By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Much has been this St. Patrick’s Day in Washington about the renewed British and American "special relationship." The tale that follows is perhaps a better example of a special relationship. In fact, you could stamp it: "Made in Ireland."
Christmas is a time for children, for giving, and for miracles. For one Irish woman, last Christmas was the moment she got to see her own child for the first time in 50 years.
Angela Levings lives in Birmingham, England. But in 1950 she was Angela Dunne, 16 years old, unmarried, and pregnant. An unwed pregnant girl in Ireland at that time could expect no more than what happened to her next.
Once her parents’ fears were confirmed, Angela was taken wordlessly by her mother and her parish priest out of her home. She gave birth to a boy in May of that year at the old mother-and-baby home in Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath. He was taken from her shortly after birth.
All Angela was left with was a lock of his hair and photograph. She has kept both by her bedside every day of her life since that moment, a reminder of both her loss and her quest.
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On Christmas Eve, her dreams were answered. She and her son, Chris McCartin now 50, were reunited after a search of 40 years.
"I got this letter Nov. 27 asking me to contact a social worker in Dublin," McCartin, a Washington, D.C., photographer recounted.
The two compared information, and McCartin, who had been raised by an American couple, knew it was a match.
"She knew things about me, my mom and dad, and other information that no one could know about if it wasn’t me they were looking for," he said.
Soft spoken, with just a hint of a southern Virginia drawl, McCartin explained that just months before he received the letter, he too had set out to discover the whereabouts of his birth mother.
His adoptive parents, George and Marian McCartin, had been unable to have children. George was in the U.S. Army at the time, stationed in Germany. Being of Irish descent, the couple decided to go to an Irish orphanage to adopt a child in 1953. When they arrived, they could not decide how to go about "picking" a child. One young toddler came up and started playing catch with George. According to Chris McCartin, it was he who picked his parents.
"We had a wonderful family and with my dad’s career we got to travel all around the world," McCartin said.
Things worked out so well that the McCartins returned to Castlepollard a year later and adopted a daughter, Mickey.
The McCartins were candid about the adoptions with their two children, and lived happy, full lives.
"They were two of the finest people you could ever imagine," McCartin said.
Twice McCartin put his photography career on hold to care for his ailing parents. He helped nurse his father until his death in the 1980s and then took care of his mother, who was debilitated by Alzheimer’s disease until her death a few years ago.
Going over the family’s papers after his mother’s death, McCartin came across the records of his and his sister’s adoptions. He said he was eager to find out about his biological mother, but he had neither the time or funds to pursue the matter.
"I was so grateful for the wonderful time my two intelligent and amazing parents gave to me," McCartin said, that when they were alive he never wanted to pursue information about his background.
Then the letter and, finally, after three weeks, a phone call.
The phone call
"It was so hard," he said quietly. "I kept calling the phone number the social worker gave me and first I got no answer and then a recording, and I didn’t want to leave a message, so I just kept calling."
"Finally, a woman answered and I said, ‘Is Angela there?’ and she said, ‘This is she,’ and I said, ‘This is your son,’ " McCartin recounted.
First there were tears, then the discovery that Angela had eventually married and that he has several half-brothers and sisters in England, Ireland and the U.S. Eventually a somewhat unexpected voice then came on the line.
"My mom’s husband, Patrick, told me that since he had known Angela, she had a picture of me by her bed and that it would always be there as far as he and his family was concerned," McCartin recalled, clearly touched.
At the time of McCartin’s birth, what is now St. Peter’s Hospital in Castlepollard was home to unmarried mothers who, like Angela Dunne, were put to work by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary and forced to relinquish rights to their children.
According to McCartin, his mother’s own family did not have contact with her for three years while she was "in service" following his birth. Years later, she made many efforts to find her son, even appearing on a French television show that sought to reunite families.
"She sounds so wonderful," McCartin said. "When we talked, there was just one piece missing and finally I just asked if she would like to meet me."
Angela enthusiastically agreed.
"I’ll be there for Christmas," McCartin said.
When McCartin met with his new family, it was all he could ask for and more.
"All the worries melted away," McCartin said of that moment in the Birmingham airport when he embraced the woman who had given birth to him.
It took a few days for everyone to get acquainted. In time, Angela has come to understand, if not forgive, her parents’ actions so long ago.
"You know, it really was what happened back then and no one would have thought to do things differently," Angela said in a recent interview from her home in England.
She reserves her greatest anger for the Irish government and the religious authorities, whom, she says, made her attempts at gaining any information about her child a horrendous odyssey.
"There were cruelties and indignities which I and the other girls had to endure," Angela recalled with bitterness.
The refusal to help her years later in an attempt to gain some solace compounded her rancor. Angela said that she would still like to hold the order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary accountable for their actions.
McCartin, for his part, works now with a clearer vision of who he is and where he is from. He would very much like to return to Ireland to meet his half-sister and brother who live in Dublin and see the orphanage where he lived the first two years of his life.
"I would really like to go back, but the last trip was financially hard and I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it this summer," he said. "But I’m sure going to try."
McCartin also has a half-brother Paul, a stone worker and tile artisan to the stars in Hollywood, whom he would like to visit.
"In the photos I’ve seen, I guess Paul and I look the most alike," he said.
When asked about whether his mother divulged any information about his biological father, McCartin said, "It’s been 47 years since I left Ireland, I think I’ll let her steer the ship."
In the rush of emotions and disbelief that accompanied McCartin’s initial contact with Angela, both son and mum seemed to need some kind of reassurance that the moment was real.
As Odysseus’s wife sought confirmation that the beggar standing in front of her was truly her long lost beloved husband, Angela had a query of her son: "Do you have a mole — a birthmark — on the left leg below the knee?" she asked.
"It’s still there, Mom," McCartin replied.