9,000 children died in Ireland’s mother and baby homes, report says

Nine thousand children died in Ireland’s brutal homes for unmarried mothers and babies run by the Catholic Church in the 20th century, a damning report has revealed.

In total, 15 percent of the 57,000 children at the 18 institutions investigated by the Mother and Baby Home Commission died between 1922 and 1998.

The report published today said the homes ‘provided refuge’ for the mothers when they had nowhere else to turn and found that blame ‘rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families.’ 

But the women faced appalling emotional torment at the hands of the nuns – forced to work scrubbing floors while being called ‘fallen,’ ‘sinner’, ‘dirt’ and ‘spawn of Satan.’ 

The Commission said that the high death rates among infants were ‘probably the most disquieting feature of these institutions.’ 

In 1945 and 1946, the death rate among infants at the homes ‘was almost twice that of the national average for ‘illegitimate’ children.’

The inquiry was launched six years ago after evidence of an unmarked mass graveyard at Tuam, County Galway, was uncovered by amateur local historian Catherine Corless.

Survivor Carmel Larkin from Tuam who was born at the notorious Mother and Baby Home in County Galway stands beside flowers laid to the victims today. Ms Larkin said: 'Well it's our holocaust isn't it? They had the holocaust in Germany but the mother and baby homes were our holocaust'

Survivor Carmel Larkin from Tuam who was born at the notorious Mother and Baby Home in County Galway stands beside flowers laid to the victims today. Ms Larkin said: ‘Well it’s our holocaust isn’t it? They had the holocaust in Germany but the mother and baby homes were our holocaust’

A group of children at the Tuam home in 1924Site of a mass grave of up to 800 children at the former Mother and Baby home in Tuam, County Galway, in western Ireland. It was revealed 3 March 2017

A group of children at the Tuam home in 1924, the site of a mass grave of up to 800 children at the former Mother and Baby home in Tuam, County Galway 

These photographs are the first glimpse of life inside Ireland's largest mother and baby home St. Patrick's on the Navan Road in Dublin. The first ever memorial day for children who died in the home will be held on August 13

These photographs are the first glimpse of life inside Ireland’s largest mother and baby home St. Patrick’s on the Navan Road in Dublin. The first ever memorial day for children who died in the home will be held on August 13

One Irish woman released a photo of herself as a baby in a desperate bid to trace her birth mother. 'I am full of tears and the revelations about the TuamHome have caused me even greater despair,' said the 60-year-old

One Irish woman released a photo of herself as a baby in a desperate bid to trace her birth mother. ‘I am full of tears and the revelations about the TuamHome have caused me even greater despair,’ said the 60-year-old

At another notorious home, Bessborough in County Cork, 75 percent of the children born or admitted in a single year, 1943, died. The girls of Bessborough are pictured above.

At another notorious home, Bessborough in County Cork, 75 percent of the children born or admitted in a single year, 1943, died. The girls of Bessborough are pictured above. 

Classic Hits Radio DJ Niall Boylan who was born in St Patrick's Mother and Baby home on the Navan Road in Dublin

Classic Hits Radio DJ Niall Boylan who was born in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby home on the Navan Road in Dublin

She said that she had been haunted by childhood memories of skinny children from the home.

Then-Prime Minister Enda Kenny described the burial site as a ‘chamber of horrors’. 

From 1921 to 1961 (when it closed), 978 children died at Tuam, 80 percent aged under 12 months, 67 percent between one and six months  

Three quarters of those children died in the 1930s and 40s, with the most deadly years recorded as 1943 and 1947. 

The report singled out the home for its ‘appalling physical conditions.’ 

It comes after a report in 2017 revealed that a mass grave containing the remains of babies and young children was discovered at a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children in Ireland.

Mass graves are found in disused sewers at a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers in Ireland 

A mass grave containing the remains of babies and young children has been discovered at a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children in Ireland, an official report revealed in 2017.

The remains were found in a disused sewer during excavations at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway.

The ages of the dead ranged from 35 foetal weeks to three years old and were mostly buried in the 1950s.

The inquiry was launched after local historian Catherine Corless said there was evidence of an unmarked graveyard at the home, where records showed almost 800 children died between 1925 and 1961.

However, there was a burial record for just one child.

In the mid-1970s, local boys playing in the field had reported seeing a pile of bones in a hidden underground chamber. 

 The announcement dispelled a popular argument that bones seen at the site might predate the orphanage’s opening, when the building was a workhouse for the adult poor.

Some even claimed that they were from people who died in the mid-19th century Great Famine. 

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The remains were found in a disused sewer during excavations at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam.

The ages of the dead ranged from 35 foetal weeks to three years old and were mostly buried in the 1950s. 

In 2014, it emerged that the bodies of nearly 800 babies were believed to have been interred in a concrete tank beside a former home for unmarried mothers. 

