Country singer Richard Mulligan told David Hennessy about his new album, given adopted from Sean Ross Abbey and resolving to find his birth mother after the birth of his own son.
Known for his success as a distance runner, Richard Mulligan is among the elite few to win Irish senior titles on the track, the road, and in cross country. He ran in several major championships, and while on scholarship in Providence College in the 1980s mixed it with the best distance runners across America.
Now known as a country music performer, it was last year that Richard reached number one in the Irish county music charts with his debut album I Never Met You.
However, despite being known in both sporting and entertainment circles, many people did not know that he was not Richard Mulligan.
Being adopted was something that troubled Richard even during his years of success on the track and he says it was only that success that gave him the confidence to face up to it and say it out loud.
Richard can remember the day his foster parents came to collect him from Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea to Kilkerrin, Galway where he would grow up.
Richard told The Irish World: “It’s very vivid. I remember walking out. I remember people bringing me out to the car, going into the strange car and heading off. I remember that very clearly. It’s vague in some ways but the actual memory of it is very clear.”
Although he can remember meeting his foster parents, he has no memory of his natural mother prior to his adoption: “My mum told me about it later when I found her. She only had me for an hour or two and then I was taken away and she didn’t know where I was. She was held there for four years and made to work. Slave labour I suppose what you would call it. They had to work even though she didn’t want to be there. That’s the way they made them work. She was actually there nearly 9 months after me. She wasn’t aware that I was fostered out or anything.”
Richard has just released his second album Forgiveness which tells the story of his mother.
Has Richard himself had to forgive? “I suppose I did. It’s a long story. I brought out an album last year called I Never Met You. That was my first album and this one is Forgiveness and it’s kind of like a theme that is running through. The first album was about how I had never met my natural dad and I wrote that song standing over his grave the first time I saw it.
“Forgiveness is about my mum and what happened to her. I was born in an orphanage and I was there for three years before I was adopted. I grew up in Galway. The song Forgiveness is the story of my mum.”
Despite knowing he and his older brother John were adopted, Richard tried to hide it to save himself from the cruelty of others.
“Obviously when you start going to school, you get comments, ‘Who are you?’. They’re not your parents. It wouldn’t be deliberate stuff but it would go through you like a knife. You grow up with that. You just want to be normal and you just kind of hide all that. That was the way it was back then.
“A lot of it is yourself, it’s not that people were nasty or anything. You get some people who were. All it takes is one person to say something because it’s a very raw, very sensitive thing.
“The good thing was that my adopted parents, even though I was only fostered, were allowed to call me their name. For the most part that concealed the whole thing but certain people would have known who I was.”
Richard also excelled at football represented the Tribesmen at Under 16 level.
“The great thing about sport was all of a sudden you got a kind of respect that you wouldn’t have otherwise. I was lucky I was gifted in certain areas, otherwise life would have been very tough.
“That is what the running did and obviously football, I was very good at Gaelic football, I played for Galway before I started running. I had always had ambition to play for Galway.
“I have a brother who was fostered from the Grove in Tuam. His attitude was completely different to mine. I think he took the whole thing much harder. He didn’t view it the same way I did. I just think the sport and music for me was a great escape. I kind of went the right direction if you know what I mean, I could have gone another way but thankfully I didn’t. I never drank or smoked or anything. I don’t know why, a bit of a miracle but anyway I kept going the right direction.
“I would be lying if I said it was easy. At the same time you have to put it in perspective as well.
“We were blessed. We had wonderful adoptive parents. I’ve known some fostered kids who were not as lucky as we were. They were wonderful and they gave us every opportunity they could.”
A massive event in his own life made him resolve to find his birth parents. But it was not easy.
“You get no help, you just get the runaround. For me, the main catalyst for going to find my mum was my own son was born. Having gone through the experience of seeing my own son born, I wanted to let her know I was alive and well. Knowing the bond a mother has with her child, it just made me realise, ‘I have to find her’.
“The hard part of it is you’re very loyal to your adoptive parents. They are my parents. I can only speak for myself. They were so supportive.”
When Richard did meet his mother, he got to find out the story of why he was taken away and the horrific treatment she was subjected to.
Richard’s mother Mary married a local man named Michael and they had a son called Joseph. Michael went to England for work while Mary stayed to raise her child while living with her parents. Little is known of where Michael ended up but Mary nor anyone else seem to have heard from him again.
Mary later had an affair with a married man and fell pregnant. The day before Richard was born, the local doctor, parish priest and a guard came to the house to take her to Sean Ross Abbey.
“She told me the three of them arrived. She was going, that was it.
“I’ll never know the full story. I only know what she’s told me and it was very painful for her to talk about.
“She did say she was physically abused there nearly on a daily basis.
“I think she lived in fear her whole life. She was damaged by the whole experience. During the five or six years I knew her, she had a very good relationship with me but she was emotionally damaged.
“Her son was 14 when she had a relationship with a local man. He was 14 when she was forced away. Despite the fact she was a mother, she was forced away to the orphanage to have me. She had a tough life. The other son died at 38 years of age from cancer. If you add all that up, she had a very tough life.”
Richard’s mother was never allowed to leave the institution. Instead she had to escape when she was allowed to leave to help raise someone else’s kids.
“They put her on a work placement. A farmer had lost his wife and needed someone to mind the kids. She was sent out to help him raise the kids. This is how crazy the whole thing is, she had her own son in Connemara.”
This is also why Richard says she lived in such fear her whole life. She probably dreaded another visit from the people who took her away in the 1960s.
Richard had no idea what reception he would get when he knocked on her door but he received a warm welcome from a woman who got to know the son she never knew after losing the one she did.
“I suppose I had no expectation and that is a good way to do it. I just really felt that I wanted her to know I was alive and doing well. Because my own son was born, it just kept going through my head, ‘There had to be a good reason why she gave me away’.
“It was a magical time when my two mums met. They hugged each other and were thanking each other which was amazing. My natural mum was thanking my mother was raising me and looking after me and stuff like that. My adoptive mother was thanking her for having me.”
Although he never knew his father, it seems this is where his musical talent comes from as his father came from a family of celebrated musicians.
“My father’s son is a great fiddle player. My natural father was actually a queen’s guard in Windsor. I have a half sister in London now that I didn’t know I had. She took me out to Windsor to show me where my natural dad would have been a guard for a number of years before he came back to Connemara.”
Music had always been a hobby for Richard and he was persuaded to record a couple of songs before he was soon sharing the stage with people such as Ray Lynam, Brendan Shine and Mick Flavin.
Although the latest album is called Forgiveness and it is about his mother, it is not his mother who is being forgiven as she did nothing wrong.
“Basically it’s me forgiving the establisment. My mother doesn’t need forgiveness from anyone after what they did to her. She was the one who suffered.
“You could write many songs about the whole situation. I suppose it’s a part of Ireland and a part of history we don’t like to talk too much about.”
Forgiveness is out now.