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Dublin: 2 °C Sunday 15 December, 2019
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"Cold, uncaring, uncivilised": The mother-and-child home where 222 babies died

The Bethany Home is to be investigated by the Government’s Commission for Investigation into mother-and-baby homes.

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CONVULSIONS. MALNUTRITION. DELICACY.

Babies died at the Bethany Home in Dublin’s Rathgar for a raft of reasons. Some, like Victory (1924) and Addison (1925), were stillborn.

Others, like Patricia Bass and Eleanor Allen, who died within a day of each other in February 1925, aged four months and five weeks respectively, died of ‘general debility’.

Evelyn Dixon was six weeks old when she died on 3 October 1926. The cause of death was marked as ‘syphilis’.

Charles Heffernon was 18 months old when he died of German measles on 17 May 1924 at the home. In 1935, both Margaret McKnight (three months) and Helen Parker (two-and-a-half months) died of ‘stomach trouble’ on the same day: 15 November.

June Spence lived for just six weeks before she died of marasmus (malnutrition) in the Bethany Home.

Buried in unmarked graves

Graveyards Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

The list goes on. And on, and on. 222 names of children who died far too young at a home that was for Protestant mothers who had found themselves, in the parlance of the day, ‘in trouble’.

Their children were sent for adoption to Northern Ireland, England, and the United States. Some of the women at the home weren’t pregnant, but had been convicted of crimes or were sex workers.

The full list of the deaths was collated by Niall Meehan, head of the Journalism and Media Faculty at Griffith College, Dublin, who discovered them during his research into the home.

The children, who died between 1922 and 1949, were all buried in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin’s Harold’s Cross area. In April of this year, on a grey and drizzly day, a memorial to these babies was unveiled in the cemetery.

Present were some of the children who were born at Bethany Home, and lived.

They survived, but their lives were not all full of health and happiness. Derek Leinster is one of the survivors, and has spent almost all of his time over the past number of years trying to get recognition for what he and his fellow Bethany children went through.

What the survivors want

Leinster, Niall and the Bethany Survivors Campaign members wanted a memorial to the lost children not just to mark their deaths, but to show they had a family, a family who may not know they existed.

A family that might uncover their existence now.

The memorial was paid for by the Government, after years of campaigning. It was part of an agreement by the government to fund a memorial and look into making records related to the home available to survivors.

What the Government did not agree to, and which the survivors are still looking for, is redress: financial compensation for what they went through at the home.

They were told by Alan Shatter, in his former position as Justice Minister, that “Government has decided that it is not appropriate that a scheme be put in place for Bethany Home”.

This caused grave disappointed to the survivors, but they continue to campaign for redress. “The fight isn’t over,” Leinster said last July, when the announcement was made.

Bethany Home was not included in the 2002 Residential Institutions Redress scheme as the women were said to be there voluntarily, and it was also not part of the recent Magdalene redress scheme.

It was one of almost 20 homes and institutions that were not deemed eligible for inclusion, such as the Bessborough home in Cork.

Earlier this week, the Children’s Minister Charlie Flanagan said that Bethany Home will be included in the Government’s Commission of Investigation into mother-and-baby homes in Ireland.

Ireland’s treatment of unmarried mothers

With the uncovering of the deaths of hundreds of babies at a mother-and-baby home in Tuam, the topic of Ireland’s treatment of unmarried mothers and their children is on the public agenda.

For Leinster, the story “wasn’t any real big news to me”. Not because he didn’t care, but because he had already heard, “years ago” about the home in Tuam.

In one way, it served to underline what he and his fellow Bethany survivors already knew: that mother-and-baby homes were not always safe spaces for children.

It also underlined how the Bethany Home story had not been acknowledged by international media.

“What was big news to me was how the media ran with it,” said Leinster. “It looked as if there was a chance that it may help a lot of survivors and rightly so. There should be proper respect given to those situations in Tuam, and there should be a proper investigation into it.”

He believes those responsible for what happened in Tuam – if they are still alive – “should be rounded up, banks frozen, and arrested and taken before a court”. To him, what happened is similar to a war crime: “In this case, crimes committed against children by religious vested interests, aided and abetted by a State.”

He feels ashamed about what happened in Tuam, about how the children were treated once they had died. He is “sickened” by the notion of unmarked graves for dead babies born ‘out of wedlock’.

I just don’t know how a State could ever square this,” he said. “And how they could hold their heads up at international levels and say ‘we are civilised’. It is beyond belief.

The Bethany Home children were generally Protestant (it was an evangelical Protestant home), and the survivors feel that as a religious minority they were treated differently.

“We were a double unwanted minority,” said Leinster.

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Leinster is worried about justice, and whether people who were in Protestant homes like Bethany, Westbank Orphanage and the Dennan Home, will get justice.

“Are we a lesser people? Do we count for less? That’s the question the State and media has to ask itself in Ireland today,” said Leinster.

What I’m hoping for is the State will do the right thing now and not wait for anything. We are ready to go to court at any time. We have made our case to take them to court, to prove I was treated wrong.

Not a home, but an ‘uncaring place’

Leinster believes the Bethany Home “would have been exactly as near as any other [such] home in Ireland, irrespective of if it was Tuam or anywhere else”. He believes the word ‘home’, when used in this context, is an oxymoron.

“It was a cold, uncaring, uncivilised place and a place where ‘home’ is a contradiction to the word. Normally if you say ‘home’ it means comfort, it means protection. None of that was there. It should have been called a concentration camp, or a prison of some sort for children.”

Leinster is hoping “the State will do the right thing now and not wait for anything”. But he’s cautious. “I’ve been here before.”

I am in a fight. The ref hasn’t called time – until the ref says stop boxing, I have to keep my guard up.

Read: Bethany Home survivors call for cross-border investigation into neglect>

Column: I’m a Bethany Home survivor and, at 74 years old, I’m finally happy>

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