Madonna's adoption of a baby boy from Africa provoked such a storm of negative reaction that when actor Johnny O'Callaghan tried to do the same, he was met with obstacle after obstacle. Patricia Danaher hears his story.
THREE months ago, three-yearold Odin O'Callaghan was living in the House of Hope orphanage in a Ugandan village, with nothing more elaborate to play with than a rubber band. Today he lives in Los Angeles with his adoptive Irish dad and only wants to play in the homes of kids who have swimming pools. He has quickly grown taller and healthier and has taken on characteristics common to spoiled American kids who are used to having it all and wanting more, sooner, faster, oftener. But the question he asks most often these days is: "When am I getting a mammy?"
Adopted by single dad 35-year-old Johnny O'Callaghan from Tallaght last November, after a nine-month process, both have been on something of a rollercoaster ride ever since. O'Callaghan had to jump through hoops in order to adopt this little boy. Becoming a US citizen and being vetted by the CIA was nothing compared with the hoop-jumping that began when the adoption was finally approved in Uganda last November. After a relatively smooth application process, he received a call at short notice to go and get Odin. When O'Callaghan got to Uganda, the controversy over Madonna's adoption of an unorphaned boy was raging and he had to go before a judge for a lengthy and nervewracking hearing. When this ended, O'Callaghan then had to get the boy a passport; for this he had to find seven different tribesmen who could give him the rubber stamps needed so as to be able to bring the boy to Los Angeles. "In one scenario, I had to ride a cow across a river to reach one of the tribal leaders. It was insane, " he said. "Most of them didn't speak English and as there is no tradition of adoption in most of Africa, it was often hard to explain what I was trying to do." But he persevered in the search for the stamps with the same determination he had shown during the whole adoption process and now lives in Hollywood with the boy and his dog Charlie.
The adventure began around this time last year when O'Callaghan decided on a whim to accompany a friend of his, who is an aid worker, on a trip to Uganda. He had been engaged and the relationship had just ended unexpectedly. "I had no plans to adopt a Ugandan orphan when I went there with my friend in January, " he said. "I was interested in the relief work she was doing but to be totally honest with you, the only relief I was interested in at the time was relief from a broken heart. I had been engaged to a woman in LA and it had broken up when I decided to go to Uganda. The next thing we're there and there's all these little kids, some with HIV, nearly all orphans, in a pretty basic place run by a local man with very little training or facilities." Now O'Callaghan has gone from being in the thick of a hectic LA social life to doing school runs, bonding with Odin and taking him on playdates. "It's been exhausting and amazing at the same time. With adoption, you never know exactly when it will happen." As the process ended up taking nine months, he can't resist joking it felt like being pregnant. "I had all the cravings, I put on weight, I never went to the gym!"
Joking aside, O'Callaghan's experience of Africa was pretty grim and he became very frustrated at all the backhanders he had to pay to proceed, alongside the fact that so many HIV-infected children are simply abandoned in a society which doesn't have a culture of adoption. Odin still hoards food and often talks about wanting to send food to the other children in the orphanage. The last thing he did before leaving the orphanage was to put a slice of bread from a loaf O'Callaghan had bought under the pillow of each child. "Because we didn't know if the adoption would happen, we had to be careful not to give him false hope. I had been sending care packages and he had been told he had a father who would come for him - his real father is alive but his mother died in childbirth from HIV-related complications. I think of him as a little miracle child, HIV negative, although both his parents were HIV positive. "I'm still recovering from the experience in Africa. The adoption process itself was so tough - they really don't want you to adopt and yet there is so much desperation there that people are just trying to survive any way they can. In the end I suppose 80% of the people I encountered helped make the process happen but there were certain key people who tried at every turn to put a halt to the whole thing. Luckily, I was well-informed about the law and was well able to argue with people who were bluffing me about Ugandan law." O'Callaghan plans to bring Odin to Ireland in April to meet his family in Dublin and to have him christened. "He is very excited about meeting his Irish family. Funnily enough he is the only member of the family, so far, who is carrying on the O'Callaghan family name."
Adopting an African baby as a single man has shifted a lot of his priorities: he says he has grown up more, realising parenting is a 24/7 job. But he has been astonished at some of the comments he has had to listen to from unlikely quarters. From accusing him of having "an attack of the Angelina Jolies" to "accessorising" with an African child, O'Callaghan has been nonplussed at the casual ignorance of some of the remarks. "Another thing that people like to say to me is, 'Why have you taken him away from his culture?' Well, to me a culture where you are lucky to eat and are abandoned if you have HIV does not sound like much of a culture. I get a lot of looks from the black community since I've been back in the States - mainly black women. But most people are supportive and want to know the whole story. It often comes as a surprise to them that there are 15 million orphans in Africa."
Contrary to expectations that being a single father would make him 'date bait', he has not found this to be the case. "So much for this kid being a Hollywood accessory! People have not been throwing themselves at me. Comments like those are only ever made by people who have no children and no idea how much work it is. Going to Africa and meeting a kid who felt like my son was precisely what happened. This was never about getting something to fill a gap or an absence in my life."
Although being spoiled and cared for by O'Callaghan and his network of friends in LA and Toronto, Odin does not seem to have forgotten the other children in the orphanage. Some days they send balloons floating off into the sky which Odin kisses before imagining sending them to his friends in Uganda. "He is only beginning to grasp that not all children live at school and that his classmates all go home to their families in the evening. He often wants to go home with all his classmates! He is a happy child and most at home with other children but he gets very attached in every situation and finds it hard to leave. We talk about the House of Hope and he is very clear that he wants to go back to visit." O'Callaghan has really appreciated seeing Odin experience so many things for the first time which are so often taken for granted. Ice, jam, hot water - all of these things were mysterious things and savoured with nervous anticipation, then delight.
Currently single and a busy and popular TV actor, O'Callaghan spends most of his time flitting between California and Canada, where he stars in Stargate Atlantis. He is also producing a movie and is auditioning for pilot shows in LA. There is talk of a play and also interest in making a documentary on adopting Odin. He has been asked to consider writing a book about the experience. "I suppose I've sort of done things in reverse, with career and then family. I can see why people have children as part of a couple but, having said that, most relationships end in divorce these days, so maybe the whole thing about people staying together is over-rated! Anyway, I feel like I'm in a very good place spiritually right now. I could have waited until I was in a relationship to do this, but how was I supposed to know that I would go to Africa to forget about a broken heart and fall in love with a little boy who just felt like a son to me?"
CELEBRITIES WHO ADOPT FROM FOREIGN COUNTRIES ANGELINA JOLIE AND BRAD PITT
"I want to create a rainbow family, " Jolie said and has proceeded to do so by adopting Maddox from Cambodia and Zahara from Ethiopia. A biological daughter, Shiloh, was born last May in Namibia and they have just filed for adoption in Vietnam.
MIA FARROW Ten of her 14 children were adopted from other countries, many from places such as Vietnam and Korea.
Farrow separated from partner Woody Allen when she discovered he had been having an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi.
MEG RYAN Adopted a baby daughter, Daisy, from China.
EWAN McGREGOR Adopted a four-year-old girl from Mongolia with wife Eve, to add to his existing biological brood of two.
MADONNA Adopted a one-year-old boy, David, from Malawi and faced all manner of controversy when she was publicly questioned about her motives and the child's father denied that he had given permission for the adoption.