The Woman Who Exposed Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries
A month after the announcement, Mari Steed, 53, is curled on the living room sofa in the cozy Levittown home she shares with her grown son and daughter. A short, pretty woman with a husky laugh, thick black hair and dark eyes, she’s a dead ringer for her biological mother, Josephine Fitzpatrick, now 80, whose face is included among the framed family photos on display. Freezing rain batters the picture window that looks onto the backyard; two huge dogs snooze contentedly on the carpet. The aromas of fresh-brewed coffee and just-baked soda bread fill the air. A few Irish musical instruments hang on the wall, a nod to the country Mari left behind when she was adopted by a suburban Philadelphia couple at the age of 18 months.
“You wait all this time for an apology, and you think, ‘I wonder what they’ll say? How much will the government actually admit to? What if they still lie?’” she says. “But it was better than we had hoped for.”
Adoptees never know what they’ll find if they manage to locate their birth parents. It’s an understatement to say that Mari never expected that her reunion with Josephine—whom she calls Josie—would help correct the narrative of Ireland’s past. Like so many others before her, 20 yearsago, she’d gone looking for her birth mother simply to discover who she was.
Her adoptive parents raised her in Flourtown, and “told me the usual thing that parents tell their adopted children: that I was special, I was chosen. They even kept my first name, because they said I walked off the plane answering to it.” Two years later, they adopted a son as well. Mari had what she calls a “wonderful” childhood, attended Bishop McDevitt in Wyncote, marched with the drill team, starred in school musicals: “I wasn’t conscious, growing up, of some hole I had to fill.”
She might never have gone looking for the woman who relinquished her if fate hadn’t intervened in a cruel and ironic way. In her senior year, Steed became pregnant by her boyfriend, a junior. Her parents shipped her to St. Vincent’s, a home in Upper Darby for unwed mothers; the days were long and dull, peppered with withering comments from the nuns about her stupidity. On her rare visits home to Flourtown, young Mari was kept indoors, lest her swelling belly attract neighborhood gossip.
Mari fantasized about setting up house with her boyfriend, of raising the baby with him. But the decision had been made for her: Her daughter, to be named Erin, would be given up for adoption.
“I was in a daze,” Mari recalls. “There was a hospital photographer who asked if I wanted a picture. I said yes, but then she came back and said, ‘I’ve been told I’m not allowed.” I got ballsy and said to my social worker, ‘If I don’t get a picture before I leave, you don’t get the baby.’ Giving up Erin was the most wrenching experience of my life. I cried for weeks.”
She lasted a year at West Chester University, devolving into a party girl. She got a job in banking and moved to Florida. There she married an abusive, addicted man and had two children with him before he committed suicide right in front of her. “My husband was a deeply disturbed man, but I couldn’t see that when we first met,” she says. “I felt so bad about myself. I didn’t think I deserved better.”
Mari knew it was time to deal with the shame and pain of losing Erin—and began to wonder if being taken from her own birth mother was something she needed to come to grips with, too. She felt it was too soon to search for her own daughter (“I didn’t want to do anything until she turned 18”); instead, she began to look for the woman who’d packed her off to America clad in a sweet hand-smocked dress, clutching a stuffed handmade doll. Mari’s parents only knew that she had been born at Bessborough, a home for unwed mothers in Cork.
With that scant information, Mari leapt into the adoption-rights river, whose current was growing stronger through the 1990s as adoptees in the U.S. began clamoring for the right to know their origins.
“I don’t remember leaving Ireland,” she says. “But at 18 months, I certainly must have known who my mother was. What was it like for me to lose her? What was my birth mother’s story? I only had Erin for two days. It was devastating to give her up. How do you give up a toddler?”
Her 10-year search twisted and turned like the roads through Donegal. The dead ends were devastating; the obfuscation from church and state officials was infuriating. But after each setback, a “search angel” from the world of international adoption-rights would serendipitously appear to steer Mari to a critical document or an obscure public record. “I felt led—it’s the only way to explain it,” Steed says. “Just when I’d want to give up, I’d get an email out of the blue.”
“Mari is charismatic and dogged,” says Barbie Bowman, a longtime friend. “Where other people see impossible obstacles, she says, ‘How do we get around this?’ If anyone was going to find her birth mother, it was going to be Mari.”