For decades David McBride, from Northern Ireland, and Helen Ward, from the Republic, had yearned to know the truth about their birth parents, but all investigations proved futile. Next week, an ITV Long Lost Family Special will tell how they finally met
If a Hollywood scriptwriter had penned a story about two foundlings, found as babies six years apart on either side of the Irish border, who after lifelong searches discover they are actually brother and sister, his movie proposal would doubtless have been rejected as simply too far-fetched.
But real life can indeed be stranger than fiction — for after being abandoned as days-old infants back in the Sixties, Northern Ireland man David McBride and Helen Ward, from the Republic, have found out they are indeed siblings.
It’s an extraordinary story of chance, serendipity and — ultimately — scientific advances in DNA that allowed the mystery of their respective backgrounds to be slowly unravelled.
It’s also the story of a deeply moving reunion which viewers will be able to watch on their TV screens next week in a two-part installment of ITV’s Long Lost Family Special: Born Without a Trace.
“All these years without knowing it, we were walking two paths waiting to come together as one,” David marvels.
Helen, too, is still struck by the remarkable chance of it all. “It was overwhelming,” she admits. “I’d built a picture of who my parents might have been, but I’d never thought of siblings.”
Of course, many in Northern Ireland will be familiar with the details of the early part of David McBride’s life. Desperate to trace his birth mother, he had turned to the Press in the hope that she — or someone who knew what had happened — might come forward.
Despite telling his story on numerous occasions over the years, travelling to Australia and taking part in a book Kate Adie wrote about foundlings, that vital breakthrough remained elusive.
David, who grew up in Lisburn, was found by the wife of a Belfast doctor in her car two weeks after he was born, wrapped with a shawl in a tartan bag in Dunmurry in 1962. The discovery made headlines but no-one came forward with any information. When David eventually got his file from social services, he discovered they had delayed his adoption by his Protestant foster parents by nine years because they feared the complication of a Catholic mother stepping forward to claim him.
Six years later Helen was left in a telephone box, in Dundalk in 1968. She was found unexpectedly by a lorry driver who had pulled over to make a call. He discovered her wrapped in a blanket in a tartan bag, left alone with a bottle of warm milk. He raised the alarm and she was rushed into hospital.
Despite their precarious starts in life, both enjoyed happy childhoods and teenage years with their adoptive families but for each of them the yearning to understand more of who they were could not be quelled.
It was only at the age of 15, when David applied to join the Army, that he first learned he had been a foundling. He discovered his birth certificate recorded he was born “on or about January 6”. He couldn’t fathom what it meant: “Why doesn’t it say the day that I was born? Why did no one know the day I was born?”
Puzzled, he asked his father what that meant “and he told me all,” recalls David, who now lives in Birmingham with his wife and three children. He also has four grown-up daughters. Reassuringly and tantalisingly he was about 14 days old when he had been found by the doctor’s wife. “It meant for the first few weeks of my life, someone fed me, kept me warm, loved me,” he says.
But who was that? No matter how hard David looked, no matter how many public appeals he made, he hit a brick wall.
Nor had he any idea that while he was carrying out his investigations, his sister was also conducting her own inquiries — and, if anything, she had even less to go on than David. She had always known she was adopted but had no idea she was a foundling. As a teenager, she had asked her parents what they knew about her birth parents, but was told not to ask questions.
“When I was 17 I asked my dad,” she explains, “but was told to ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’. But you can’t. My birth mum was always in my mind and the hardship of giving me up.”
Helen went on to have three children of her own but her curiosity about her own parents never abated. In 2003 she went to an adoption centre in Drogheda, but her birth certificate simply stated “child found exposed”. She says she was left asking: “Where else can I go? What else can I do? Ireland isn’t that big. Somebody has to know something more.”
Last year, still desperate to find a blood relative, she took a DNA test and submitted it to an online database.
Just months later producers of Long Lost Family uploaded David’s DNA — and discovered he had a match for a full sister.
In emotionally charged scenes, viewers will see the pair first meet in a guesthouse near the Irish border.
Ahead of the encounter, Helen says: “To find that I have a brother, that’s absolutely incredible. You spend your whole life looking for your family. Here it is, I cannot wait to meet him.”
And afterwards both David and Helen give some insight into the impact of seeing their sibling for the first time.
“Finding Helen was one of the greatest gifts,” David says. “When we sat down and started talking, the world around us didn’t exist.”
And Helen adds: “It’s just been unbelievable, unbelievable. When you sit there and you look at your brother, it’s a very strange feeling, a very exciting feeling. I mean after 51 years it’s a miracle, it really is.”
Search lead Ariel Bruce admits it is the most extraordinary story she has ever dealt with — two foundlings, full siblings both looking for the same family and discovering each other had matching DNA.
There was, however, one aspect of the mystery left to solve. As David says, the fact his parents twice abandoned children is astounding. “It’s difficult to take it in that the same things happened to me happened to my sister. That’s shocking. Why do our parents make the decision to leave us? It happened once so why make the decision again.”
The truth, as it turns out, centres on a tragic love affair. After pursuing other genetic matches, researchers find out that their father was a shop manager in Dublin who died in 1993 while their mother had died in 2017. Further investigations uncovered that their father was a married Protestant with 14 children who had had an affair with their mother, 17 years his junior, and a Catholic. When she became pregnant, fearful of scandal, she felt she had no other option other than to give up her children.
She never married or had more children, and both David and Helen feel great sympathy for their mother and the circumstances she found herself in.
Now, though, after spending most of their lives excavating the past, they are determined to savour the present. As well as getting to know each other, they have spoken by phone to three half-siblings.
“We started one journey,” says David, “and now we are on another, getting to know each other and our family.”
Long Lost Family Special: Born Without a Trace, Monday, June 1 and Tuesday June 2. The programmes are produced by Wall to Wall Media for ITV