More than one in 10 children admitted to Ireland’s mother and baby homes died, the report said. 

The major causes of death were respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, an independent commission which investigated the ‘appalling’ toll said.

It added: ‘The absence of professional staff, combined with what must be acknowledged as a general indifference to the fate of the children who were born in mother and baby homes, contributed to the appalling levels of infant mortality.’

The institutions were established for unmarried women and their mothers at a time when society looked down on them.

The proportion of women admitted to such homes in Ireland was probably the highest in the world in the 20th century.

They were run by religious institutions and overseen by the Government.

Women were admitted after they had babies while unwed.

The Commission of Investigation Into Mother and Baby Homes’ report said: ‘The high rate of infant mortality (first year of life) in Irish mother and baby homes is probably the most disquieting feature of these institutions.

‘It is particularly disquieting that the high mortality rate was known to the authorities both local and national and was even described in public reports.

‘About 9,000 children died in the institutions under investigation – approximately 15% of all the children who were in the institutions.’

In one year, 1943, 75% of the children who were born or who were admitted to the Bessborough home in Cork died.

The commission said that before 1960, the homes did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children (as they were legally termed then), that children were more likely to die in the institutions than outside them.

Reviewers said Ireland was a cold harsh environment for many, probably the majority, of residents during the earlier half of the period under consideration.

The report said: ‘It was especially cold and harsh for women. All women suffered serious discrimination.

‘Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment.’

Taoiseach Micheal Martin acknowledged it was a time of societal and church pressure on unmarried mothers dating back decades.

Some pregnancies were the result of rape; some women had mental health problems, some had an intellectual disability, the Government-ordered review said.

Overcrowding probably contributed to excess mortality, the investigation found.

Women were admitted to mother and baby homes and county homes because they failed to secure the support of their family and the father of their child, the report noted.

The commission said they had no other option but to enter the institutions.

‘Their lives were blighted by pregnancy outside marriage, and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider community,’ it added.

There were about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes and local authority owned county homes investigated.

In 1921, some women ate their meals ‘squatting on the floor’ with most heating by open fire.

The food ‘was often adulterated or unfit for consumption’.

In the early decades most women who were admitted were domestic servants or farm workers or they were carrying out unpaid domestic work in their family home.

In later years, however, many of the women were clerical workers, civil servants, professional women and schoolgirls or third-level students.

The commission said: ‘Many were destitute. Women who feared the consequences of their pregnancy becoming known to their family and neighbours entered mother and baby homes to protect their privacy.

‘Some travelled to Britain, for the same reason.’

The commission made recommendations covering compensation to survivors, memorialisation and creating a central repository of the records of institutions and adoption societies so that information can be obtained from one place.

A report from an independent commission of investigation said: ‘In the years before 1960, mother and baby homes did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival.’

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said the Government-ordered report, which covers events dating back decades, describes ‘a dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history’.

The proportion of women admitted to such homes in Ireland was probably the highest in the world in the 20th century, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes said, and many of the unmarried women were denigrated.

Its review said: ‘The high rate of infant mortality raised serious questions about mother and baby homes: the large size, unqualified staff and inadequate staffing, poor management, and the limitations on the local and national authorities’ willingness and capacity to implement reforms.’

It added that infant mortality fell sharply in the late 1940s.

‘This may have removed the motivation for major reforms, which would have involved fraught negotiations with religious congregations and members of the Catholic hierarchy,’ it said.

It added: ‘There is no evidence of public concern being expressed about conditions in mother and baby homes or about the appalling mortality among the children born in these homes, even though many of the facts were in the public domain.’

The homes were largely run by religious institutions and overseen by the Government.

The Taoiseach said: ‘It holds up a mirror to aspects of our past, which are painful and difficult, and from the present-day perspective, often hard to comprehend,’ adding: ‘We treated women badly, we treated children especially badly.

‘We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy. Young mothers and their sons and daughters paid a terrible price for that dysfunction.’ 

A mother and daughter pay their respects today at a memorial for the mothers and daughters of Tuam, Co. Galway, where a mass grave of 796 babies was uncovered six years ago

A mother and daughter pay their respects today at a memorial for the mothers and daughters of Tuam, Co. Galway, where a mass grave of 796 babies was uncovered six years ago

A woman and her daughter pay their respects at the Tuam graveyard today, where the bodies of 796 babies were uncovered at the site of a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children

A woman and her daughter pay their respects at the Tuam graveyard today, where the bodies of 796 babies were uncovered at the site of a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children

The notorious Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary, which was mother and baby home operated by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary from 1930 to 1970

The notorious Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary, which was mother and baby home operated by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary from 1930 to 1970

Carmel Larkin, who was born at Tuam in 1949, remains furious at how her mother was treated.

