'We will get through anything if we do not give up hope'

A mother and daughter who had a miracle journey after adoption had a birthday celebration beyond their wildest dreams in Donegal.

Convoy native Esther Doherty will be 60 years old this year. Her daughter Louise turns 40. 

They hosted a ‘100th birthday with a twist’ at the beginning of June, with 100 reasons to celebrate.

For 20 years, Esther and Louise were apart, separated by adoption through a mother and baby home.

After years of worry, wondering and guilt, a series of ‘miracle’ events brought Esther back in contact with her first-born daughter in 2001. Since then, they have bonded, shared special family moments and braved the highs and lows of life.

Esther Doherty and Louise Steenhuize in Esther’s home village of Convoy. Photo: North West Newspix

“Everything has been a miracle for us, it really was beyond our wildest dreams,” Esther said. 

“It is a miracle that Louise wanted to meet me. A lot of children weren’t even being told that they were adopted. The most joyful thing was meeting her family, her sister and her parents who were wonderful people.”

In 1982 Louise was adopted out of St. Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home by a loving Dublin couple, Tony and Maura Clarke. The Clarkes had adopted another child previously, Julie, who then became Louise’s older sister. The girls had a good upbringing, knowing from an early age that they were adopted.

Louise said: “It was something I always knew, which I think is a lot better. We had a great childhood and we always knew that when we were older we would go and look for our respective families.”

Louise, although she didn’t know it yet, had a big family in Donegal who were so excited to meet her. Her aunt, uncle, many cousins welcomed her with open arms when she was eventually reunited with Esther.

Times had changed since Esther got pregnant at the age of nineteen. She lived in a quiet rural village. At that time, in the early 80s, Esther had few options and little support.

“I was young, in a small village, I was a disgrace,” Esther said.

She found a number for a service that arranged for her to move to St. Patrick’s on the Navan Road in North Dublin. 

“It’s hard to go back there,” Esther said, but she feels it’s important to share her experience now.

Esther moved into the home at five months pregnant. She chose to tell her brother and sisters that she was going to work in a hotel in Dublin. Just one person knew her secret – a sister in law who checked in on her by telephone.

“We all had a different job, some girls went out to families. My job was to scrub the stairs on my hands and knees. If a nun saw a spot it was pointed out to you quickly,” Esther said.

Esther gave birth in Saint James’ hospital, which was an ordeal in itself. “There was no pain relief. I had about 15 people in the room and I don’t know who they were. With no sex education, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I thought I was going to die, and there was a mental thing of nobody caring,” she said.

After a number of days at Saint James’, Esther was brought back to St Patrick’s and immediately separated from her baby. All of the infants, Esther remembers, were kept upstairs.  

Esther was due to leave five days later, but she was adamant that her daughter would be christened before she was collected by her adopted parents.

“I got her christened as Paula, after Pope John Paul II. I was told her parents were going to pick her up that evening. She was there for more than a month, more than the couple of hours that I thought. That was rough,” Esther said.

Paula was renamed Louise after her adoption, but to this day, she never found any records of what happened to her during that month in the home.

When Esther left, her baby girl was always on her mind. It became more difficult in the years after when her sisters began having their own children. Their circumstances were a world apart from Esther’s.

Esther was offered a new start when an aunt invited her to summer in New York state. She set up a new life in America, working in restaurants and returning to school. She married a man named Thomas Doherty and had a little girl, Bridget. 

“Thomas was very supportive of me over the years. He would buy me Mother’s Day cards before Bridget was born,” Esther said. Esther and Thomas have since separated, and Esther has remarried, but she has kept a strong co-parenting relationship with Thomas.

When Bridget was seven, she saw a photograph of her mum holding another baby. When she asked about it, Esther decided to tell her about her half-sister. It wasn’t long after that that Esther got the call that her firstborn wanted to reach her.

1982 – Esther’s last days with Paula/Louise before she was adopted

“I had left it that if Louise ever wanted to contact me I was an open book, I wasn’t allowed to contact her. It was up to her to look for me,” Esther said.

“Thank God they found me when she did.”

Louise found Esther through the Rotunda Girls Aid Society. 

“There were a lot of coincidences,” Esther said. “I got the phone call two weeks before I was coming to Ireland for a wedding. They don’t normally rush things through life that but they made an exception.”

“They were very helpful,” Louise said.

Little Bridget was over the moon too. “That’s such a wonderful feeling as a mother to know my two girls are going to meet,” Esther said.

Esther and Louise’s first meeting was on April 1st 2001. They were both asked to meet at the office near the Procathedral in Dublin. 

That day was a turning point for both of them. 

Esther said: “I remember looking down at the threshold of the office building and thinking that this next step is going to change my whole life again. Every time I cross a door threshold I look down and think of that.”

When they met, there were no tears, just laughter. 

Louise rang her adoptive mum Maura who was sitting in a cafe across the road. She remembers telling her how shocked she was to hear an American accent from Esther. 

“It was a bizarre experience but it went great,” Louise said.

They went around the corner to the Gresham Hotel where Louise met Esther’s second husband Joe Heinlein and Bridget. Bridget had a teddy custom made for her new half-sister.

Reunited – Louise, Bridget and Esther in Dublin in 2001

Things moved quickly, as Esther’s time in Ireland was limited. She met Louise’s parents, who she said were “the most wonderful people I could ever imagine”. Soon after that, Louise was invited up to Donegal to meet Esther’s family, the Quinns. The next thing Louise knew she was on a shipping boat with her new clan off the coast of Killybegs. She was the only one in the family to catch a fish that day.

