a bit advanced dad wasn’t happy with a mom and dad wouldn’t let me watch grange hill.
Ellen Shilling 11:17
I had the same as well, there was the Big F one day on Grange hill and that was the end of that.
Sharon Lawless 11:21
I don’t even think it took a big F for them to stop me watching it. But yeah, I always really liked it. And we had a family friend who worked in films at the time. And in fact, one of the jobs that mum was doing when she was expecting me. And for about six months after I was born, she was working on a film here called Darling Lily. And it went on for years., I think everybody in the film business at the time was working on darling Lily and generations have come out of that sense. And it was a film with Rock Hudson and Julie Andrews, and it was alot of it was shot here in Marley Park. So mom was working with Blake Edwards father, who I think was one of the producers. And a good friend of hers was working with her and mom, you know – she didn’t want to make a career out of it, she wanted to be a mother, she wanted to be at home, with me. But her friend did go ahead and and have a really successful career. So that’s that was always kind of in the ether. And I suppose the glamour of that. And I was good at English. And, you know, I mean, if it was down to, you know, was a Romper Room where this one would look in the mirror and go, you know, I can see you Shaaron or, you know, there was some TV programme that I thought this woman in the television could see me, you know, yeah, but it was it was part of what she did. Yeah, you know, and I just can’t remember was it a Romper Room or what her name was, whenever that was part of the whole thing that she would kind of like, look into the screen, but this mirror and talk and because she would just pick out names, popular kids names at the time. And every kid with that name would think she can see me, you know?
Sharon Lawless 13:08
I think it was just that it was almost like forming a link. Yeah, you know, because that’s one of my earliest memories of watching TV, was that programme, and that just was, there was a particular phrase that I just can’t think of, but it was that she, you know, was kind of going I can, I can see you, you know,
Ellen Shilling 13:32
So there was something very magical and very mysterious serious about that as well. That must have intrigued you. As a young child and then having it in your, your mother, you know, obviously she’s a very creative person who has an interest in media and in storytelling
Sharon Lawless 13:47
She’s more visually creative. She didn’t pursue writing or you know, anything or medium in any respect other than that job. But yes, she would be she would be a good storyteller. But you know, she’s not a Seannachai (storyteller). You know? She would be fantastic. You know, with interiors flowers, she just has an incredible eye and fantastic hostess cook you know, she’s like, you know, a glamorous Mrs. Doyle.
Ellen Shilling 14:38
So it like it was in the DNA to a certain extent
Sharon Lawless 14:49
to a degree. Yeah. But then I mean, there were other people and, you know, families and that’s all they’ve done, they’ve only ever worked in media or film or whatever. Whereas I don’t have that heritage you know, but yeah, there was probably something there and maybe that familiarity with it or closeness to it probably more through our family friend than Mom herself, you know. And I was quite close to her. So yeah, it was probably through that and hearing about what she was doing, you know.
Ellen Shilling 15:20
And then you went to the nightclubs, this is me being very nosy. But it’s also seems like it was a very interesting time as well, you must have learned a lot about human behaviour and probably how to relate to people and stuff that you use now through your, the work that you do now.
Sharon Lawless 15:45
Yeah. Probably, I mean, that’s something I’ve never thought of before. But that’s such a good point. Because I was dealing with very different people, depending on what club I was working in. So with the Clarence you know, it was very trendy, it was very ahead of its time. So even at that time, which was I think 94 If you were going out in Dublin, you would dress up – like guys would be in a suit. If you arrived to the kitchen nightclub in a suit, you would not be allowed in. So it was the complete, you know, turning over of that whole kind of clubbing scene, or socialising scene, you know, which we still have to a degree. But it was kind of following in the footsteps of UK clubs, like the Ministry of Sound, and you know, all of that kind of thing. So it was all kind of DJs doing their own mixes, you know, named DJs. It was just a place for, you know, maybe slightly alternative people to go to. And it was funny, because there was a Scottish guy running it at the time. And a lot of the the team around him were from the UK as well, they’d all worked in clubs over there. And that was kind of what they wanted to put in place. But I think Dublin wasn’t quite ready for it. You know, like, in Dublin at the time, if you went out and you were dressed in a tracksuit, you know, you were kind of up to no good. But you were allowed into the kitchen. Yeah, because you were dressed. Yeah.
