By Johanna Zomers
Eganville — Hundreds of children born in the 1950s and 1960s in Ireland were adopted “under the table”, leaving them without adoption records or true birth certificates, unable to trace their biological parentage or gain access to information about their birth families.
Then along came DNA testing through companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe. For Eganville resident William Enright, born in 1958 in Ireland and adopted at birth, a presentation by an Ancestry representative at the Eganville & District Seniors about six years ago led to the slow unraveling of a lifelong mystery and a joyful discovery.
“I was told I was adopted when I was 23,” William says. “I was about to leave Ireland the next day to pursue a doctoral degree at Michigan State University. My Dad told me, and he was very nervous and worried when he did – I made it easy for him and told him that I felt very fortunate to have been adopted by decent loving people. Although I was obviously surprised, I was about to embark on a new adventure in the USA and I never thought about looking for my biological mother or father.”
William cites a happy childhood in Enniscorthy with his adoptive parents, Thomas and Margaret (Galvin) Enright, who had also adopted another son, Paul, in 1955.
“If I thought about it at all, it was when I was asked for medical history which of course I didn’t know. I was never sure if that was a curse or a blessing!”
Busy with his career as an animal scientist, travelling the world to conferences and working in government research and later for large animal health companies such as Intervet (later acquired by Schering-Plough and then Merck) in the Netherlands, Ireland and Canada, and knowing that the Irish adoption system was fraught with difficulties, William had no time or desire to begin the long search for his family records.
Through his adopted mother’s family, William was distantly related to the John and Mary Howard family in Eganville which led to his first trip to Canada as an agricultural student to work on the Howard farm in 1980. Since then, William built up a strong friendship with the family of Don and Margaret Howard, visited Eganville about 20 times and had the chance to move with his job to Montreal in 2008. Early retirement in 2014 brought William to Eganville where he became involved in a number of community board and committee volunteer roles in not-for-profit organizations such as the Eganville & District Seniors (EDS), Eganville Curling Club, ConnectWell and Fairfields.
The Ancestry presentation at EDS was intriguing.
“I found myself wondering if I was even Irish in origin,” William said.
He purchased the discounted-priced kit on the day, registered on the website using a pseudonym and did as thousands of others were doing, sending off a saliva sample to be tested for DNA. An email arrived two months later indicating that he was indeed 99 percent of Celt origin with most related DNA around the borders of counties Mayo, Galway and Roscommon in the West of Ireland.
Late in 2016, much to William’s surprise (he hadn’t read the fine print!), emails started arriving through the Ancestry site from various biological relations, including one from a relative living in the USA who indicated they were likely first cousins. William ignored it, along with two more from the same person over the next two years. Having heard some bad stories about people looking for and finding their biological families, William had decided “to let sleeping dogs lie”, thinking that his biological mother had her own good reasons for giving her baby up for adoption. William had never felt anything but compassion and sympathy for his biological mother.
However, in June 2019, via his brother Paul (living in Kenya for the last 35 years), he was contacted by Tusla (the Irish government’s family and children support agency) to say that he was likely one of at least a few hundred babies adopted illegally (forged birth certificates) via St. Patrick’s Guild and Dr. Eamon de Valera, an eminent gynaecologist, passionate Catholic and son of the third Irish President.
William spoke to a Tusla social worker by phone and then in more detail a few weeks later during a planned visit home to Ireland. It turned out that Tusla had no concrete information about him in recently discovered old files. However, because of the many emails via Ancestry and the contact fromTusla, William decided that fate was nudging him towards looking for his biological family.
With the help of a new relation in New Zealand, Peter, who was a bit of an expert in researching ancestries via DNA data sites, within weeks William was 99 percent sure that his mother was Eileen Riordan and his father Arthur Hanley, both from Claremorris, Co. Mayo and both deceased for over 20 years. Between Peter’s efforts and looking at a Claremorris History Facebook page, William discovered many cousins, two uncles, Tom Riordan in Adelaide, Australia and Pat Riordan in Newcastle, UK, both younger brothers of Eileen, and a half-aunt, Christina Brennan, in Claremorris. Most surprising of all was the news of two half-brothers, one on either parental side, both now 45. And both an only child. Over time, with the help of Hanley first cousins, contact with the “bros” was established.
