The Scandalous Mistreatment of Ireland’s Unmarried Fathers

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The 2002 movie Evelyn  starring Pierce Brosnan, is based on the true story of Desmond Doyle and his fight in 1950s Ireland to secure the release of his children from state-controlled and religious-run orphanages and back into his care.

Evelyn: The Movie
Evelyn (Credit: Merlin Films)

In brief, here is Desmond Doyle’s story…

Case #1: Desmond Doyle

On the day after Christmas 1953, the 29-year-old Dublin labourer suddenly found himself a single father when he arrived home from work to discover that his wife had abandoned their family and taken off for England with her boyfriend. Left behind with him were five boys and one girl, Evelyn.

It was Evelyn who years afterward decided to write an account of all that followed. She sent an outline to a BBC drama editor. For years nothing happened. Then scriptwriter and film producer Paul Pender discovered Evelyn’s draft. Sometime later she received a life-changing phone call.

“I was watching Star Trek. My friends know not to call me when it’s on. I said, ‘Who’s this? Bugger off, I’m watching Star Trek.'” The caller was Pierce Brosnan. He wanted to tell her father’s story.”

“He said that he hoped I didn’t mind him calling. I said: ‘Pierce, there are a million women who would sell you their children just to have you call.’ He is a completely charming man.”

Here is the official movie trailer:

Evelyn’s own account is published in her book, Evelyn: A True Story, which went on to become a bestseller. She said: “I thought the book would sell a few copies and I’d be happy. It went to number one in Ireland and number two in the UK bestseller list.”

Evelyn Doyle: A True Story
Evelyn: A True Story (Credit:

“I thought the book would sell a few copies and I’d be happy. It went to number one in Ireland and number two in the UK bestseller list.”

The Doyle family lived in the tenements of Fatima Mansions. Desmond was often forced to travel to find work to support his wife Charlotte and their six children. Charlotte was frequently out of the home too, “gallivanting” with her boyfriend. As a result, the children often had to depend on their neighbours for food and care. It was during such a period of neglect in late 1953 that one of the boys burned himself and was hospitalised to receive skin grafts.

On the morning of St. Stephen’s Day that year, Charlotte Doyle told her daughter Evelyn, who was also up early, that she was “going for the messages.” But her mother’s words didn’t make sense to six-year-old Evelyn. Her message bag was full. Where was she really going? Yelling “Mammy, come back!”, Evelyn raced after her mother.

“I followed her to Dolphin’s Barn Street. I could see her on the other side of the road but I couldn’t cross, it was too busy with people coming and going from Mass. I was still screaming, “Mammy! Mammy! Come back!” But she didn’t turn around. I watched her get on a bus with a man. I stood there for a few minutes, crying, not even noticing that I was soaked through to my skin. I have to tell Daddy, I thought, and I turned and ran back towards home.”

But Daddy, Desmond Doyle, had just been made unemployed. Believing he had no other option, he handed his children over to the care of the authorities and, like thousands of others, he left depression-era Ireland to find work in England. Evelyn was sent to High Park convent in Dublin. Her five brothers went to the Boys Industrial School in Kilkenny. Evelyn describes the heart-breaking scene of her brothers’ departure:

“One of the men managed to tear the boys away from Daddy’s side. Daddy put me down and took my hand and we followed the court officer and my brothers outside. An enormous black car was waiting at the bottom of the courthouse steps. My brothers were brothers to the car. Daddy let go of my hand and ran over to them. He knelt down on the path and hugged all my brothers together. He was crying again and the boys were too.”

Believing he had no other option, he handed his children over to the care of the authorities and, like thousands of others, he left depression-era Ireland to find work in England.

In Huddersfield, England, Desmond found both work and a new partner, Jessie Brown. Eight months later, Desmond and Jessie arrived back in Dublin. With an improved financial situation and a ‘housekeeper’ in the form his new partner, Desmond thought he had everything he needed to get his children back. But his letter to Minister of Education to secure the release of Evelyn from the nuns brought the response that doing do “would not be in the child’s best interests.”

