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Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley: The story of Derek Leinster and the Bethany Home tells us we have more to learn

NUIG historian Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley says the recent Commission report into mother and baby homes needed to have a deeper look at Protestant institutions and the neglect of children like Derek.

Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley

DEREK LEINSTER WAS born in the Bethany Home, Dublin in 1941.

For the past 30 years, he has campaigned tirelessly for the inclusion of Bethany and other Protestant institutions into State inquiries and redress schemes.

It would be hard to have studied or engaged with the history and experience of Ireland’s institutions without knowing Derek.

He is a gentleman with a determination that would be difficult to match. He has written two books, has advocated, and fought continuously for Protestant survivors of institutional abuse and deserves far more than he has received regarding State reactions and assistance.

Since the late 2000s, he has worked with Dr Niall Meehan, who leads Griffith College Dublin’s Journalism and Media Faculty.

In 2010, Dr Meehan researched and reported on 219 Bethany Home Children buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery between 1922 and 1949 (Church & State and The Bethany).

The research then broadened out to incorporate the experience of children in the Westbank Orphanage and those under the auspices of the Nurse Rescue Society that was part of the Magdalene Asylum.

The Nichols Ledgers

I have known Derek for the past two years. He asked for assistance in analysing a further archival source he became aware of, the ledgers from the Nichols Funeral Directors.

The ledgers further demonstrate and quantify the deaths of infants, children, and women in the Bethany Home, as well as the importance of looking at children ‘placed at nurse’ and connections with other institutions including Magdalene Laundries and so-called ‘private maternity homes’ and hostels.

As a result, myself and NUI Galway PhD student Jamie Canavan compiled a database extracting details from the files.

Established in 1814, Nichols is the oldest undertaker business in Dublin City. With its base on Lombard East Street, the seventh-generation family business is currently run by Gus Nichols and in the nineteenth/early twentieth century, the business often catered for Protestant funerals.

The books are currently being digitised by archivists in the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway before they will be transferred to Trinity College Dublin.

Credit must be given to Gus Nichols for allowing access to these private records which are a key source when looking at infant and maternal mortality in Dublin City.

He has stated “the Company felt it was important that the ledgers be reviewed by professional archivists and historians. If any good has come or will come from this in the future, then it was the right thing for us to do.” 

In June 2019, I wrote to the Commission to inform them of the existence of the books and what we had ascertained to date. They did not ask to examine them. Derek Leinster also informed the Commission but to no avail.  

So why are the books important? Well as a historical source, they show several key things. They demonstrate who paid for the funeral, and in many cases, the Bethany Home paid for the funerals of children placed at nurse – i.e., sent to local families to be ‘cared for’ for a few shillings per week.

Similarly, they demonstrate that the ‘private maternity homes’ that are addressed in Chapter 2 of the Commission’s report but were outside of the Terms of Reference are central to this narrative. And survivors of these institutions, such as Westbank Orphanage, should have been considered by the commission.  

What the commission says

The commission’s report published last Tuesday, 12 January 2021 states that from 1922-1971, 1,584 women and 1,376 children went through this institution.

The average length of stay was 154 days, and this fluctuated between 300 days on average for women admitted in 1953 to 62 days on average for women admitted in 1969.

As has been well cited, in 1943, 62% of infants in Bethany died under the age of 1 years old.  

The commission states that ‘a total of 262 children associated with Bethany died; 61% of child deaths occurred between 1937 and 1947’.

Niall Meehan and Derek, incorporating research by John Thompson, a survivor of Miss Carr’s Home, dispute these figures.

Meehan and Thompson have identified 278 deaths of Bethany children and suggest that continuing research may reveal yet more. When considered with the Nichols ledgers there is strong evidence to support their view. 

We know from the report and from existing academic work by Meehan that within this network of Protestant institutions, a hierarchy of class and ‘respectability’ existed. This can be seen when comparing the Bethany Home to the Magdalene Asylum.

The board of governesses deemed the women at the Magdalene Asylum to have been more respectable than the women entering the Bethany Home and a step above in terms of class.

To enter the Magdalene Asylum, it needed to be the woman’s first pregnancy, in some instances the governesses requested medical certificates to prove that this was indeed the woman’s ‘first fall.’ 

Back to Derek and why, as a historian of institutions his personal story, testimony and tenacity is so central.

At seven months old, Derek was placed at nurse.

Those of us that have studied children placed at nurse know how badly many were treated. Yet they were left out of the Terms of Reference for the report, as were all but 14 so called mother and baby homes and a sample of four county homes (previously the workhouses prior to 1925). 

When back in the Bethany Home Derek became seriously unwell, and in 1944 he was sent to Cork Street Isolation Hospital near the point of death with Bronchial Pneumonia, Diptheria, Pertussis, Enteritis.

He was ‘adopted’ (adoption was not legal until 1953) by a Protestant family in Wicklow at the age of four, but they did not care for him and he was severely neglected.

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He has lived his entire life with the effects of neglect and abuse from his childhood years. In addition to his autobiographies, Derek is the founder of The Bethany Home Survivors Group.

Derek’s testimony, and that of other former Bethany residents, broadens our understanding of social control of women and of their ‘illegitimate’ children.

The Roman Catholic Church was one agency of control but so too were other Christian denominations, acting on behalf of a patriarchal state determined to uphold the institution of marriage using coercive measures.

Institutions such as Miss Carr’s and Westbank Orphanage deserve our attention and hopefully future access to records and acknowledgement of the survivors from these institutions will be a feature of the State’s response. 

Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley is an internationally recognised scholar in the field of modern Irish social history, particularly in the fields of Irish gender history and the history of childhood and child welfare. She is a lecturer at NUI Galway. Dr Buckley wrote The Cruelty Man: Child Welfare, the NSPCC and the State in Ireland, 1889-1956 and is Co-PI of the Tuam Oral History Project.

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Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley

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