There’s a new feature film that just got released in this part of the world. It’s called Philomena and it’s about an Irish mother’s search for a child she was forced to give up 50 years earlier.
It stars Judi Dench who turns in an Oscar-worthy performance playing the eponymous character in a story that is both tragic and funny.
I found the film quite moving, and it made me want to find out more about the subject of illegal adoptions from Ireland, which took place between the 1950s and 1970s. By “illegal adoptions”, I mean adoptions for which there were no laws in place to govern or record the process.
This was the time in Ireland of the infamous “Magdalene laundries” – when unmarried young mothers would be sent, in disgrace, to convents and other religious institutions. While there, these “fallen women” (as they were viewed by the church) would be compelled to carry out unpaid work that effectively amounted to slave labor.
Meanwhile, adoptive parents would be sought for their children. As portrayed in the film, most of these parents were from the United States, where the child would be ultimately taken. Once this happened, the natural mother lost all contact with her offspring.
This is genuinely heartbreaking stuff, succinctly explored in Philomena.
The where of the story
Working in the field of mapping and data – and let’s not forget the fact that I’m Irish too – I was intrigued by the where of the story. While I know that the adopted children ended up in the States, I was curious to know if there were any particular clusters of adopted Magdalene children. Would Boston or New York come out tops – as we Irish might expect? Or would the children have been sent to cities or towns without any obvious strong historical Irish identity?
I was starting to picture the map in my head, seeing it as both a social and historical visualization – even, I would go so far as to say, a tool: possibly inspiring adopted children and natural mothers to commence the arduous process of finding each other.
Then I began to look for the data – and discovered that it’s not actually available. And this is one of the most controversial aspects of the Magdalene adoption stories.
The best data available – mainly pulled together by author/journalist Mike Milotte (see Wikipedia) – and published as far back as 1997, tells us that just under 2000 children were adopted out of Magdalene laundries between 1951 and 1974. Of these, 1911 were brought to the United States.
In order to find out exactly where these children went, you need to be very lucky (as Philomena is in the film). If any records of the adoptions were kept, then they were either “lost” or consumed in “accidental” fires.
It’s about people
It’s natural to see the word “data” and imagine lifeless figures on a computer screen or spreadsheet, or even a map. However, that’s not always the case. There is often a human story behind the numbers.
Access to data can change lives (as eSpatial non-profit clients could testify).
Unfortunately, as Philomena reveals, that data is not always freely available to the people who most need it.