Sharon Lawless 17:32
The clientele then in where Rathfarnham, I have an interest in this as my Husband is from Rathfarnham.
Sharon Lawless 17:35
Oh, really yeah the old Marley Park Hotel, you know, as it was. There was a nightclub there for a long time. And I think when I went there, it was called the M 50. Fantastic fun. And again, I made some really good friends out of those years. But I think the really good friends that I made at the time were in a similar position. Whereas one of them has a fabulous, really good Creche, and Dublin 6. And she was taking a break from that, to do the same thing, just to kind of something she was interested in. But she went back into that business again. So it was almost like, you know, a few of us were just kind of taking a break to do something that we would enjoy doing, that wouldn’t be too mentally taxing. And, you know, maybe something that would have exposed us a little bit more to different worlds, and it certainly did. But we all went back like, you know, one girl went back to stockbroking, you know, the back to her Creche, and I left nightclubs to go and work in RTE down in cork. And just coincidentally, again, that’s like things falling into place. And they always do. She heard an ad. And we only she only heard it once. And I never heard it. But it was an add on on RTE looking for sales agents in RTE and cork. And she said it to me and around that time or RTE were advertising for different posts, I went for all of them. I had just bought a house, and I thought if I get this job, I’m going to turn it down because I have my new house. I did the interview, went down to Cork, did the interview and they rang like a day or two later to say I had the job. I could not get out of the new house fast enough to go and do it. It was just that gut instinct. You know? Just felt right. It just felt right. You know when something feels right, you can respond really quickly and make it happen. You know, and things fall into place. Mom and Dad fostered my cat, I rented out the house. And I packed up the car and went down to Cork like within a week. And I just loved it.
Ellen Shilling 17:47
So what an incredible start already I feel like there’s an episode of A TV show in there because there’s so many different aspects to it. And then like came I don’t know how many years ago but adoption stories came for you. And I never forget sitting down watching that first episode. And I can’t remember all the ins and outs of it now because I know it was a good few years ago. But I remember having tears streaming down my face just going this is so full of compassion, so full of love. So full of respect for the people involved. This isn’t sensational. This isn’t trying to get a story out of something, this is people’s lives, and it’s held with such delicacy and respect and love that I was like this. This is amazing. But I know that was difficult even for you to get there. So I suppose – how was that experience for you of adoption stories? And, I know, it was a difficult as I said, space to get it accepted and and get it up and running? How was the birthing, I suppose of adoption stories
Sharon Lawless 20:59
I mean, it just came about in a meeting I was I was pitching something up in TV3 as it was at the time. And the guy who was running television, Ben Frow, he was just a maverick. And he was just black and white about what he wanted, and what would work and what wouldn’t, and he loved his audience. I think I had kind of pitched a couple of things to him. And I don’t know whether it was just to get me off his back you know, that he said, Oh, did you see such and such a, you know, one of their current affairs programmesthe night before where this woman had been talking about her adoption, and it was always something that was in the back of my mind, because I was born in 1967. Which I know would be a big revelation to you. And yeah, sorry, if so, but 1967 was the year of the highest number of adoptions in Ireland. So, you know, I would have grown up knowing people who were adopted but not knowing anything about it. And then when I went to meet this fabulous woman Grainne and heard her story, and we had very similar upbringing, so she grew up in Blackrock. I grew up in Terenure, we both went to presentation schools, we were the same age. And when I heard her life experience, in relation to the fact that she was adopted, versus mine, and I thought, this just isn’t right. Why is she being told she cannot find out who her mother is? She cannot find out anything about her birth? Why has she been disrespected so much? Why is she being spoken to so abusively? And I thought, if this was happening to me, there would have to be a huge mental health implication, you know, that you’re being disregarded and rejected all the time. Yet, you’re a fully formed adult, with a family with a career, you know, with an education with a happy family. And the only difference between the two of us was that she was adopted, and I wasn’t, but she was getting dogs abuse. And I wasn’t – why was she because the law at the time, and it’s only recently changed, did not allow adopted people find out anything about their birth, their families, their birth families, nor did it allow mostly women who had been forced to give up their children for adoption, know anything about those children. And there were so many things that I think what she found and most adopted people everybody involved in it found so upsetting was that a stranger in an adoption agency, or the HSE, or wherever, would have their full file in front of them with all of that person’s information, the mother’s name, the address everything about it, and that