DUBLIN — For decades, Irish society stigmatized unwed mothers, pressuring them to give up their newborns, often in shadowy adoptions.
Now, the Irish government, after years of inaction, has begun pulling away the veil. On Wednesday, it apologized after an inquiry into what some activists fear was once common: falsifying birth certificates to make it appear that adoptive parents were the birth ones.
That inquiry, into just a single adoption agency, found that at least 126 children were affected. Many of those children, now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, have no idea they were adopted.
“Their identities, their heritage, any idea of who they are and where they came from — you don’t realize how fundamental these things are unless you don’t have them,” said Fergus Finlay, a children’s advocate.
Rights groups believe many more cases have yet to be discovered.
Ireland has begun grappling in recent years with the legacy of its treatment of unwed mothers, as scandal after scandal from its past as a strongly Roman Catholic country emerge. They have helped propel a cultural shift in Ireland, and a weakening of the church’s influence, and led to referendums legalizing divorce, gay marriage and, last week, abortion.
Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that the revelation opened “another dark chapter” in Irish social history, and that it was his government’s priority to contact all those concerned and inform them of what it knew about the circumstances of their birth.
“What was done was wrong, what was done robbed children, our fellow citizens, of their identity,” he said. “It was an historic wrong that we must face up to, and again on behalf of the government I’m very sorry for it.”
Government officials said they would commission an independent inquiry into a broad sample of adoptions arranged by a variety of other societies and institutions, to see if a similar pattern exists there. Mr. Finlay, chief executive of the Irish branch of the child protection society Barnardos, estimated that as many as 150,000 Irish adoptions might need to be investigated if the abuse was found to have been more widespread.
The falsely recorded adoptions identified so far were among about 13,500 arranged between 1946 and 1969 by the St. Patrick’s Guild, an adoption society run by the Sisters of Charity.
In at least 126 cases, the authorities said, babies born to unmarried mothers were adopted and their adoptive parents’ names were written on their birth certificates, instead of the name of the birth mother.
Mr. Finlay said the St. Patrick’s Guild was one of at least seven large adoption agencies that operated in Ireland then. It was a time when unwanted pregnancy carried so much social stigma that many young women and their parents went to great lengths to conceal it.
Many smaller institutions were also involved in arranging adoptions, with little or no supervision. As they closed, their files were handed over to the government’s child protection agency, Tusla.
Tusla took over the St Patrick’s Guild files in 2016 and discovered, while attempting to help adopted children trace their birth parents, that some of the births had been fraudulently registered. In a statement, it said it had referred the fraudulent registrations to the police. But few if any of the people responsible are likely to be still alive.
Officials at the child protection agency said their main priority now was to identify and locate all the people whose birth certificates were falsified.
“We are very aware that this will be a shock for people affected and may cause upset and anxiety,” the agency said in its statement. “We will work closely with people throughout and offer support, including counseling, while allowing them their autonomy to decide what steps they want to take.”
Wednesday was not the first time Irish officials felt obliged to apologize for the treatment of unwed mothers. The government has also apologized for the conditions at church-run homes for mothers and babies, and at Magdalene Laundries, where women were forced to work.
But some people caught up in the brutality of the system say they are still awaiting an apology.
Dolores Quinlan, 51, said she did not know she was adopted until two years ago, and then soon learned she was just one of Ireland’s illegally registered births. She said she empathized with the 126 people just identified by the state.
Ms. Quinlan’s birth mother took her to an adoption agency called the Rotunda Girls’ Aid Society in Dublin in 1966, one of a several adoption agencies where other illegal registrations have been documented.
Her mother told her that after she gave birth, she was sent to a nearby cathedral to pray.
“She went in there and lit a candle, and after she did it had to put her hand on the Bible and swear to not trace me or talk about it again,” Ms. Quinlan said.
Ms. Quinlan had no idea she was adopted until after her adoptive mother died.
“They did it so well these false registrations, there was no paperwork,” Ms. Quinlan said of adoption agencies who placed children. “They knew what they were doing, they clearly knew. It was like a well-oiled machine.”
She went to the Adoption Authority of Ireland hoping to track her birth family. But once they heard that her adoptive parents’ names appeared on her birth certificate, they offered little hope.
Ms. Quinlan tracked down her birth mother on her own after taking a DNA test. The pair met for the first time three weeks ago.
Ms. Quinlan said she could understand why she was put up for adoption in such secrecy.
“In Ireland you would be better off saying you murdered someone then to say you were single and pregnant in 1966, because they’d tell you that no one would have you as a woman,” Ms. Quinlan explained. “If you tried to keep the baby you were told you were selfish, that it was a stigma, didn’t the baby have the right to have two parents?”
Ed O’Loughlin reported from Dublin, and Megan Specia from New York.