Who are you? You are yourself, not your ancestors

Who are you? You are yourself, not your ancestors

Here’s a sad post-adoption story which emerged last week: a 60 year old man was informed by Tusla, the child and family agency, that the mother and father he believed were his birth parents were in truth his adoptive parents.

They had never revealed this – they are now dead – and he was stunned and distressed to discover the truth. He felt his whole identity was now put in question. “I am nobody,” he said.

The unnamed man, who has his own business, is one of 148 cases that Tusla is seeking to contact, who were illegally adopted between 1946 and 1969 via the St Patrick’s Guild adoption society.

Many an adoption story – even under current ‘best practice’ – conceals a tangled and complex background, and the bare facts, as reported, seldom give us the full picture. Sometimes fiction handles this situation with more insight: there are a couple of short stories in the current Ireland’s Own annual which illuminate the emotional difficulties so often involved.

Social workers today think it best to approach adopted people and disclose the facts of their situation (and many adopted people themselves search for the truth). But in the past, it was sometimes thought better to abide by the guidelines of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “In greater knowledge is greater sorrow.” Or, as the everyday motto had it: “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

Social workers today think it best to approach adopted people and disclose the facts”

Concealing the truth about an infant’s birth wasn’t always done out of malice or cupidity. Sometimes, people sincerely believed it was for the best. (In Henrik Ibsen’s classic play The Wild Duck, the revelation about a child’s origin leads to a worse tragedy, and the play’s message is that of Ecclesiastes.)

The 60-year-old adopted man is certainly presented with a devastating truth, which is complicated by the fact that his adoptive parents bequeathed him a farm. When adoption was being discussed in the Dáil in the 1940s, that fear was raised that ‘blood’ relations would be resentful if an adopted child inherited the land.

But if his adoptive parents made him their heir, they must have loved him. If they were good parents to him, perhaps he should be helped to focus on that.

The fashion for tracing ancestors has worsened the situation, it seems to me. Ancestor-worship is a primitive Chinese practice and it’s daft: we are not our ancestors. To the question ‘who do you think you are?’, the answer is – you are yourself. Christianity and DNA both agree on that: each individual is utterly unique.

A desire for rooted identity is human and understandable. But love, attachment, good intentions and care in raising a child are greater values.


Don’t ‘go west’ – just ‘depart’

There are more than 50 euphemisms current in the English language for death, according to the cancer charity Marie Curie. They include ‘kick the bucket’, ‘pop your clogs’ and ‘snuffed it’. The charity hopes to discourage these figures of speech, because they can avoid facing death. Yet some of them are quite engaging and even imaginative.

They include ‘pushing up the daisies’, ‘walking over the rainbow bridge’, ‘bought the farm’, ‘doing the final moonwalk’, ‘gone west’, ‘become a landowner’ and ‘hung up his boots’. Many of these date from World War I when death in the trenches became such a brutal  experience for young men; small wonder they tried to cloak it in dark humour.

The most common current euphemism is ‘passed away’, which I personally dislike, though I know it is used, often, to be sensitive. I like ‘departing this world’ because that is what death is for a Christian.

It’s an expression of the hope bestowed on us by the New Testament.


I have a dear friend in the west of England, a devout Anglican, who is wrestling with her conscience over voting in the UK election. “Boris’s morals are a disgrace,” she laments. “Every day, it seems, there are reports of some new popsie he’s been cavorting with. He’s shocking. Dreadful!” But, all said and done, she feels she will have to vote for him, because “he’ll get things done”. In politics, pragmatism sometimes over-rules principles.