the adopted person would be sitting across the table and not be entitled to see or know any of that information. And that they were made feel guilty. And like a second class citizen for wanting to know it, and being accused, right throughout all the series of adoption stories. And anything that has been you know, coming from the government, and all these kind of scare tactics is “but sure if we open up this information to you all these adoptive people be landed on people’s doorsteps and ruining their lives.” I mean, not one person I came across ever did that or would ever want to do it. And you know, can you imagine? Looking around all your life, you know, passing people in the street, looking for somebody who looks like you, you know, and you would find people to look like you, like imagine not knowing, you know, who you are, you know, where you came from, when you think of it, it’s so unnatural. And, I was meeting these people who had this going on in their lives. And because it was unspoken, about a lot of the time, or because it was kind of Oh, you want to cause trouble. Or for the women who had given birth, it was just such shame involved, and all of that, but it wasn’t spoken about that, when it came to sitting down and talking to people, and, you know, like, we would interview people for four hours, because it might have been the first time that they felt that they could speak freely, and they weren’t going to be judged. And everything that they told us, they were telling us in good faith, it was an education for me. And it just got me riled up to think that there were so many people in Ireland, 1000s and 10s of 1000s of people in Ireland, living with this within them, you know, as they described, but just this whole, you know, of sadness, and not being able to do anything about it. And as the innocent party, you know, like an innocent baby, you know, they were the ones that were getting everything thrown at them for wanting to find out this information. And I just thought it was so unfair, I thought, if I’m not aware that this is like, as a normal member of society, I hadn’t been aware of all of those barriers that they faced. And I thought, if I’m not aware of it, then loads more people wouldn’t be aware of it. And that was the case. So I think, in the initial iteration of adoption stories, it was going to be like the definitive documentary on adoption. And I did have experts talking about it. And it was really interesting. But when we had a look at it, when Ben had a look at it, he said, Your people are so good, your interviews with the people, that’s where it’s at. So we just changed it. I mean, everything was supposed to be three or four episodes. And we had to it ended up being two because we took everything out, apart from the interviews. But, you know, there were, there were a lot of similar threads and themes in people’s stories. But every single person had a different story had a different experience. Every single one of them, though, had this loss, you know, felt this loss. And regardless of, you know, the how happy their upbringing, a lot of them
Ellen Shilling 28:01
What struck me about them as they weren’t sitting there going “poor me” were so many of them were acknowledging I’ve had such a good life, I have a family that loves me, but there’s a part of me, that’s, that’s always wanted to know, and you can never, as you say should never deny somebody the opportunity to explore that. So that must have been amazing to be able to provide a non judgmental space for people to tell their stories, like the healing that is provided in tht space
Sharon Lawless 28:25
And it was, it’s like any, you know, good conversation, I would imagine that, you know, with, with your clients as well, after a session with you, you come out feeling uplifted, and you know, that, that you can tackle things and that somebody has listened to you and maybe has an answer. So, I think that a lot of people after talking or going into every aspect of it, and for once not getting thrown back in their face or not being told you’re going to ruin that woman’s life. It was, yeah, okay. Maybe look at it this way, maybe looked at that way. And, you know, like, people are responsible for their own lives. And if somebody wants to go on a search for their natural family all you can do is support that and hope that they have support within their family. And while we legally weren’t able to help them on that search, it was a quirky aspect of adoption law at the time that only adoption agencies or recognised adoption agencies could assist an adopted person or a natural parent, look for their child or parent. So we couldn’t, we couldn’t hand over information. We couldn’t do anything like that. Not that we had access to the files anyway. But what we were able to do was go into the general register office and even though adopted people weren’t given any information about their families, they were given what’s called non identifying information by their adoption agency. So let’s say, you know, somebody could be told, Well, your mother was from Munster. She was 19, when she had you, you were born in Shannon or in Tipperary, you know, so then you start putting all this together. So you go in, and you look at the birth registrations, you find, you know, babies who were born in that district in and around that date, because, of course, not all the paperwork was correct. And you’ve whittled it down, and I mean, there were some searches that were very fast, and some that just took an eternity. But in every single case, we were able to go, you know, as far as finding out where the parent or the child was, it was mostly the parent, but