State must apologise for dire conditions of Bethany Home


Dr James Deeny was chief medical adviser to the government from 1944 to 1962, with periods of secondment to the World Health Organisation.

He was a central player in the virtual eradication of tuberculosis and the attempt to provide care for mothers and babies by means of the Mother and Child Scheme. (He attributed the failure of the scheme to the intransigence of doctors and acknowledged the deep suspicions harboured by the Catholic Church regarding it.) I had the privilege of interviewing him in the 1990s.

He was born in Lurgan, Co Armagh, but moved south. When he died in 1994, his obituary in the London Independent declared, “Had he not been a Catholic he would undoubtedly have risen to the top within the scope of the United Kingdom but in the years after partition the Protestant ascendancy formed a closed shop.”

Catholic narrative

Deeny himself commented in his autobiography, To Cure and To Care, “Politics, bigotry, intolerance and being on the wrong side of the fence interfered in everything in those days in the North of Ireland.” That fits our dominant narrative in the Republic – the Protestants were privileged and excluded Catholics. But the narrative is far more complex, including in the 26 counties. There were poor Protestants, and Protestant girls who “got into trouble”, sometimes with a Catholic partner, such as Derek Leinster’s mother.

They were hidden away, just as Catholic Ireland often hid away women. Derek Leinster’s mother ended up in Bethany, in Rathgar. Bethany housed Protestant women convicted of crimes from petty theft to infanticide, remand prisoners, prostitutes, as well as unmarried mothers and their children, and homeless girls.

Set up in 1921,Bethany Home had a disastrously high death rate of infants, peaking in the 1930s. Due to painstaking research by Niall Meehan of Griffith College, we know 219 babies who died between 1922-1949 are buried in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome. In 1936 alone, 29 children were buried there.

Bethany Home was inspected by the State, including in 1939 by deputy chief medical adviser W Sterling Berry.

Berry declared that “it is well-recognised that a large number of illegitimate children are delicate and marasmic”. (Marasmus describes the effects of starvation.)

Niall Meehan contrasts that with Deeny’s inspection of a home in Bessborough, Cork, in 1944, where there was also a suspiciously high death rate. On a hunch Deeny stripped and examined the babies. He found they all had purulent skin infections and green diarrhoea. He fired the manager, a nun, and closed it down. Berry, however, appears to have considered complaints about Catholics being pressurised to convert to Protestantism more pressing than starving and dying infants.

The Bethany Home, despite denials of being a proselytising organisation, had strong links to the (Protestant) Irish Church Missions, which had as a primary aim the conversion of Catholics. The home was engaged in struggles with the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society of Ireland, which in 1939 was physically removing Catholic children to hospital from Bethany.

Berry got an undertaking that it would receive only Protestants. Derek Leinster and others are convinced they then became invisible people because they were not Catholic. Leinster almost died as a small child, spending five months in hospital. He was then adopted by a family where the father had a drink problem, and grew up functionally illiterate and neglected.

He and others tell stories that are often horrific, including almost casual adoptions of doubtful legality, including babies being taken to England or America.

Forgotten Protestants

When the redress scheme for industrial schools began, Leinster lobbied hard to have Bethany included. When the report into the Magdalene laundries was set up, they lobbied again to be included. They are still waiting.

Archbishop Michael Jackson of Dublin has expressed sympathy for their cause, including that an acknowledgment of and memorial be created for those many, many babies who died.

A huge amount of research is available that shows the often-dreadful conditions people endured, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. When the State began to fund the home in 1948, babies stopped dying. Surely that signals culpable neglect?

No doubt the State is terrified of becoming liable for claims from all the mother-and-baby homes, but Bethany and a small number of other homes are a special case, left to their own devices because of a tacit agreement that Protestants should “look after their own”.

People like Derek Leinster are our own, and in justice they deserve an apology and redress no less than people who were in industrial schools or Magdalene laundries.

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