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5-year investigation finds at least 9,000 children died in Ireland's mother and baby homes

Infant human remains were located during an excavation at Sean Ross mother and baby home, but appear to have been buried in coffins, unlike at Tuam.

A Mother and Baby Home protest outside Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin in 2020.
A Mother and Baby Home protest outside Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin in 2020.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

A STATE APOLOGY, redress and access to their birth information should be given to survivors of mother and baby homes, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation has recommended.

The commission’s long-awaited final report – which can be read here – was published today.

The document, spanning 2,865 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 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.”

It also confirms that infant human remains were located during an excavation at Sean Ross home in Co Tipperary. 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 Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home was in operation from 1931 to 1969 and operated under the care of the Order of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

The report states: “All individuals were less than one years old. The skeletal remains of 21 individuals were uncovered in situ. 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.

“Coffins or evidence of coffins were located with the majority of skeletal remains (84%). Burials appear to have some organisation, in terms of layout, and there appears also to be concentrations of interments in particular locations within the burial ground.”

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.”

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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 concludes.

‘Highest number in the world’ 

There were about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes and county homes investigated by the Commission, the report notes. The greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The Commission states that it is likely that there were a further 25,000 unmarried mothers and a larger number of children in the county homes which were not investigated; admissions to county homes were largely pre-1960.

“While mother and baby homes were not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the twentieth century was probably the highest in the world.”

The women who were admitted to mother and baby homes ranged in age from 12 years old to women in their 40s. However, 80% were aged between 18 and 29 years and this was “remarkably consistent across the larger mother and baby homes”.

Recommendations and redress

In terms of redress, the report notes that redress “can be financial or can be in the form of enhanced services”.

The Commission considers that “services such as counselling and enhanced medical cards should be made available to those former residents who need them”.

“It also wishes to make clear that many, probably most, former residents are managing their lives very well and it should not be assumed that they are in need of dedicated State support. A number of former residents have also expressed the view that an apology would be appropriate.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is expected to deliver a State apology in the Dáil tomorrow.

The Commission states that any decision on financial redress is “a matter for government”.

The Commission “recognises that it is not possible to provide financial redress for all the wrongs that occurred in the past (or, indeed, that are currently occurring)”.

“It is arguable, for example, that unmarried mothers, who were not in mother and baby homes and who reared their children without any financial assistance from the State, have as good a case for redress as unmarried mothers who were in mother and baby homes paid for by the State.”

The report notes that the State has previously paid out compensation to the survivors of industrial institutions and Magdalene Laundries.

“The State does have an obligation not to discriminate between people in similar situations. Financial redress has been awarded in the past to a number of groups. If redress is being considered for former residents of mother and baby homes, the relevant comparable redress schemes are the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme (RIRS) (for the children) and the Magdalen laundries scheme (for the mothers),” the report states.

Information and tracing

Records examined by the Commission show that between 1922 and 1998, 1,638 children who were resident in mother and baby homes and the four county homes under investigation were placed for foreign adoption.

The vast majority, 1,427, were placed for adoption to the United States.

A Passport Office record was found for 1,266 of the children placed for foreign adoption. A passport would not have been needed in respect of the 188 children who went to the UK.

A Passport Office record was found for an additional 265 children who were in the institutions but were not recorded as placed for adoption.

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The report notes that private adoption placements were not illegal in Ireland until the late 1990s but such practices “facilitated illegal registrations of birth”. In many cases, a person’s adopted parents were listed as their birth parents on the cert.

The Commission states that adopted people should have the right to access their birth certificates and associated birth information. If needed, a referendum on this should take place, the report notes.

“There should be such a right even though it is acutely conscious of the concerns expressed by some birth mothers about this.

“If, as seems likely, a referendum is required to allow for the necessary legislation, then one should be held.”

The report states: “A person’s right to his or her identity is an important human right and should only be denied in very exceptional circumstances. Medical information and adoption records compiled at the time of the adoption should also be available.

“A mechanism could be put in place to allow a birth mother to argue that her privacy rights are being eroded. This could be done through in-camera proceedings in the Circuit Court.

“Both the birth parent(s) and the adopted person should have the right to legal representation and legal aid should be provided for all parties if required.

“The Commission also considers that there should be a central repository of the records of institutions and adoption societies so that information can be obtained from one place.

“The Commission’s database of individuals compiled from the institutional records of the various institutions could be expanded by adding further records to it – see below for further recommendations on records.”

Criticism of Tusla

The report notes that many of the former residents who came to the Commission were “very critical of the information and tracing arrangements in place”.