we couldn’t tell the adopted person. So you could find this, we could find it but we couldn’t share it legally, we couldn’t share it. It was against adoption law. So what we would do was, we would go do all of that work. And when you’re talking about like, myself, and one other person, you know, yeah, just, you know, coming out with red eyes out of the GRO. But the excitement that you would get when you get a one little breakthrough, and even a people’s documentation, you know, the scant piece of documentation, they would have, you would see it with fresh eyes, or you’d see something that they hadn’t spotted before or hadn’t linked up. And it was like a jigsaw, a very complex jigsaw, but we would get all of that information. And then we would have to film them going through it themselves. So we couldn’t guide them. We couldn’t open the page with the information. But you can put them in the general area. We can put them in the chair in the general register office and say, What is your information? And they say, Well, I was born, whatever. Okay, so, you know, now where you need to look in the book, you know, and eventually they would find themselves. Yeah, you know, and then that reaction that we’re getting that true reaction, we weren’t compromising the person, we weren’t manipulating them. And if they didn’t want to find out any more, if they didn’t want to go any further, and we had more information, you know, the old it, but, you know, had anybody kind of felt overwhelmed, we stopped.
Ellen Shilling 32:50
And that’s what I love about all your programmes, everything that you’ve done, there’s an integrity to it. Because I’ve seen other adoption stories, my mother says this all the time – the other ones just aren’t the same. It’s all sensational. They just want to provoke reaction. Sharon would never do that. Again, number one fan! And I think that’s lovely about you, and about your style is that you were there for them first and foremost, at the centre. And it’s you helping them to tell their story, given them a space to tell their story, and not trying to push them into what you think will be good TV.And is that avery conscious choice of yours, or do you find that it’s just something that’s in you anyway,
Sharon Lawless 33:31
I think it’s probably a bit of both and probably something I learned from adoption stories that, you know, there was never a presenter, you know, and there’s never been a presenter in any programming that I’ve done at the most of this voiceover, just to kind of link up because we have, we don’t have hours for every programme. But I mean, people are willing to tell their own story. They don’t need to, you know, Davina McCall, or anybody else to tell their story for them and I kind of thought, why would I be interfering here? Why would I be putting somebody else, you know, let them tell their own story. And they know it you know but there was that mutual trust as well. Like, I had to be able to trust that the person was being open and honest with me. And they had to trust that from being open and honest with me, I was not going to abuse that. I’m not going to edit a four hour interview into 10 minutes. It didn’t represent them properly, because, but it’s something I always say to people is, your life will go on long after our cameras are gone from here, between being seen on TV, and then as life develops for them, particularly in the instance of adoption stories where if there was a reunion how that would go for the following number of years. I mean, that would have nothing to do with us. But that they were putting themselves out there in the public eye. So that was something that I was always very conscious of that there was that duty of care. And I think it’s very important that people within their own families have somebody to look out for them, or whether it’s a really good friend or whatever. Or that may be like, in in a couple of cases, in the very, very first series that we did, I spoke to this woman who had had to give her son up for adoption when she was 16. And she spoke about spending the next number of years just crying in her bedroom. And you know, how that affected her life. And she, she subsequently met him again, and they have a fantastic relationship. But after her interview, went out, her mother was shocked. And her mother said, I never knew you were going through that. Oh, my God. So even for the people who know the contributors, well, it can be eye opening for them. Because, if they’re living with them or if they see them regularly, you know, like life takes over. And you don’t always think of this as actually deep within them. And this is what they were going through. I mean, they might have been just thinking at that time, because of would have been in the 1980s, I suppose, you know, kind of like, it was a shameful thing to happen. You know, we’ve got rid of that baby. Now it’s taken care of – get over it. And she’s up there now. Yeah, she’s up there. Now whinging. But then, with her mother, seeing her on TV and speaking so openly about it, and then realising that was actually what her daughter was going through
Ellen Shilling 36:51
I’m getting chills, how beautiful is that, like that they were able to heal that within their relationship, because you don’t think of it going backwards through the family line, you think only of the relationship between the mother and the son or not of the grand grandparents as well. And of course, they thought that they were doing the right thing at the time. We have since realise that, of course, it wasn’t. But at that time, that’s what they were fed, you know, and they thought they were doing the best for everybody.