There was the urgent question of how much they knew about an older sibling? They knew nothing. In small increments of information and questions, the exchanging of photos and emails began. There was shock but also excitement and delight.
William’s two half-brothers have been friends since they were kids. They recalled how their parents had been friends and had indeed continued to work side by side in the Hanley family grocery, bakery and pub businesses. Newspaper clippings told of Eileen Riordan’s subsequent marriage to a beef farmer named Martin Dyer and the birth of a son, Brian, who farms near Claremorris. Other news was of Arthur Hanley’s much later marriage to Catherine and the birth of their only son, Gerard, now a realtor. All of them were shocked but keen to unravel this completely unexpected twist in the family saga, and eager to welcome this new family member living in Canada.
In October 2020, William “met” his new half-brothers on Zoom for the first time. Although awkward at first, the Irish “gift of the gab” quickly kicked in and lots of information was exchanged. Over the next 18 months, frequent long chats and videocalls followed with both families. COVID-19 prevented William’s bi-annual trip to Ireland in 2021 but, as restrictions began to lift, a plan was hatched for the two Irish families to travel together and visit William over the Easter period.
“If William came to Ireland, all the cousins and neighbours would want to meet him. We decided we wanted to have him all to ourselves for the first visit,” Brian and Gerard stated.
On April 6, 2022, an Aer Lingus flight into Toronto brought two brothers, two sisters-in-law and seven young nieces and nephews to William’s Donegal area house and land on Highway 512 west of Eganville.
“It was as if we had all seen each other yesterday,” said Sinead Dyer.
“It felt so comfortable and natural,” added Nina Hanley. “You get to know each other pretty well when 12 people spend a week together in the same house.”
“It is just as well we got on great!” William joked.
The 10-day trip included a whirlwind tour of the area, including a meet and greet gathering of the extended Howard family and some local friends and neighbours. Seeing the robotic milkers in action at Enright Farms on the Barr Line, a trip to the Cobden sales barn and a chat with auctioneer Preston Cull and Killaloe cattleman, Michael Walsh, satisfied Brian Dyer’s curiosity about local farming.
Gerard, who is a realtor and an outdoor enthusiast, took an icy plunge into the Bonnechere River at the Rotary Beach on Good Friday. All 12 visited Tanger Outlets and the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, as well as some of the local gift shops. The seven children wrote their memories of their visit to their ‘new’ Uncle William which included their first rides on “quads” at John Sheridan’s house on Howard Road. They gathered eggs in the henhouse at Margaret Howard’s and saw maple syrup production at Jean and Jack Kelly’s on the Opeongo. A tour through Mennonite farm areas and a trip to Bromley Farm Equipment and a Holy Thursday Mass at St. James rounded off the time in Eganville.
“We met Father Ken and he is Irish!”, one child exclaimed in his tale of the visit.
Through his brothers and cousins, William is getting to grips with the many new relations and extended family trees of his birth families. In addition to his “regular” cousins, he now has about 80 first cousins in total.
Of course, Brian and Gerard have shared much about their parents and their lives up to now. Eileen was a force behind The Claremorris Drama Festival and in rural community development. She was also the first woman president of a Chamber of Commerce in the province of Connacht. Arthur was involved in business, agriculture, real estate and in promoting the economic growth of the West of Ireland, including the development of Ireland West Airport Knock.
Photos show familial resemblances with much laughter about shared physical traits, including William having the “Riordan nose” and the organizational skills and community spirit of both parents. When it was time to return to Ireland on Saturday evening, there were many tears at Pearson Airport and the children wanted to take their Uncle William with them.
“Unfortunately, the plane was full,” William said. “But the discovery of my brothers and their visit to me was the best Easter present I could ever have imagined. I am also convinced that all six parents are looking down from above and are very happy that this circle of life has been completed.”
It is clear that the new-found families have created bonds which will carry on forever, a very happy resolution in at least this novel within the long saga of Irish adoption stories. The next chapter will take place this summer in Ireland.