Decades of Abuse

Ireland’s ‘Mother and Baby Home’ Horror Goes Beyond Tuam’s Dead Infants

News of 796 dead children buried in a septic tank got the world’s attention. Now attention shifts to the treatment of women and children at similar facilities across the country.

Niall Carson/PA, via Landov

It was 18 years ago that Padraig O’Morain wrote in The Irish Times about “Eileen,” whose baby was taken from her in a mother and baby home for adoption in the U.S.

Mother and baby homes were where young women who had conceived out of wedlock were sent to have their babies. They usually spent up to three years, more in some instances, working at the home after which the child was put up for adoption.

The publication in May 1996 of “Eileen’s” story in The Irish Times followed an announcement the previous month by then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Dick Spring that files on the adoption of Irish babies in the U.S. had been found. It was said this offered hope that birth mothers and adopted children taken from them could meet again.

Very little has happened where the issue is concerned since then.

Even the deeply moving story of Philomena Lee, as recounted in the film Philomena last year, did not stir the national conscience to action. Even the Tuam story did not take fire immediately, when it broke two weeks ago.

Then it may well be the case that the Irish public is punch drunk with revelations of shocking abuses of children from the past. Since 2005 there have been four statutory reports into abuses of children in church-run institutions and parishes, as well as the 2013 report on the abuse of women in Magdalene laundries.

What finally stirred the somnolent were the figures 796 (for dead children at St. Mary’s in Tuam, County Galway between 1925 and 1961) and the two words `septic tank.’

The image of children being disposed of in such a barbaric and depraved manner outraged people across the world. Those two words “septic tank” meant the story went viral.

That there may be doubt as to whether the remains of children were so discarded has become secondary, as attention has now shifted to the main issue, the homes themselves and the mothers and children who had been in them.

According to the 2009 Ryan report, which investigated abuses of children in orphanages, reformatories, and industrial schools in Ireland: “In the 1920s and 30s the policy was implemented of providing ‘mother and baby’ homes for unmarried women who were having children for the first time. These were reserved for young mothers who had ‘fallen’ once only and thus were likely to be ‘influenced towards a useful and respectable life.’”

According to a 1928 Department of Local Government report in Dublin, “about eight ‘mother and child’ homes were set up for unmarried mothers giving birth for the first time. In 1922 the Sacred Heart Home in Bessboro, County Cork, managed by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, was opened. Similar homes were established by the same Order in Roscrea, County Tipperary, in 1930 and Castlepollard, County Meath, in 1935.”

It continued: “The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul opened a similar institution on the Navan Road, in Dublin, in 1918 and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd opened a home in Dunboyne, County Meath, in 1955. In addition, three special homes were provided by local authorities themselves in Tuam, County Galway, Kilrish, County Clare and Pelletstown in County Dublin.”

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The Protestant-run Bethany Home was set up in Dublin in 1921 and closed in 1972.

The woman interviewed for The Irish Times in 1996 had been in Castlepollard, one of the largest mother and baby homes in Ireland.

The Adoption Rights Now group estimates that 2,800 to 3,000 babies were born at Castlepollard, while its graveyard “contains at least 300 to upwards of 500 bodies.” Mortality rates there were “at least 10.7 percent to 16.7 percent over its 35-year lifespan.” It was set up in 1934.

It has been claimed that at any one time there were up to 200 girls/mothers at Castlepollard. According to Mike Millotte’s book Banished Babies, 278 children from Castlepollard were adopted to the U.S.

Research by Warwick University Professor Maria Luddy at the Sean Ross Abbey home in Roscrea, County Tipperary, where Philomena Lee had been, showed that the mortality rate for 120 babies born there in 1930 was up to 50 percent.

Figures for Bessborough in Cork show the home had a mortality rate of 55 per cent in one of the years between 1945 to 1948, according to records by Dr. James Deeny, Ireland’s then chief medical officer.

“Eileen” said in that May 1996 Irish Times article that she was told by a nun on arrival at Castlepollard, “Your name is Vera while you are here.” She was there nearly three months before the baby was born. Her letters were opened and she “wasn’t allowed to breastfeed” her baby. She was made to express her milk into a container “at night” for feeding the child.

Of signing adoption papers she said, “I knew I was signing the baby away but I was terrified not to sign it. I remember my hand was trembling and I think it was the cruellest thing.”

She recalled that before her baby was taken, “I didn’t sleep that night. I remember getting up and going in to bathe him and dress him. I remember the little beige coat and the little bit of velvet on the collar, brown shoes and beige socks.”

A nun “just said to me, kiss and goodbye now, and she just whipped him away. I ran up to a window to try to see him, I was almost getting out the window. But I couldn’t see. All I could hear was the engine of the car. I kept listening until I couldn’t hear it any longer. Afterwards … there was nothing.”

For more coverage, consult The Irish Times.

Patsy McGarry is the Religious Affairs Correspondent for The Irish Times.