“There has been quite vitriolic criticism of the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) and its approach to providing information to adopted people. This criticism is unfair and misplaced. Tusla is implementing the law and has no choice about doing so. The problem is not with Tusla; it is with the law.”

The report notes that, under current legislation, adopted people do not have a right to access their original birth certificate nor do they have the right to access information on their families of origin.

“It is clear to the Commission that many adopted people think there is considerably more information about them in institutional and other records than is actually the case. Having examined the available records closely, the Commission knows that the information is very limited in most cases.

“The quantity and quality of the available information is not, of course, relevant to the issue of whether or not there should be a right of access.”

The Commission states it “is aware that this matter has been under consideration by a succession of governments since the 1990s” and “attempts to legislate for this right have, so far, failed”.

The Commission understands that the Attorney General has advised that it was constitutionally unacceptable to allow unrestricted access to birth information for adopted people. The current government and Minister O’Gorman have committed to introducing such legislation,” the report notes.

Such legislation is expected to be debated in the Oireachtas this year.

Burial issues 

As was previously flagged by the Commission in its interim reports, it encountered “major issues” in relation to burials at homes in Bessborough in Cork and Tuam in Galway, and a lack of relevant documents.

More than 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from the home in question.

Despite “very extensive inquiries and searches”, the Commission has been able to establish the burial place of only 64 children.

The burial places of more than 800 babies and children who died while they were residents of Bessborough are therefore unknown, with the Commission concluding that it is likely some of them were buried in unmarked graves.

The Commission considers it “highly likely” that some of these children were buried on the campus, which at one stage extended over 200 acres. However, it does not believe they were buried on the site where planning permission was recently submitted for an apartment complex.

“The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who owned and ran Bessborough do not know where the other children are buried.

“The burials of children who died in the three Sacred Heart Homes (Bessborough, Castlepollard and Sean Ross) are not recorded at all. More importantly, there is no certainty about where they are buried,” the Commission previously noted.

In the final report, the Commission says 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 report notes that although the number of infant deaths recorded in Bessborough during the 1920s was relatively low, mortality rates were relatively high.

“For instance, the 16 deaths among infants born in 1926 represented an infant mortality rate of almost 46%. The infant mortality rate decreased to 13.6% in 1930 but increased incrementally from 1931.

“Infant mortality peaked in 1943 at 75.19%: for every 100 babies born in, or admitted to, Bessborough that year, 75 subsequently died in infancy. Infant mortality rates fell to just over 12% in 1946 and continued a downward trend.

“By 1952 the infant mortality rate stood at 2.15%. In the years 1958-60 infant mortality increased to around 10%: representing nine deaths on average in these years. The mortality rate decreased to around 2% in 1961 and remained in this low range until the closure of the home in 1998.”

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Information relating to the age on death was available for 899 children.

Over 96% died in infancy as follows: 13.68% died in the perinatal period (0-7 days); 8.79% died in the neonatal period (8-28 days) and 73.86% died aged 29-365 days. The remaining 3.67% died in childhood aged between 366 days and five years.

Tuam

The Commission was set up following claims that up to 800 babies were interred in an unmarked mass grave at a former Bon Secours home in Tuam, Co Galway – following on from extensive research carried out by amateur historian Catherine Corless.

Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 found a significant quantity of human remains, aged from 35 foetal weeks to two to three years, interred in a vault on the site.

The Commission identified 978 child deaths associated with the Tuam home, including those which occurred when the home was located in Glenamaddy.

Child deaths include children who died in the Tuam home, children who were admitted to Tuam and died elsewhere (generally children transferred to the Central Hospital, Galway) and children who were never admitted to the Tuam home, but whose mothers were resident there prior to giving birth (generally after transfer to the Central Hospital, Galway).

The Commission located GRO death records for 972 children (99.4% of child deaths).

Most child deaths recorded in Tuam occurred before 1950; 92.6% of deaths occurred between 1921-50. Child deaths spiked in 1926 (41 deaths) and in 1936 (51 deaths).

The worst period, however, was from 1942-47 – 305 child deaths, almost one in three of all child deaths recorded in Tuam occurred over those six years.

The available records show that 79% of deaths occurred among ‘illegitimate’ children and 11% occurred among ‘legitimate’ children – status at birth could not be established in relation to the remaining 10% of child deaths.

Screenshot 2021-01-12 at 12.39.06

Analysis by decade shows that more child deaths (43.5%) occurred in the 1940s than any other decade followed by the 1930s (29.2%); 1920s (18.1%); 1950s (9%) and 1960 (0.2%).

The Commission established that the memorial garden on the site of the former Tuam home contains human remains which date from the period of the home’s operation and considers it likely that a large number of the children who died in the Tuam home are buried there.