Ms Larkin was fostered aged five and never saw her mother again. She doesn’t even have a photograph of her or know where she is buried.

Ms Larkin told Sky News: ‘Well it’s our holocaust isn’t it? They had the holocaust in Germany but the mother and baby homes were our holocaust.’ 

‘I was horrified,’ she said of the investigation into Tuam.

‘Horrified that any human being could treat babies and mothers like that. The mothers walked in here and they were sinners. To give birth to a baby is the most precious gift any woman can have.’

At another notorious home, Bessborough in County Cork, 75 percent of the children born or admitted in a single year, 1943, died.

The highest mortality rate of all the homes was at Sean Ross (1931 to 1969), in County Tipperary, where 1,090 infants out of 6,079 died – 79 percent of those fatalities were between 1932 and 1947. 

The high death rate at Sean Ross was partly attributed to infectious diseases, including diphtheria and typhoid. 

Overall the report said that the infant mortality at the homes was down to respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, despite the public attention on malnutrition.

Women were rejected by their families and forced out of their homes after falling pregnant because of the shame it brought in the devout Catholic society. 

One witness described to the Commission how her mother had ‘called her a prostitute and a whore.

‘Three of her uncles were priests and her parents were worried about how her pregnancy would affect them.

‘Both sets of parents were also very concerned about how an ‘unmarried pregnancy’ would affect the careers of the witness’s brothers.’ 

Witnesses told the Commission that labour provided sisters at the homes with a chance to ‘punish’ the unmarried mothers.

A woman who was adopted from Sean Ross said that her mother was tied to the bed while giving birth and that ‘a nun sat on her chest’ to help her push.

A woman who went to Bessborough aged 17 told the inquiry that she was terrified of one of the midwife’s.

‘She was cutting the girls down below and would tell them this is your punishment for what you have done and you are never doing this again,’ the witness said. 

Another woman at the home said that when she was sent to the local hospital to give birth she was ‘butchered’ and given no anaesthetic.

‘They just split me open to deliver the baby,’ she said. 

These photographs are the first glimpse of life inside Ireland's largest mother and baby home St. Patrick's on the Navan Road in Dublin

These photographs are the first glimpse of life inside Ireland’s largest mother and baby home St. Patrick’s on the Navan Road in Dublin

Maggie Heaton nee O'Connor aged 21. Her daughter Mary died at Tuam

Maggie Heaton nee O’Connor aged 21. Her daughter Mary died at Tuam

A woman holds a poster at a funeral procession in remembrance of the bodies of the infants discovered in a septic tank, in 2014, at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, in Dublin, Ireland October 6, 2018

A woman holds a poster at a funeral procession in remembrance of the bodies of the infants discovered in a septic tank, in 2014, at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, in Dublin, Ireland October 6, 2018

Another former Bessborough woman said that the mothers were forced to work even if they were sick.

‘It was just as if the nuns had no hearts at all,’ she said. ‘You could hear the girls crying at night. We went to bed frightened and always woke up frightened.’ 

According to a report in the BBC, one Bessborough woman named Bridget was forced to stand in the corner for hours while heavily pregnant. She gave birth to her son three weeks prematurely. 

Bridget said: ‘I still see him. His eyes were looking around. Very inquisitive, beautiful, perfect baby, blonde, blue eyes and he sort of had hair as if it was combed beautifully.’ 

She knew she would not be able to keep the baby, who she wanted to call William but the nuns insisted Gerard was a more appropriate Catholic name. 

The baby fell sick after a couple of days and Bridget was told he had been moved to the ‘dying room’. She never got to see him again as the baby was sent to hospital over two weeks after initially falling ill, where he later died.  

The new report found no evidence of sexual abuse against the women, and little evidence of physical abuse, but said that the emotional torment perpetrated against the mothers was rampant. 

In some instances the women were forced to work without pay and they lived in accommodation which was incredibly harsh even by the standards of the mid-half of the last century, with poor sanitation and little comfort.

Infants stayed at the homes for varying periods of time, before they were adopted or ‘boarded out’ – sent to local families to work on farms or in small businesses, often for little or no pay. 

The inquiry said many of the women had received no sex education, with ignorance and fear ruling over their minds after they fell pregnant.

The report found that even into the 1960s ‘girls and women were continuing to become pregnant without realising how and why.’  

These photographs are the first glimpse of life inside Ireland's largest mother and baby home St. Patrick's on the Navan Road in Dublin

These photographs are the first glimpse of life inside Ireland’s largest mother and baby home St. Patrick’s on the Navan Road in Dublin 

Historian Catherine Corless watches Taoiseach Micheal Martin speaking during a Government webinar meeting for survivors and supporters of Church-run mother and baby homes where he outlines the first look at the report by the Commission of Investigation into the institutions before it is formally published, in Tuam, Ireland, January 12, 2021

Historian Catherine Corless watches Taoiseach Micheal Martin speaking during a Government webinar meeting for survivors and supporters of Church-run mother and baby homes where he outlines the first look at the report by the Commission of Investigation into the institutions before it is formally published, in Tuam, Ireland, January 12, 2021

Baby shoes hang today from a wall at the Tuam graveyard, where the bodies of 796 babies were uncovered at the site of a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children

Baby shoes hang today from a wall at the Tuam graveyard, where the bodies of 796 babies were uncovered at the site of a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children

The 3,000-plus page report makes for difficult reading, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.