So began Desmond’s long legal battle to be reunited with his children. A year passed when, in November 1954, Doyle’s solicitor, family law specialist Michael Beattie, was also rebuffed: “It is regretted that your application to have further consideration given to the question of the child’s discharge cannot, therefore, be granted.” Desmond faced another unspoken problem, too: In Catholic Ireland, Jessie Brown, his ‘housekeeper’, was Protestant.

But Desmond’s letter to Minister of Education to secure the release of Evelyn from the nuns brought the response that doing do “would not be in the child’s best interests.”

Evelyn did not see her brothers for a year. In February of 1955, Desmond was finally allowed to spend the day with all of his children: “My brothers’ convent [in Kilkenny] was in the countryside… When my brothers appeared on the porch, I hardly knew them… The three oldest boys had developed country accents and Kevin and Dermot had gone blond… It had been just over a year since the babies had seen me, and they didn’t recognise me now.”

With the courts having decided that Desmond’s children would be returned only when they each reached the age of sixteen, there was only one thing Desmond could do: Sue the government. His lawyers would ask the Irish Supreme Court to declare that portions of the Children Act of 1941 were unconstitutional. In December 1955, three years after Charlotte Doyle had abandoned her children, the court handed down its verdict. In part, it stated:

“Desertion on the part of a mother without just cause leaves the authority of the family unimpaired and in no way diminishes the parental right with regard to the education of the children… Section 10 of the Children Act is invalid as being repugnant to the Constitution, inasmuch and insofar as it deprives a parent with whose consent a child has been sent to a certified industrial school of the right to resume control of that child so as to provide for its education when that parent is willing and able to do so.”

Not only did Desmond Doyle win. The Supreme Court also ordered the government to “pay to the said Desmond Doyle his costs of the case stated.” Waiting outside the courtroom was Denis Larkin, the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Offering his Rolls Royce to Des, he said:

“Congratulations, Mr. Doyle! My car is at your disposal. Shall we go and collect your daughter now?”

Evelyn and her brothers were reunited with their joyous father. It was the first time anyone had successfully mounted a constitutional challenge to an Irish statute involving children.

In a 2003 interview, she spoke about her father:

“He never left us. I’ll bang that drum forever. My father never left us until the day he died. My mother left us that day in 1953.”

Evelyn and her brothers were reunited with their joyous father. It was the first time anyone had successfully mounted a constitutional challenge to an Irish statute involving children.

Before Desmond died he became very upset, saying he wished he’d done more with his life. “On his deathbed, my father said to me, ‘It’s all been such a waste.’ I think he meant that he had never achieved his potential – as a wonderful musician and pianist – and that he had wasted his life, in that sense.”

But Evelyn knew the battles he’d fought to have her and her brothers released from children’s homes, how he’d changed the law and how he’d brought them up, whatever the hardships.

“I knew he’d touched thousands of lives so I decided to write his story down, but I had nothing to go on. He’d only kept one newspaper cutting, the one that said ‘Evelyn comes home tomorrow'”

An excellent and moving account of the Doyle family saga can be found at Awesome Stories: Evelyn: Changing The Law In Ireland.

The movie version of Evelyn’s story has been criticised for its ‘Hollywood ending’ which suggests that Desmond Doyle’s legal victory paved the way for other children to be released from so-called ‘industrial schools’ and reunited with their parents. In reality, the government responded to the Doyle judgement by introducing legislation that made it harder for children to leave the industrial schools. The 1957 Amendment to the Children’s Act gave the Education Minister discretionary powers over children in care. And Irish officials rarely sided with the parents who wanted their children back.

Said one survivor: “Things got worse after the Doyle judgment… because numbers were falling and they needed to hold on to us. We were cheap labour working on their farms, their workshops and their factories.”