Sharon Lawless 37:17
I mean, like, one of the things that I was really excited about and and proud of what we managed to expose, for the first time, you know, that it wasn’t just people sitting and telling their story, it was exposing the experience in mother and baby homes and firsthand experience, you know, and exposing the flawed legislation, and why it just didn’t make sense. And even the case that was taken that led to the adoption Act was flawed. You know, it was about two adoptions that took place prior to 1952, before adoption became legal. So there were so many flaws in that case. But that was what the more recently that the 2010 adoption Act was placed on. And it’s it was a bit like the computer says no, you know, that, the different things that people were facing within that legislation. But then also one of the biggest things was illegal adoption, where I met these two amazing women separately. One of them was a beautiful woman who had come over here from the UK, she had Irish roots. And when she got pregnant, she was 19. She was sent over here to a private nursing home in Dublin, treated very well. And she gave birth to a baby boy, and she really wanted to keep them and she was, you know, trying to figure out what way you know, she could you know, could she get a job or stay here or get a job keep them. But what she didn’t realise at the time was everything had been pre organised without her really realising. She spotted a couple arriving at the private nursing home the following day, so it wasn’t a mother and baby home. I mean, a lot of women went to private nursing homes, to have children at that time. She saw this couple arriving and she had been told, you know, you can spend one night with your baby, but, he has his parents now. So what happened was that this couple came and took him away. She was brought into the adoption agency in town. She signed all the consent forms in one go, and a false address was put down and a solicitor signed it separately. He didn’t witness any of the signatures. All of those consent forms should have been spaced out right up until, you know, she had seven years to sign the final consent form. But she signed them all within a day
Ellen Shilling 40:09
She was hysterical.
Sharon Lawless 40:10
She was just being told it, she was just been told this is what you do. And she was obedient. And she didn’t really know any better. And when she went back home to the UK was never spoken about again. And her mother had said, like, if anybody knows that you had a child, you’re used use goods, nobody will want to marry you. But in fact, she, she soon afterwards married her best friend’s brother, who was just a wonderful man. And he knew about the baby because of, you know, the relationship. He was on the search for her child as much as she was over the years. I mean, they came back to Dublin for a family do or something. And she called to the nursing home thinking, I’ll go back and see my friends, you know, who worked there. And she was told oh yeah I knew you’d be back, because you didn’t want to give up your baby, and he’s probably gone to the states, because that’s where they were sending babies at the time. And, you know, she was told then in the adoption agency, no, we’ve no record of you ever giving birth. So there was no record of his birth, what had happened was his birth was registered by that couple who had adopted him.
Ellen Shilling 41:31
And did she ever find him?