‘This was an enormous societal failure and an enormous societal shame that we have a stolen generation of children who did not get the upbringing they should have,’ he told national broadcaster RTE on Monday ahead of the publication. 

The country’s children’s minister Roderic O’Gorman said that the report makes clear there was a ‘stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture’ for decades. 

Government records show that the mortality rate for children at the homes where tens of thousands of women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth, was often more than five times that of those born to married parents.

‘My heart is breaking for every survivor,’ said Anna Corrigan, whose two brothers John and William Dolan are recorded as having died at the home for unmarried mothers in Tuam.

‘We expect, as we have always expected, truth, justice, accountability resulting in prosecutions should they arise and restitution for survivors,’ she said earlier today.

The Church ran many of Ireland’s social services in the 20th century. While run by nuns, the homes received state funding and, as adoption agencies, were also regulated by the state. 

The homes were the subject of the 2013 Oscar-nominated film Philomena, which charted the failed efforts of Philomena Lee to find the son she was forced to give up as an unwed teenager. 

At least one mother was given wrong information about where her child was buried, Ireland’s commission of investigation has said. 

A number of the unmarried mothers never spoke about this to other family members, the commission added.

It said: ‘Despite the fact that thousands of babies died, the commission is aware of only a few mothers, who were not in the institution when the child died, who subsequently sought information on the burial locations of their children.

‘At least one was given incorrect information – this was unforgivable.’

IRISH INQUIRIES INTO ALLEGED ABUSE AT CHURCH-RUN HOMES

An Irish inquiry into alarming death rates among newborns at church-run homes for unwed mothers will hand down its final report on Tuesday, laying bare one of the Catholic Church’s darkest chapters.

There have been a series of reports into allegations of abuse and mistreatment by priests and members of religious orders. Here are some details of their findings:

FERNS REPORT INTO CLERICAL SEXUAL ABUSE, OCTOBER 2005

– The first official inquiry into the activities of abusive priests – in the diocese of Ferns in County Wexford – detailed the Church’s handling of 100 allegations, including of rape, against 21 priests dating back to the mid-1960s. It found that for 20 years the bishop in charge of the rural diocese did not expel priests but simply transferred them to a different post.

COMMISSION TO INQUIRE INTO CHILD ABUSE, MAY 2009

– The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse issued a five-volume report which found that priests abused children between the 1930s and the 1970s in Catholic-run institutions. It described orphanages and industrial schools in 20th century Ireland as places of fear, neglect and endemic sexual abuse.

Generations of priests, nuns and Christian Brothers – a Catholic religious order – beat, starved and, in some cases raped, children, the inquiry found. Some of the testimonies spoke of children scavenging for food from waste bins, being flogged, scalded and held under water.

MURPHY REPORT INTO CLERICAL SEXUAL ABUSE, NOVEMBER 2009:

– The Murphy report investigated widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004 that the Church ‘obsessively’ concealed under a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ about abuse. The archdiocese was preoccupied with protecting the reputation of the Church over and above protecting children’s welfare, the report said.

CLOYNE REPORT INTO CLERICAL SEXUAL ABUSE, JULY 2011:

– The report into the handling of sex abuse claims in the County Cork diocese of Cloyne showed that senior clergy were still trying to cover up abuse allegations almost until the present day, a decade after it introduced rules to protect minors, and that the Vatican was complicit in the cover-up.

Then-Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny accused the Holy See of obstructing investigations into sexual abuse by priests. The Vatican responded by recalling its ambassador to Ireland.

MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES REPORT, FEBRUARY 2013

– An official report compiled by an inter-departmental government committee into Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries found that 10,000 women and girls, some as young as nine, were put through an uncompromising regime of unpaid work from the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 until 1996.

The report found that many of the women – some of whom were subjected to the harsh discipline of the institutions for simply becoming pregnant outside wedlock – were sent there by the Irish state.

MOTHER-AND-BABY HOME REPORT, JANUARY 2020

– Following the 2014 discovery of an unmarked grave with the remains of hundreds of babies on the grounds of a former so-called ‘mother-and-baby home’, the Irish government ordered an investigation into the treatment of children at the church homes for unmarried mothers.

The report was expected to detail a level of infant mortality far higher than the average in the country at the time and accusations of physical and emotional abuse of women and children. 

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