Although places of sanctuary for some children, Ireland’s industrial schools were homes of horror for others. In 2000, The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was appointed to study what happened. Its five-volume report, published in May of 2009, uncovered many serious problems, including physical and sexual abuse. But many of the schools’ survivors labelled the report a whitewash that left them “cheated of justice”.

Child abuse report, BBC News
Child abuse survivors “cheated of justice” (Credit: BBC News)

Case #2: Leon Nicolaou

If the case of Desmond Doyle illustrated the limited rights of married but deserted fathers, the example a decade later of Leon Nicolaou showed that unmarried fathers had no rights at all under Irish law.

In late 1950s London, Galway-born Kathleen Donnelly met and began a relationship with Leon Nicolaou, himself also an immigrant who hailed from the Greek community in Cyprus. On a visit back home in 1959, Kathleen discovered she was pregnant. She returned to London and in February 1960 gave birth to a daughter, Mary Carmel.

Leon proposed to Kathleen, but their marriage plans ran into two issues. Kathleen suffered bouts of depression, for which she would in later life be institutionalised for a period. And her Galway-based family would agree to the marriage only on condition that Leon, who had a Greek Orthodox background, converted to Catholicism.

Eventually, Kathleen decided against marriage, packed her backs for Ireland and placed baby Mary Carmel up for adoption with St. Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on Dublin’s Navan Road. According to The Supreme Court By Ruadhán Mac Cormaic:

“St, Pat’s had a reputation for extreme harshness. It was also centrally involved, as were many other Mother and Baby Homes across the country, in the practice of sending the children of unmarried mothers to the United States for adoption. The nuns at St. Pat’s sent more than 250 children to the US from the 1940s to the 1970s.”

St Patrick's Mother and Baby Home
St. Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home, Navan Road, Dublin (Credit: Adoption Rights Alliance)

Still living in London, Leon kept in contact with Kathleen through letters, in which he stated his wish to bring up Mary Carmel himself as an alternative to adoption. He travelled to Galway that September to Kathleen’s house, asking where his seven-month-old daughter was. “I have given her away”, Kathleen replied.

Leon immediately began legal action in Dublin. But it was not until 1964 that the case came to a full hearing before a three-judge High Court. Undeterred after losing his case there, Leon appealed. The Supreme Court ruled that the natural father of an ‘illegitimate’ child was not entitled to be heard prior to making an adoption order. Leon’s argument was that the legislation that permitted his child’s adoption without his consent infringed his own natural rights as a parent.

Leon travelled from London to Galway in September to Kathleen’s house, asking where his seven month-old daughter was. “I have had given her away”, Kathleen replied.

That, Leon, as a foreign national in a culturally-insulated Ireland, pursued his legal challenge all the way to the highest court in the land was both an extremely rare occurrence and proof of his clear attachment to his daughter, Mary Carmel. However, the Supreme Court dismissed his role as “callous seduction” and “casual commerce”, colouring the Irish courts’ perceptions for decades to come.

The Four Courts, Dublin
Ireland’s Supreme Court (Credit: Wikipedia)

In his ruling, Justice Henchy of the Supreme Court stated:

“It has not been shown to the satisfaction of the court that the father of an illegitimate child has any natural rights as distinct from legal rights, to either the custody or society of that child, and the court has not been satisfied that any such right has ever been recognised as part of the natural law.”

“I am satisfied that no union or grouping of people is entitled to be designated a family for the purposes of the Article if it is founded on any relationship other than that of marriage… For the State to award equal constitutional protection to the family founded on marriage and the ‘family’ founded on an extra-marital union would in effect be a disregard of the pledge which the State gives in Article 41.3.1. to guard with special care the institution of marriage.”

By the time the Supreme Court had delivered its verdict, Mary Carmel was five-years-old. Luckily, she was not exported like so many others to the United States. As it turned out, she was adopted and raised in Dublin by a very loving couple. She was told she had been adopted but was not aware of the circumstances.

