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Commission finds remains of at least 42 infants in burial plot of former mother and baby home

6,414 women were admitted to Sean Ross Abbey and 6,079 children were born or admitted there between 1931 and 1969.
Jan 12th 2021, 3:22 PM 23,878 36

file-photo-philomena-lee-has-called-for-mother-and-baby-homes-survivors-to-be-paid-compensation-ahead-of-the-publication-of-the-report-tomorrow-end Philomena Lee, who was resident at Sean Ross Abbey in the early 1950, at a private memorial for her son Anthony Lee (Michael Hess) who was lost to her by forced adoption in the mid-1950s. Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

THE REMAINS OF at least 42 infants buried at the site of the former Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co Tipperary have been located as part of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

These remains appear to have been buried in coffins, unlike the situation at Tuam in Co Galway where bodies were found in a chamber of a disused septic tank.

The Commission’s final report, spanning just under 3,000 pages, details the experiences of women and children who lived in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes – a sample of the overall number of homes – between 1922 and 1998.

It also examines living conditions and mortality among mothers and babies as well as post-mortem practices. 

Today’s report confirms that about 9,000 children died in the 18 homes under investigation – about 15% of all the children who were in the institutions.

The report notes: “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. The very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.”

While the Commission found a number of burials at the Sean Ross site “there is very little extra known to [it] about infant burials” at the mother and baby homes examined, it concluded, with the exception of Tuam in Co Galway.

The Mother and Baby Homes in Bessborough, Castlepollard and Sean Ross were owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Unlike Pelletstown and Tuam, they were not local authority owned.

As part of its investigation, the Commission had previously noted that there was a designated burial plot on the grounds of Sean Ross mother and baby home, which opened in 1931 and closed in 1969. As part of its report, 10% of the burial ground was excavated. 

Following concerns raised about the burials, the Commission decided to undertake a study and subsequently a test excavation of the site, which was completed in September 2019, to find out if children were buried at the site and if their remains were disturbed by later drainage works. 

Seven trenches were opened during the test excavation, representing about 10% of the total available area within the designated burial ground.

Buried infant remains were located during the excavation, the Commission’s report notes. All individuals were less than one year old.

The skeletal remains of 21 individuals were uncovered while the remains of a further 11 coffins, indicating undisturbed burials, were evident.

Four potential grave cuts were also identified and at least six individuals were identified through “disarticulated skeletal remains.”

“Therefore, the potential minimum number of possible individuals identified through the test excavation was 42,” the Commission notes. 

Screenshot 2021-01-12 at 13.01.35 - Display 2 Plan drawing of Trench 6 of 7 at Sean Ross burial ground.

The burials at Sean Ross “appear to have some organisation” in terms of layout with coffins or evidence of coffins located with the majority of the remains. 

“The logical assumption is that these are intact burials,” according to the archaeological report, which can be read on P. 2,178 of the Commission’s final report. 

No coffin or name-plates were identified. 

Radiocarbon dating of 13 samples of skeletal remains provided estimated dates of death for those individuals in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the time of the operation of the mother and baby home in Sean Ross.

“There can be little doubt that they are the remains of children who died in Sean Ross,” the Commission’s report notes.

“Without complete excavation it is not possible to say conclusively that all of the children who died in Sean Ross are buried in the designated burial ground. The Commission does not consider that further investigation is warranted.”

Infant mortality 

In its report, the Commission states that 6,414 women were admitted to Sean Ross and 6,079 children were born or admitted there between 1931 and 1969. 

It was owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

The local health board paid for the vast majority of the mothers and their children while they were living in Sean Ross but there were a small number of ‘private’ patients, according to the Commission. 

Overcrowding was a serious issue at the home throughout its existence, the Commission’s report shows. 

Despite being closed to further admissions in 1945, a further 219 women were admitted that year. 

Admissions began to increase from 1961 and 182 women on average were admitted annually in the years 1962-69. Most women sent to Sean Ross were aged between 17 and 30. 

The institutional records show that 89.4% of women admitted to Sean Ross stayed and gave birth there.

As part of its work, the Commission identified 37 deaths among women at Sean Ross. 

The institutional records show that 1,090 children born in or admitted to Sean Ross died in infancy or early childhood.