Sharon Lawless 41:34
Yeah, as a result of the programme. She had been looking for him for about 50 years and over that time, she went back to the adoption agency. And she said, Look, I thought I was going to be able to find him again, you know, and like, that’s why she had checked up on him. You know, she kind of like called back out to find out, how’s he getting now? She knew she couldn’t take him. But she just wanted to know, Is he okay? How’s he getting aren’t just looking after his welfare, but then to be told, Well, actually, we’ve no record, of you ever giving birth, and he’s probably gone to the states. And he’s registered as the naturally born child of that couple. And we can’t tell you where he is, or anything about him. You can have nothing to do with them. And you know, she had a family and she was kind of tied up with that. She was living in the UK, and she was fighting for years and years and back and forth. Eventually the adoption agency did make contact with the adoptive mother, and this guy was in his 30s, at that stage, at least, and the adoptive mother said he doesn’t know he’s adopted. I can’t tell him now that he’s adopted,
Ellen Shilling 42:48
Would that not have been on his birth cert?
Sharon Lawless 42:49
No, because his birth cert looked like yours or mine. Yeah, you know, and there was no other birth cert that existed for him. Like normally somebody who’s adopted, there is a proper birth certificate, even though it might only name the mother and not the father. But then there’s an adoption birth cert which is slightly different, that’s what adoptive people use for those who know they’re adopted. But then if you go, and you have a long form birth cert that looks like everybody else’s, you don’t know, that’s the only registration of his birth. So there was no official record of her having given birth, there was in the nursing home, and in the adoption agency, but she just you know, the, the adoptive mother said, I cannot tell him now. We were told this, this would never be revealed. It was a private adoption. They had gone back and adopted another little boy from the same place did the same thing couple of years later. So they had two children, they were bringing up as their own illegally. And my lovely lady was looking for her son. And oh she was back and forth with the adoption authority. She had tried to take the adoption agency to court. And the legal opinion at the time from her own team was well sure why did you sign the consent forms? You were obviously prepared to give him up and didn’t care what happened to him, you know, because you were prepared to give them up. So like, what’s your problem? And she stood to lose everything. She went ahead with it, and you know, not having that kind of support but she was totally dismissed and she was just the most wonderful woman is the most wonderful woman, thank God. So she took part in the documentary at that time, we couldn’t name the adoption agency or you know, too much detail.
Sharon Lawless 42:59
How did you come across her?
Sharon Lawless 44:11
It was actually a couple of people had mentioned her. There’s a great journalist who was working in The Examiner at the time called Conall Ó Fátharta, e had done a lot of work on adoption and didn’t get a lot of recognition for it. But I had met him just as part of the research. And then when I made contact with one of the adoption support groups, which supported natural families, and that’s from mothers, the woman who was running that told me about this story as well. So at that time, when I contacted Tressa, is the woman’s name. When I contacted Tressa, her lovely husband was very sick and her daughter had died of cancer. She was looking after her daughter’s children so she had all of that to contend with. It took a couple of years before we actually sat down and she told her story. And then she rang, it was due to go about in January, she rang me in November, I think, and said, “Listen, I’ve just got a call from the adoption authority from a social worker there, who said, I believe you’re going to be on this programme in the new year, well, look, I’ve gone back to your file, and I’m sick of the way you’ve been treated. And I’m going to find your son for you. And, you know, tackle, you know, take over this case, and sort it all out for you. But you’ll need to drop out of the programme”. Because, of course, they didn’t know what was going to be exposed, you know, how, how involved, they had been, how involved the adoption agency had been, you know, if money changed hands, you know, because that’s how it was done. And so they didn’t know what was going to come out of the programme. And they were saying, “Look, you know, your son might reject you now. If you, you know, if the first time he sees is on the programme, talking about your experience”, you know, of course, she couldn’t take that chance. And I said, Look, don’t worry about it. It left me with like, 10 minutes of a programme, but you know, and I didn’t have anything to fill it. But I said, Look, don’t worry about it. You cannot dismiss the past 50 years. Like, I can’t do that to you. Yeah, you know, but I said I’m going to send you your interview because she was afraid of what she had said in it. And I said, if you see your interview, you can make that informed decision yourself. So I sent it over to her and she rang and she said, I’ve watched it, and she said, I just broke down, said it was like I was watching somebody else’s story. She said I saw it objectively. And she said, I’ve actually sent it to the adoption authority so that they can see it. I said look, everybody’s going to fall in love with you when they see you, your son, you know, if he sees this, I mean, how over the moon is he going to be, you know, when he gets over the fact that never been told he was adopted? You know, but like, how could he not love you? Yeah, exactly how and how much trouble she’d gone to. And that’s exactly what happened. I mean, the social worker did go and meet him, down the country. He just got an envelope saying, you know, I need to talk to you. He didn’t know it was anything to do with adoption, he thought it was like an adoption within his family, he had no clue was to do with himself. So he went and he met the social worker. And then she landed this bombshell that they, the woman had brought them up, and by all accounts was a lovely woman. And she’d only died six months prior to that was not his mother, and that his real mother had been looking for him for the past 50 years. And that he had five sisters, half sisters, one of whom had died. And like all of the – can you imagine, you know, his whole world, every aspect of his life, being questioned, but they they met for the first time, I think it was, was that the night after the programme aired or I know there was like a day in between the two and I met her beforehand. But even when they met in the premises of the adoption authority, she said the social worker was there and wouldn’t leave the room. Because she said no, I need to stay here. In case there’s, like, you know, anything inappropriate and they asked what do you mean anything inappropriate? She said like you know, genetic sexual attraction.