Then, one day when she was about twelve, she found a stack of old letters in a wardrobe. All were addressed to her directly, Mary Carmel. But instead of a signature, they were signed with a star-shaped symbol. They were the affectionate letters from a father to a daughter, telling her about his life, his circumstances and his hope to meet her one day. Speaking years later, Mary Carmel believed her adoptive parents concealed letters in the belief that reading them would be too difficult for her.

One day when she was about twelve, she found a stack of old letters in a wardrobe. All were addressed to her directly, Mary Carmel. But instead of a signature, they were signed with a star-shaped symbol.

Mary Carmel eventually met and was reconciled with her mother, Kathleen, But, despite her best efforts, she was unable to trace her father, Leon. She contacted the Cypriot embassy in London, Cypriot emigrant associations and the owners of the premises where Nicolaou once ran his café. All to no avail. In her own words:

“I have no anger towards him. It was a sad and difficult time for both Of them. He would be well over ninety now, and I thinks it’s unlikely he is still alive. For years it was about meeting him. Now I just want to know where he is, where he lies.”

‘Where were the fathers?’, indeed.

Case #3: Joseph Keegan

Even more recently is the Keegan case. In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that not only did there exist no legal obligation to seek a non-married father’s consent to adoption. There was not even a legal requirement for the father to be informed. Here is Joseph’s story.

Following a two-year, living-together relationship between Joseph Keegan and his partner, the woman became pregnant around Christmas 1997. They agreed to marry, but the relationship ended shortly afterward. The expectant mother returned to her parents, wh0 blocked Joseph’s efforts to contact her. Their child was born that September.

On learning that the child was given up adoption by the mother two months later, Mr. Keegan began legal proceedings in the Circuit Court seeking guardianship and custody of the child. In this case, Joseph was supported by his family who proposed to bring up the child in their family home. His sister and mother stated they were willing to care for the child during the day while he was at work.

Mr. Keegan lost his case in Ireland, but went on to Europe and, in 1994, won. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Irish state was in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (which embraces both marital and non-marital families), in failing to protect an unmarried father’s ‘right to respect for his private and family life’ by providing that he be consulted in the adoption process.

White House Council on Women and Girls
How Joseph Keegan changed the law on adoption (Irish Times, 18 June, 1996)

Joseph Keegan’s legal victory in Europe forced Irish law to change in 1998. And remember, he had to go all the way to Europe to win even this most trivial of concessions.


The discrimination goes on. In 2013 (decision DEC-S2013-010) a father won his Equality Tribunal case for gender discrimination against the Department of Social Protection, who at the time had a blanket policy of refusing accommodation to unmarried fathers which would allow them to exercise their access rights to their children.

In No Man’s Land: Unmarried Fatherhood and Caring, a 2009 UCC academic study on fathers parenting outside marriage, Robert O’Connor wrote:

“Unnmarried fathers are excluded twofold: firstly, they are deemed unsuitable carers by society; and secondly, they face powerful exclusion from the social system. Fathers are not encouraged to have a nurturing role in their children’s lives as males are not being socialised to show a nurturing side. ‘Father’ and ‘breadwinner’ have become synonymous to the point where a father becomes defined solely by what he does in society today as opposed to who he is outside of this. Policy also plays a negative role in encouraging fathers to be active carers in their children’s lives. Unmarried fathers are discriminated against and excluded by policy from the very beginning as they hold no legal position in the Constitution, they are expected to prove themselves in terms of guardianship, custody, and also access to their children.”

“Ray Kelly of Unmarried and Separated Fathers of Ireland describes it aptly in when he says: ‘We have the statistics out there, the writing’s on the wall, the problem is they can’t see the wall. Somebody, turned around and said before, men need to start talking, and I said no, people need to start listening, because men are talking and the problem is nobody is listening.’”

Taking all these examples and court rulings into account, even the most biased observer would be forced to admit that the Irish state placed many obstacles in the way of fathers, married or otherwise, who wanted to be involved in the rearing of their children. It continues to do so. Given that the Tuam case is about the importance of not allowing identifiable groups to be stigmatised, I feel Kathy Sheridan may be in danger of doing exactly that.

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