Evidence of physical but not sexual abuse

In terms of abuse, the report states that the commission did not hear “any evidence of sexual abuse of child residents”, but did hear “some evidence of physical abuse which, while unacceptable, was minor in comparison to the evidence of physical abuse documented in the Ryan Report”.

“There is evidence of emotional abuse; however, it would appear that the abuse suffered by, for example, former Tuam child residents, came, at least as much if not more, from local residents and other school going children as from the institution itself.

“The major abuse suffered by former Tuam child residents came when boarded out,” the report states.

Social history

The report also discusses the social history of the homes and notes: “The story of mother and baby homes in Ireland is complex.”

“The Commission’s Terms of Reference cover the period 1922 – 1998, a span of 76 years. There was great change in that period: massive improvements in living conditions and changes in attitudes to religion and morals.

“The experience of women and children in the 1920s was vastly different from the experience in the 1990s regardless of where they lived.”

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The report notes that Ireland was “a cold harsh environment for many, probably the majority, of its residents during the earlier half of the period under remit”.

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. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families.

“It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the families provided no refuge at all.”

The report notes that improvements in society generally and in the institutions “came gradually”.

“Significant changes included the introduction of free post-primary education in the 1960s and the changes consequent on membership of the then EEC from 1973. 1973 also saw the introduction of the Unmarried Mother’s Allowance; this was the first time a direct State payment was available to assist an unmarried woman to rear her child in the community.”

Underage girls

Some 5,616 residents, 11.4% of the total for whom information about their age is available, were under 18. The Commission did not see evidence that the gardaí were routinely notified about pregnancies in girls.

The number of admissions among women under 18 rose sharply in the early 1960s and it remained at a high level for the next two decades.

While Pelletstown, followed by Bessborough, accounted for the largest number of admissions of women under 18 years of age, Dunboyne was the mother and baby home with the highest proportion of women under 18 years – 23.4% of total admissions.

The report notes that “some pregnancies were the result of rape; some women had mental health problems, some had an intellectual disability”.

However, the majority were indistinguishable from most Irish women of their time. The only difference between the women in mother and baby homes and their sisters, classmates and work companions was that they became pregnant while unmarried. Their lives were blighted by pregnancy outside marriage, and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider community.

The Commission states that there is “no evidence that women were forced to enter mother and baby homes by the church or State authorities”.

“Most women had no alternative. Many pregnant single women contacted the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH), later the Department of Health, their local health authority, or a Catholic charity seeking assistance because they had nowhere to go and no money.

“Women were brought to mother and baby homes by their parents or other family members without being consulted as to their destination,” the report notes.

Women were generally 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”.

“They were forced to leave home, and seek a place where they could stay without having to pay. 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.”

Government reaction 

Speaking about the report, Minister O’Gorman said: “The publication of the Commission’s report is a landmark moment for the Irish State.

“The Commission’s investigation reveals the truth of what happened, within the walls of Mother and Baby Homes and beyond them, to many thousands of women and children. Importantly, it also inscribes for posterity, those journeys, those heartbreaks, those truths in the words of those who experienced them first-hand.

“The report makes clear that for decades, Ireland had a stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture, where a pervasive stigmatisation of unmarried mothers and their children robbed those individuals of their agency and sometimes their future.

“Publication of the Commission’s report is an expression of truth. For decades, Irish society was defined by its silence, and, in that, its complicity in what was done to some of our most vulnerable citizens. With its publication, we are affirming that their stories and their truth, will be heard, acknowledged and understood.”

Over the weeks and months ahead, the Government said it “will give very careful and detailed consideration to the report”.

It will do so with a view to developing a comprehensive Government Action Plan spanning eight themes, as follows:

  • A survivor-centred approach
  • Apology
  • Access to Personal Information
  • Archiving and Databases
  • Education and Research
  • Memorialisation
  • Restorative Recognition
  • Dignified Burial

Counselling supports have also been put in place for survivors. 

The National Counselling Service will provide therapy for survivors, either face-to-face, by telephone or online through secure video. Former residents may arrange counselling sessions by direct self-referral or by written referrals from health care professionals such as GPs.

An out-of-hours service, Connect Counselling, is also available to provide support and is currently providing an enhanced service from 6pm to 10pm seven days a week.

More information on the services can be read here.

We’ll be covering what’s in the final report today – on the site and on Twitter (follow @orlaryan  and @conalthomas for updates). If you or a relative spent time in a mother and baby home or county home and would like to share your experience, please email orla@thejournal.ie or conal@thejournal.ie.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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