Sharon Lawless 49:38
Yeah. She said now, any communication that there has to be has to come through me. She didn’t want them communicating with each other. Prior to that any communication had been through her with letters and phone calls, and it they didn’t speak to each other. But then they were kind of going – that’s not going to happen. And they eventually took a case against the Attorney General like the state, the adoption authority, the adoption agency, and they did settle it. And it was a harrowing case. Because the first couple of days, they just went through his upbringing, which was not ideal. And it was that whole thing of what might have been. It was just so stressful. And, you know, there is this still general lack of understanding of what they had been through, the impact of this on his life now, and what she had gone through and, and the lies she’d been told over the years, and who was responsible for it, you know, and who profited from it, you know, and things that she wasn’t even aware of so it was really stressed when they did settle, which, you know, they were happy with. But it didn’t, it wasn’t the landmark case, that it could have been for so many others in that situation. The only, you know, thing that, let’s say other people taking cases subsequently would have been aware of would have been what was discussed within the court case, but because there was no kind of public conclusion or, you know, nobody was kind of charged with anything, you know, and that’s the problem. I mean, we did interview the two of them afterwards. A good while afterwards and, you know, while they were saying, Look, you know, it’s great, we settled we have it over with, but we didn’t get justice. You know, the people who were involved, got away with it, now most of them are dead. But their families aren’t, and their descendants aren’t. And you know, they’re still around. And it was like, they still got away with it.
Ellen Shilling 49:38
Ellen Shilling 51:55
its difficult, though, isnt it because that could be years in a court. Or else – do we spend years doing that? Or do we just try and create a lovely relationship with us now, would the years in courst takeaway from that?
Sharon Lawless 52:09
And I know, that was a challenge for them, you know, and I know even, when I’ve spoken to mothers who have reunited with their children, and they have a very happy reunion, and the search is over. I know, one woman said that she still got depressed. Because she said, nothing can make up for the lost time. I said nothing. There was no way I can fix that.
Ellen Shilling 52:40
No, there is no healing that kind of pain is there. No, you know, even though you think that it is going to be that answer? That name or that conclusion? Or that ending of the story or the hug from that person
Sharon Lawless 52:55
It’s not because it’s all of those experiences that you missed out on? The you know, both sides. Yeah. And then, you know, even within the extended family, if there are siblings or half siblings, there can be a lot of displacement there as well, because they’ve grown up, in a particular household, maybe hearing about this child, maybe not, and that’s the case in a lot of families, where they, the mothers are still too scared of the shame. Even though it’s out and, you know, like it’s been discussed, and legislation has changed. But for a lot of women, they just had such a bad experience, they just can’t revisit that.
