Foreign Adoption in Ireland: A Case Study of the Irish-American Adoptions, 1947–1952

  • Brian O'Keeffe


The Irish-American adoptions were a revolutionary way of dealing with Ireland’s ‘problem of the illegitimate child’. Ireland had long been promoted as a Catholic, and thus, a morally pure country. Having a child out of wedlock often resulted in the mother and child being shunned by their family and community and having little choice but to seek the help of church-run institutions. These institutions began facilitating illegal extraterritorial adoptions in 1947 to relieve the mounting pressures as those seeking their help continued to grow annually. These adoptions were heavily concerned with protecting the religious faith of the child, and this often took prominence over the quality of home. The adoptions were facilitated exclusively by these church-run institutions, allowing for complete control over the selection of prospective parents. The standards of these adoptions fell well below what was expected on the U.S. domestic scale, with no visits to the homes of prospective parents occurring, and crucially, there was no way to facilitate the reversal of an adoption. During the early life of the Irish-American adoptions, the Department of External Affairs had little involvement, only issuing passports for children that had been adopted. This changed however in 1951, as the ‘Jane Russell Case’ attracted front page media attention. The Russell case highlighted the lackadaisical approach of many of those within the Department to the exporting of some of Ireland’s youngest citizens. Undue publicity continued in the early 1950s, notably with the German newspaper, 8 Uhr Blatt. It is this media attention that forced the Department to finally address the glaring issues that severely hindered the success of the Irish-American adoptions. The Department was powerless to do anything once the child had been passed into the care of the adoptive parents. The Adoption Act 1952, marked a major turning point in the care of illegitimate children in Ireland. Legal adoption was opened on the domestic front as well as the international front. The conditions and standards of the Irish-American adoptions improved dramatically under this act, and while they still had their issues, the standard of these adoptions continued to improve through their latter stages.

Keywords: Adoption, Extraterritorial, Illegal alien children, Illegitimate children--Legal status, laws, etc., Proselytism, Standards, Republic of Ireland

How to Cite:

O'Keeffe, B., (2016) “Foreign Adoption in Ireland: A Case Study of the Irish-American Adoptions, 1947–1952”, Studies in Arts and Humanities 2(2), 22-31. doi:

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Published on
15 Dec 2016
Peer Reviewed