When Esther went back to New York and Louise went to college they kept in touch over the phone, email and later through Facebook. Louise would visit New York in the summers and during college holidays. She moved to Enschede in Holland for her Masters degree, but as fate would have it, her fun year abroad became the year she would fall in love. She is now married to a Dutch man, Reinder, and together they have a seven-year-old girl, Diana. 

Louise counts herself lucky to have Esther and her adoptive parents for her milestones in life – the good and the bad. A cancer diagnosis two years ago made her realise how fortunate she was to know her biological mother. She fell ill with an unknown disease in 2020. As doctors tried to make a diagnosis, they had a lot of questions about her family history of illness. 

“It turns out that it was hairy cell leukaemia, which is not inherited, but what Esther could tell me helped the doctors narrow it down,” Louise said.

For this reason, Louise feels strongly about Birth Information and Tracing Bill – which aims to give adopted people full access to their birth certs, early life information and medical records. 

“Some people don’t have the relationship that I have and are impacted by that,” Louise said. 

The planned new redress scheme for survivors of mother and baby home institutions currently has a restriction where babies who spent less than six months in a home do not qualify for redress or an enhanced medical card. Mothers who spent time in the institutions are eligible for payments ranging from €5,000 to €65,000.

For Esther and Louise, this is not enough.

Louise said: “I’m okay with not getting compensation or a medical card because I’m abroad and I can deal with it, but some people can’t. Some have proper issues. What if I was to get a file and find out I was in one of those vaccine trials? Then maybe I would expect to be included in something. I understand that access to information is the priority but I don’t think that the conversation can be closed until people have access to all information. That should be the first step, then after that, you can quantify what happened to people and whether or not they should get redress.”

Esther was one of 550 people to give an interview to the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes. Her testimony, however, was not included in the final report. 

She said: “It’s not as much about the redress for me at this point. I’m comfortable, I am okay, but there are 60 and 70-year-old women who are dying. You couldn’t make up a bigger insulting joke than the redress scheme. Minister O’Gorman is trying his best, but I think he is finding locked doors wherever he turns. The church needs to cough up their amount.” 

Esther said she was scarred both physically and mentally from her time at St. Patrick’s. She sought her own support from the mental trauma through therapy for 20 years.

She said: “I had a lot of guilt. When you give a child up for adoption, every birthday was horrible. You ask are they okay? Are they still alive? Did they end up in a good place?

“Never a day would pass that I wouldn’t pray. My biggest fear was that she would be sick and ill and not be around anymore.”

Meeting Louise, Esther said, took 50% of that trauma away.

St Patrick’s (originally known as Pelletstown) closed in 1985 and a new facility was opened in Eglinton House. The building on Navan Road was demolished. A total of 15,382 women and 18,829 children were residents in Pelletstown and Eglinton House between 1920 and 1998. The Commission reported 43 maternal deaths and 3,615 deaths among infants and children associated with Pelletstown.

The discovery of a mass grave of babies and children at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam has led survivors to demand an investigation at the grounds of St. Patrick’s too. 

Last year, Esther and Louise had an emotional visit to the site where the institution once stood. 

“What haunts me today, because there are government buildings on that site, is how many babies are buried underneath there? That breaks my heart,” Esther said.

“Louise took me there and I didn’t recognise anything except this one wall. There were little teddy bears and little shoes left by people. For St Patrick’s to be open so long and to be so big, there had to be babies buried there.”

Esther Doherty visits the site where Saint Patrick’s Mother and Baby home once stood on the Navan Road

Esther also identified a personal strength in being able to visit again.

“It was one of the most wonderful feelings, to be standing there with my daughter who I left there. For me, it will be a memory that will always stay with me,” she said.

Esther and Louise count themselves among the lucky ones to have a happy ending to their adoption journey.

“We were very fortunate but we know that it doesn’t always work out even when people meet,” Louise said.

Esther also takes comfort from the knowledge that society has changed in its ideals and in law.

She said: “The progression is amazing in the last 10 years, I am so delighted for young women that they have choices. Whether you want to make the choice or not, it’s the fact that you have them. Especially for young girls.

“Growing up, we had no sex education, no contraception, no divorce, no abortion. Even if you were married it was extremely difficult to get contraception. It was very shameful.”

As they met up again in Donegal this month, on a sunny June Bank Holiday weekend, Esther said it was “beyond my wildest dreams, to be back in my home village with my little girl.”

Esther’s 60th birthday falls in December and Louise’s 40th is in September, but they made Donegal their destination to have their celebrations early in the company of friends and family. There was trad and country music, dancing, sing-songs and cake.

Esther Doherty and her daughters Bridget Turkington and Louise Steenhuizen at the 100th Birthday Party with a twist in Convoy, Co. Donegal
Esther Doherty and Louise Steenhuizen cut the cake at the 100th Birthday Party with a twist in Convoy, Co. Donegal

Louise’s return to Ireland this month was her first time home since her cancer treatment. It was the first time she could both hug her adoptive parents in Dublin and Esther after two years apart. 

For Esther’s daughter Bridget, it was her first time introducing her new baby Niamh to her Irish relatives.

“It was the most wonderful thing to look around the room and watch my granddaughters interact and play. I looked at my two daughters and thought that twenty years ago, I could never have imagined this moment,” Esther said.

Esther gave a speech which mentioned all the terrible things that are happening in the world now – Covid-19, the Mica crisis in Donegal, the war in Ukraine and the shootings in the US. 

Her message to her family was: “There is a lot of negativity in the world, but there is a lot of positivity. We need to look for it every day and hold onto it with both hands. We will get through anything if we do not give up hope.”