International Women's Issues


It’s time for another round of “what has the Catholic Church ever done for Ireland?”

Content note: child abuse, child death, birth abuse, forced adoption.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the salient points of this story which has been consuming Irish media since May — as reported by Irish and international media.

  • Amateur historian Catherine Corless investigated the local (now closed) Mother & Baby Home in her hometown of Tuam. She found that 796 children had died in the home between 1925 and 1961, but there were no records of them being buried in any local cemeteries. That’s about one child’s death every fortnight, for nearly four decades. 79% of the children did not survive to their first birthday: causes of death include whooping cough, measles, tuberculosis, and malnutrition (source: Irish Times).
  • Nobody in authority that Catherine told seemed particularly interested, until Alison O’Reilly in the Irish Mail on Sunday, prompted by a relative of one of the dead children, published the story in May following Catherine’s campaign to erect a plaque at the assumed burial site:

I couldn’t understand it. We were shocked. We expected an outrage. The only ones who were outraged seemed to be us…The mentality seemed to be: ‘That’s a long time ago, forget about it, it doesn’t matter any more.‘ – Catherine Corless, as quoted by Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian

  • In the 1970s, two boys found what looked to them like children’s skeletons in a former septic tank on the grounds of the home. It’s possible that some, most or all of the 796 missing bodies were disposed of at that site. It’s also possible that these bodies are victims of the Great Famine of the 1840s (An Gorta Mór): these skeletons have never been excavated, so it is impossible to know. There may also be other bodies in other parts of the sewage system on the former grounds of the home.
  • It’s not just those 796 children. This home in Tuam was one of many across Ireland (some of which were run by other religious denominations). Tuam’s high child mortality rates were reflected in homes across the country:

Mortality rates in Tuam were either matched or exceeded by homes elsewhere in the country — at Pelletstown in Cabra, Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, and Bessborough in Cork, for example. – Sinéad O’Shea in The Guardian

  • This was known about at the highest levels of Irish government, again for decades. Here is an extract from Irish parliamentary records from 1934:

From the Registrar-General’s Report for 1924, it appears that one in every three illegitimate children born alive in 1924 died within one year of its birth, and that the mortality amongst these children is about five times as great as in other cases. It is high for many reasons, but there is one to which we wish specially to refer. The illegitimate child being proof of the mother’s shame is, in most cases, sought to be hidden at all costs….the results to the child can be read in the mortality rates. – Registration of Maternity Homes Bill, 1934—Second Stage. Wednesday, 7 February 1934. (via Elaine Byrne)

and 1936:

the infantile death-rate is three-and-a-half times as great in the case of illegitimate children as in the case of legitimate children….I suggest the difficulty is not ante-natal but is rather post-natal, that is, the lack of care given to the illegitimate child compared with that given to the child that is more welcome….It is a disgrace to a civilised country, and to a Christian country like this, that three-and-a-half times more illegitimates are condemned to death in the first year of their existence than legitimate children. – Dr. Rowlette, TD. (via Elaine Byrne)

  • In the 1940s, the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera was informed of the shocking infant mortality rates in Bessborough, recalled in his memoirs by one doctor:

I found that in the previous year some 180 babies had been born there and that considerably more than 100 had died…It was a beautiful institution, built on to a lovely old house just before the war, and seemed to be well-run and spotlessly clean. I marched up and down and around about and could not make out what was wrong; at last I took a notion and stripped all the babies… Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up…Without any legal authority I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer. The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing. – Dr Deeny, as quoted by the Irish Mirror in 2013.

  • When they survived, children from these “homes” were often sold abroad (particularly to Americans) and some also had their adoptions falsified: their adoptive parents appearing on their birth certificates instead of their birth mothers. This seems to have been done by those running the homes, local police, legal professionals, and others:

Thirty years after her son was sent to the United States from Manor House mother-and-baby home, in Castlepollard [Co. Westmeath, Republic of Ireland], Pat Thuillier (née Eyres) obtained the two “relinquishing” forms she had supposedly signed at the time. One had been used by the nuns to obtain a passport for her son from the Department of External Affairs and the other to convince an American court that she consented to her son’s adoption there.
But the signatures on the two forms were radically different. One, at least, was a forgery. Both were notarised, on the same day, by the same solicitor. – Mike Milotte, The Irish Times

  • If they remained in the homes, children were shunned by the community.

They were treated differently, went home earlier, and were all shipped off to an industrial school when they were around seven years old. – Catherine Corless

People remember being told by the nuns that they would be put beside a home baby if they didn’t behave themselves. They openly displayed that these children were different. It was an open form of humiliation. They were born illegitimate, therefore they were bad. – Catherine Corless, as quoted by Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian

  • Women were also mistreated at homes like this, before, during and after having their babies. June Goulding was a midwife in the Bessborough home in 1951 (after the home had been closed by Dr Deeny, it reopened). Her memoir recalls:

When [she] asked why she could not access needles to stitch women who had been torn during childbirth, she was told she was not allowed to open the cabinet. “I’m afraid, nurse, the key to that cabinet has never been handed over. Girls must suffer their pain and put up with the pain of being torn — she [the nun] says they should atone for their sin.”

Girls in poverty, who could not afford to make donations to the Sacred Heart order, had to spend another three years after their babies were born cleaning and working on the lands around the Cork city home to “make amends” for their pregnancy. Such work often included cutting the home’s “immaculate lawns” on their hands and knees — with a pair of scissors…. Only those from moneyed families who could afford to pay £100 were allowed to leave after 10 days, but many had nowhere to go.

Source: Irish Examiner.

The Irish government has promised an enquiry into the deaths in all such homes.



6 replies on “#800deadbabies”

I am appalled beyond words but not surprised. As an American Irish (former) Catholic, I saw echoes of this type of cruelty and evil in Irish Catholics here, including in the nuns who taught at my high school. It’s why I left the faith and could never return. The poison runs deep.

I grew up in Ireland in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and while I can fault my Catholic schooling for lots of things (hello, laughable sex ed) I am very conscious I only experienced the very last remnants of the cruelty that my parents and grandparents regarded as normal. Anecdotally it seems to have lasted a little longer in the Irish diaspora abroad than it did at home.

It’s really scary that chapters like this in a country’s history can be pushed down and, if not hidden, then tacitly not discussed, for so very long. Abuses against whole classes of people happened out in plain sight not yet 100 years ago, in Ireland and all over the world (oh hey, eugenics, the part of US history that was conveniently never mentioned in history class). But somehow, we still depend on that intrepid, vocal minority to drag these things out into the light. It’s a damned good thing those intrepid people are there.

Isnt’ it? There was an interview with veteran abortion activist Ann Rossiter recently, and she said much the same thing in relation to Irish women travelling to England for abortions:

nobody knew, but when it comes down to it, deep down everyone knows

Of course it’s all part of the same spectrum of shame and misogyny.

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