“These deaths include children who died in the institution, children who died in hospital following their transfer from Sean Ross and children born to women who had been resident in Sean Ross but gave birth outside the institution,” the Commission notes. 

Most infant mortality at Sean Ross occurred between 1932 and 1947. 

Of the infant deaths recorded at Sean Ross, over one-third died in infancy. A majority of deaths were medically certified as ‘respiratory infections’, mainly pneumonia, bronchitis and atelectasis. 

Screenshot 2021-01-12 at 12.27.14 - Display 2 (1)

‘Humiliation and shame’ 

The Commission received sworn statements from a number of survivors who lived at Sean Ross mother and baby home. 

One mother, resident at the home in the early 1950s, became pregnant at 18 and was living with her aunt at the time who, when she found out the woman was pregnant, took her to a doctor who recommended she be admitted to Sean Ross. 

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She was seven months pregnant when she entered the home. 

I slept in a large dormitory with other women and girls some of whom were pregnant and others who had already had their babies. Most of my memories have been blocked out over the years but I recall being cold at night and that the clothes they gave us to wear were cold and scratchy. No one had any privacy at all. I cannot remember what the food was like, however, I have an abiding memory of always being hungry.

The woman worked at the laundry attached to Sean Ross and described the regime at the home as ”

home as “pretty severe but she didn’t receive any punishments”.

She stated that on one occasion she was forced to “go down on my knees” to publicly apologise to a nun. This was “just another part of the humiliation and shame” she was subjected to every day, the Commission’s report notes. 

The nuns constantly reminded her that she had “committed a mortal sin” and that “her shame would be eternal”. 

The woman was given a ‘house name’ and said there was no doctor present during her labour and no pain relief given. 

Her labour was “agonising in accordance with the principle that we had to suffer for our sins,” her testimony states. 

She gave birth to a healthy boy and spent eight weeks in the maternity hospital looking after her son and breastfeeding him. 

She later signed a consent to adoption form but not was not given time to read the document and “did what she was told”. 

When [the baby] was three and a half years old, he was taken away for adoption. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye but the same kind nun, Sister Annunciata, informed me that he was leaving, and I ran upstairs and looked out of the window and saw him getting into a car. There was no discussion about it in advance and I was given no information afterwards other than that he had gone. Being parted from him broke my heart.

The woman decided that she would try to contact her son in 2003 when she was 70 years old. She contacted Sister Sarto at the former Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork who told her that her son had been adopted in America but had since died.

Bessborough Burials 

In its 3rd interim report, the Commission previously noted that it had difficulties finding out more about the burial arrangements in a number of different institutions due to a lack of burial records. 

However, the commission found no physical or documentary evidence of systematic burials in the grounds of Bessborough. It also previously said it did not consider it feasible to excavate the full 60 acres involved, let alone the rest of the 200-acre estate on which there has been extensive building work since the institution closed.

It is still not known where the vast majority of the children who died in Bessborough, Co Cork, run by the same order at Sean Ross, are buried. 

More than 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough. Despite very extensive inquiries and searches, the Commission was able to establish the burial place of only 64 children.

In its final report published today, the Commission said “it remains perplexed and concerned at the inability of any member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to identify the burial place of the children who died in Bessborough.

“The concern of the congregation about marking the graves of the children who died in Castlepollard does not seem to have applied to the children who died in Bessborough.”

The Commission spent considerable time and resources trying to establish the burial places of more than 1,400 infants and children who died either in Cork County Home/St Finbarr’s Hospital or the Bessborough Home/Sacred Heart Maternity Hospital between 1922 and 1998.

The Commission was able to identify the burial places of 101 infants who died in one or other of these institutions.

“While most burial places were confirmed by an actual burial record (mainly in the 1920s) others were identified through disparate historical sources created by Cork health authorities or hospital personnel,” the Commission states.

“Given the burial practices adopted by maternity hospitals in Cork in the mid to late twentieth century, the Commission considers the task of locating the burial places of the remaining 1,300 plus infants and children who died in Cork County Home/St Finbarr’s Hospital and the Bessborough Home/Sacred Heart Maternity Hospital to be a difficult one.”

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Cónal Thomas

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