Galway folk singer Don Stiffe told David Hennessy about the search for his birth mother, the encouragement he got from Philomena Lee and why his forthcoming gig in Hammersmith will be so poignant for him.
Don Stiffe was a finalist in The All Ireland Talent Show and has performed with an array of stars such as Frankie Gavin, Sharon Shannon,Dolores Keane and Maura O’Connell and Lunasa. He has appeared many times with The Kilfenora Céilí Band and often toured with Cherish the Ladies.
However, it was his search for his birth mother that captured Ireland’s imagination. Although he was given a good adopted home in Galway, Don always wanted to know where he came from. He embarked on a journey that would give him answers even if he was not able to meet his mother as she had passed away.
Don was due to come to Hammersmith’s Irish Cultural Centre on 21 March. He would have doubtlessly sang an especially poignant version of his song You’ll Always be my Mother. The song refers to the adopted mother but he tells us he thinks of both his mothers when he sings it. Also, London is the city his birth mother lived in for many years.
Don told The Irish World: “It would be poignant because my mother passed away in the hospital in Kilburn so I suppose to sing it over there in England would hit memories for me. Also, my blood father lived and died in England as well and is buried over there.
“The song You’ll Always Be My Mother is relating to my mother that is still alive in Galway, my adopted mother. Every time I sing the song I think of the two of them really.”
A clairvoyant Don spoke to quite by chance in America gave him his first clues about the blood family he had not met.
“I would have always had a little hole in my heart wondering where my birth mother was.
“She was saying, ‘There’s a Kate or a Kathleen always thinks about ya’. At that stage of the journey, I had no idea that this would end up to be my older sister who still lives in England.
“I thought she was kind of kidding to be honest with you. Then she said, ‘The dog misses you at home as well’. I have two dogs at home.
“And I said, ‘I’ll catch this one’. Because we had a dog who had only one eye I said, ‘Which of the dogs misses me?’ And she said, ‘The dog with the funny eye’.
“I knew straightaway there was something happening in the room.”
Don was on his way home from the gig a few years ago when he stopped near the Mother and Baby home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea that he was adopted from.
“I would always stop at this garage in Roscrea because the orphanage was just across the road from it. It was always the excuse to go in for the coffee, get the petrol, sit in the car for half an hour and ponder but never having the courage to go over.
“This particular day I just said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get over my demons and go over here to this orphanage’.
At the petrol station Don ran into a priest he had met at the previous night’s gig: “We were chatting and he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And just by chance, I told him. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger.
“He said to me, ‘Look, if it’s bothering you just go over there today’. So I rang my wife and told her, ‘I’m going over to this orphanage today’.”
When he went over he found there was a commemoration taking place and he met Philomena Lee whose tale of searching for her son was turned into a movie starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.
“I asked the steward so he sent me up to the old graveyard and I said a prayer at Philomena’s son’s grave Michael Hess or Anthony. On the way down I met Philomena and her daughter. They had seen me up at the cemetery and thanked me for saying the prayer. I told them my story and she encouraged me, ‘You have to go look for your mum, wherever it takes you. She may be alive, she may be dead but you have to give yourself peace of mind’.
“I got great encouragement from her. Incredible woman altogether, I couldn’t speak highly enough of her. She doesn’t have any hatred in her heart or anything regards that story.”
Although Don tracked down his birth mother, he found she had already passed away. He has been able to meet some of his birth siblings and looks forward to coming back to England later in the year to meet others he has not been able to meet yet.
Has Don, like Philomena, be free of bitterness and hatred? “I would. At this stage now it’s so far back in the past, who do you blame? I was just a baby taken out of there by my parents into Galway, into a beautiful home, beautiful community. I could blame the system, I could blame everyone. I probably am more lucky than the rest of my family because they had been dispersed into different orphanages and different institutions. I was lucky enough to get a loving home.
“Our mother went off over to England at an early age so they were displaced for a while some of them. Some of them were put out to be adopted as well and I’m sure it must be very hard on them growing up and not having a family living. I count myself lucky in that sense.”
Don’s story has struck a chord. He is often contacted by people who have been affected by similar circumstances: “Even in America people come up to me privately after saying that they were actually adopted out of Sean Ross themselves. People write to me. People are looking for hope. I do get contacted quite a lot and people still come up talking about it. It’s probably still an active thing that people are going through at this point in time.”