Ellen Shilling 53:41
It’s too much isn’t it, and I think for our generation, we can get over that shame. But for I think, for our parents and our grandparents generation, it was just so instilled in them that it’s too much as you say, to face there is not the same emotional compassion. That’s there now and a lack of judgement, because it’s just was reinforced the whole time. And it’s interesting, you’re saying that about the like, I had an experience a number of years ago, I was doing a bit of work on you know, family tree and stuff. And I got a phone call from a woman claiming to be a long lost relative and what would be a kind of cousin in law of mine and she’d like that I’ve been given no information had gone and been a given a name, and given an area in Galway, given this very scant information, andI come up with this person’s name. She was like I need you to to approach the family members and tell them I’m this long lost adoptive daughter of this person. I was like, Oh, okay. Okay. I got on the phone to my mom. And I was like, Mom, this is what’s happening. So we sat down and it was through an extended family and we went down went through the timelines were matching up about what happened and everything we went back and we’re like, well, we have to figure out how to approach this and it was really rocking our worlds like, and then it was only one thing that we realised is that there was one date that was off. And we went back and said, No, actually, that can’t be possible because that date is off that person was somewhere else when you’re when you were born on that date, and we actually happened to have photographic evidence of this, what would have been, it would have been their mother, and somewhere else at a different time. She was like, oh, but my heart went out to her. Because I never heard from her again. She’d come over all the way over to Ireland and visited family graves, and said, This is my birthright, had really, really connected with the land with the heritage and thought that she found her family for me to reject her again. She couldn’t talk to me again. After that she was so upset that she got that they got it, inverted commas “wrong” And we were like, no, no, we just hope that you find the right person. And I got a call a couple of weeks later from her husband saying, We found everything’s great. I was like, Oh, that’s amazing. But like, how awful a journey that must have been for her. To think that this was happening that lovely ending, only to be told no, no, thankfully, it all worked out in the end. But that’s the problem isn’t with the with the litle piecemeals of information that people are getting.
Sharon Lawless 56:13
And not knowing if it’s right or not, you know that a date might be changed. And you know, in that situation when kind of some stuff makes sense, but you want it all to make sense. You’re almost shoehorning it in to make sense. What we started doing in 2014, was using DNA testing, particularly in the area of illegal adoption, because the other woman I met was actually a child who had been illegally adopted out of a private nursing home, up the road from our Tressa. And this was like huge in the 50s. And 60s, this was big business with well known names attached. And you know, you’re talking medical professionals, couple of celebrities, politicians, judges, all involved in this huge business. And it was so difficult to prove, because there was no paperwork or paperwork was falsified, or whatever, that people had nowhere to go. But then we started using DNA testing, because that’s irrefutable. And we had a 100% success rate with that. So where documentation may not have existed or may not have made sense. And again, you know, you still need to go to the GRO and you still needed to contact people, you know, for the adopted person to contact people and make make that initial move, but a 100% success rate. So at least somebody could say, No, I am related to you. And funnily enough, within that, we came across a couple of situations where other people had been adopted within the family, who had either been illegally adopted, or where a woman had had a child who was sent over to the states, and nobody in the family knew about it. And all these kind of secrets were coming out as part of this person’s journey. Wow, that, you know, we couldn’t say to anybody else. But that was like, I think we were probably the first, we were definitely the first TV programme in the world to use DNA testing. And to have that kind of result. And I mean, what I find difficult, and it’s a little bit of, you know, the adversity that we were kind of talking about earlier, is when you do something like that, and you see the result and you see what’s possible, and you go this could change so many people’s lives around the world, because Ireland isn’t the only country that there was adoption. And it’s not the only country, there was a legal adoption. And you realise, my God, we’ve got something here. Like in Spain, for instance, babies were taken at birth from couples, not just unmarried mothers, from poorer couples who were not supporters of Franco. They were told that their child had died. And then further investigation would reveal that the coffin if they managed to see it was empty. The nuns in the hospital would go and tell the parents Oh, no, your baby died. They’d even show them they had a baby’s body there to show them. Now that’s your baby your baby’s dead. We look after the burriel. No, it was like it was it was actually a baby’s body that I think they kept.. But you know that’s huge over in Spain, and then the same kind of thing like very much the Catholic Church, the state being involved, and, you know, probably massive money, you know, and, and babies as a reward for following Franco.
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