I was born in a mother and baby home. The nuns wanted Mammy to sign adoption papers

Then I was sent to a residential school for blind girls. I was determined not to live down to people’s expectations

Maria Doyle

Dublin, 1965

I was two days old when I was taken from my mother, bundled up by some stranger and taken to St Andrew’s Church, where I was baptised “Stephanie”, without parents or godparents present.

Back in those days in Ireland, that’s what was done to illegitimate babies like me from the mother-and-baby homes and the Magdalene laundries.

Mammy had been two months pregnant when she was incarcerated in the home. The nuns wanted her to sign adoption papers, but she wouldn’t.

We were set free when I was four months old, after my granny found us.

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Dundalk, 1970

“And the winner is Maria McCabe.”

When I was five years old I won my first singing competition, in Fagans pub on Castletown Road in Dundalk. I’ll never forget when the pub’s owner announced the winner. I felt like a star.

As a child, I was fascinated by the stars in the sky at night, and the more I gazed at them the more I felt that someone up there had a plan for me.

Maria Doyle

Dublin, 1975

Struck blind at nine years old, I was sent to St Mary’s School for Visually Impaired Girls, in Dublin, when I was 10.

At the time there was no future for a little blind girl. The specialist said that with a bit of luck I would eventually be able to become a telephone operator.

I was miserable, and even stopped singing. But I hatched a scheme. I planned to escape and find my way home to Dundalk. Against all the odds, my escape plan worked, and despite the Garda searching high and low for me I made it all the way back into Mammy’s arms.

My stepdaddy, Patrick McCabe, announced to the crowd that had gathered in front of our house in Cox’s Demesne: “My daughter is a true homing bird.” To be honest, I felt more like Lassie.

That night, as I lay in my bed, I clutched my miraculous medal tightly, as I had been doing all day. I closed my eyes and said: “Dear God, thank you for bringing me home.” I never returned to St Mary’s school for the blind.

Maria Doyle

New York, 1978

As I sat on the back seat of a stretch limousine I asked myself how it could be possible that I, Maria McCabe, was here in the United States to sing and fulfil my dreams.

Mammy felt like she was Mary Ellen from the Waltons. We couldn’t believe that such a world existed. I sang for Irish Americans from Boston to Las Vegas, received keys to cities and proclamations, and even had a day named after me.

I could have stayed in the US, but the home bird in me wanted to return to Ireland and to my own.

Sweden, 1985

Ireland was the opening country to perform in the Eurovision Song Contest in Gothenburg. It was an honour for me to represent my country. As “Maria Christian” I opened the evening with my song Wait Until the Weekend Comes, written by Brendan Graham and conducted by Noel Kelehan. I sang with all my heart, and felt as sparkling as the stars in the sky.

Paris, 1992

Like so many Irish before me, I left my homeland, my family and my friends.

Standing in the middle of one of France’s biggest train stations, newly-wed and pregnant, I felt lost, as though on another planet. Nothing seemed familiar. I took a deep breath, looked towards the heavens and vowed to myself, “Someday, everybody in this country will know who I am.”

Over the next 25 years, as Maria Doyle-Cuche, I raised seven beautiful children, in the small rural village in the east of France where we still live – the youngest has just turned 16; three of the others are also still at home.

In 2018, Plon, a French publishing house, published my life story. I explained in my book that the next step was to perform on stage again, accompanied by my musical children, bringing joy and proving that everything is possible.

Maria Doyle

Two years later I sang in front of millions on French TV, accompanied by five of my seven children. We performed Danny Boy. We received a standing ovation, and the next day my photograph was in magazines and newspapers all over France.

I’d proved wrong the people who told me, when I was nine, that the only thing I could aspire to was to become a telephone operator, and that having a family would be impossible.

It’s also more than 40 years since I gazed at the stars and prayed to shine. I believe the stars have come to me through music, through my children and through those who have been put on my path, to guide me and help me find my way.

Madrid, 2022

I was invited to perform with two of my seven children (on piano and violin) at an event organised by Lazard, the financial institution, whose boss had read my book.

At the end of the concert I stood with tears in my eyes and told the audience: “My life is like a circle that will not be closed until my Spanish biological father discovers that he had a baby over 50 years ago in Ireland.”

That baby is me.

I will continue to shine, and I hope that the day my Spanish family discover my existence is also written in the stars.

Maria Doyle-Cuche has just become an ambassador for Voir Ensemble, or See Together, a French association for the blind; its president asked her to represent the organisation after she sang at the Pantheon in Paris in June 2022, becoming the first Irish woman to do so. She will visit institutions for blind children and share her story

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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