Around the corner from the house where I grew up in Blackrock, Co Dublin, set back from a road called Temple Hill on the slope leading down to Dublin Bay, stands a stately old Georgian manor.
Today, Neptune House is surrounded by a ring of freshly built houses, with nice cars in the drives. As a teenager, before the new estate was built, I walked past Neptune House in my navy-blue school uniform five days a week on the way to get the train to school, but I didn’t know its name or what used to go on there.
Neptune House had a long and colourful history. It had been home to the earl known as Copper-Faced Jack. It had been used as a shelter by British troops sent to put down the Easter Rising. But I wanted to know more about what went on there from the time the first baby was admitted to the so-called infant hospital run by religious sisters, in October 1930, until it was identified for closure by the minister for health in 1986.
In 1910, Lizzie Hawthorn Carr, who ran a Protestant children’s home in Dublin, approached her neighbour, Mary Cruice, and asked her to take on the case of a young Catholic woman and her child. Cruice, who had no experience in this area, was astonished at the lack of Catholic organisations providing for “unwanted babies”, and she founded St Patrick’s Guild. Cases poured in.
The guild produced annual reports in flimsy black-and-white pamphlets. On the back covers, readers were encouraged to sponsor a cot. For £5, you could name a cot in memory of a deceased friend. For £25 you could support a cot for a year.
Some of the pamphlets contained photos of babies and toddlers in white socks and shoes, surrounded by illustrations of roses, advertising their qualities and the fact they were “for adoption”. A girl called Winnie was “one of our favourites – a lovely child of six”, available to be adopted. So was Joseph, “a bonny boy of two”. Suitable couples were encouraged to apply.
The mission of the guild was to assist unmarried mothers “whose previous characters give promise of redemption”, and both mothers and children whose religion might be in danger if they were not provided help. The guild arranged adoptions, provided lodgings and procured employment for women, and “occasionally” arranged marriages.
Between 1910 and 1926, Cruice claimed to have “between 5,000 to 6,000 cases”, including some from England, Scotland, America and one from France. “They were of every class, from the professional man’s daughter to the peasant’s,” she wrote. She described half of them as “a little abnormal”.
Numbered “specimen cases” were published in the pamphlets, with sensational titles such as the “Erring Wife Case”, the “Cripple Case” and the “Destitute Case”. Number 2059 was a “most refined superior girl”, betrayed under a promise of marriage, who became “passionately attached to her baby”. When the father said he’d marry her if she gave up the child, she refused and was maintaining the baby out of her own earnings.
One baby – case number 1859, born to a “young girl of decent parentage” – was adopted by a couple “on holiday from the Colonies” only for it to turn out by chance that the man adopting the child was the little boy’s biological grand-uncle. The guild described it as a “fairy tale”.
A place for expectant mothers of the better class, genuine first offenders, of previous good character
In 1929, the guild purchased Neptune House and established St Patrick’s Infant and Dietetic Hospital there. This is the institution that would come to be familiarly known as “Temple Hill”.
Despite its claim to be a hospital, it accommodated babies not because they were sick but because they were awaiting adoption. The babies were mostly born to unmarried mothers who had been referred from public hospitals, nursing homes or mother and baby homes.
The first baby was admitted in October 1930. There was a matron, resident “lady doctors”, two trained and State-registered nursing sisters, a staff nurse and a certified housekeeper employed there, as well as 18 trainee nurses.
During the 1930s, Cruice described Temple Hill as a place for “expectant mothers of the better class, genuine first offenders, of previous good character” who represented different sections of society including nurses, teachers, “daughters of respectable farmers and sometimes professional men”.
In 1938, Cruice sent a letter to Archbishop Byrne telling him that the number of “unmarried mothers” applying to the guild for help was increasing. Many of the women were domestic servants, and some of them had been made pregnant by their employer. Typists, cleaners, factory workers, dressmakers and a sweet confectioner were also listed. Fathers figured mainly by their absence.
Mary Cruice had attempted to transfer the running of St Patrick’s Guild over to the Archdiocese as early as 1927. But it was not until 1943 that she eventually handed over control – to the Sisters of Charity.
The archives indicate that a key issue for the guild, after the Sisters of Charity took it over, was foreign adoptions.
In 1951, after articles were published raising concerns about the “export” of Irish children to the US, a correspondence ensued between Archbishop McQuaid’s secretary, Fr Chris Mangan, and solicitors for St Patrick’s Guild.
At first it was deemed not to be “prudent” to reply, because any reply would have to refer to “the main complaint therein of children being sent to America”. They decided they wanted The Irish Times to apologise for what it had written on the subject, and drafted the text of an apology.
In the 1960s, after construction of a new annexe, Temple Hill was able to house close to 100 babies. A lot of women and children were coming and going; and yet my father, who grew up just up the road, knew nothing about the institution. A family friend, who worked as a local garda for a decade from the mid-1970s, told me that he thought it was a convent.
At one point I stumbled across an article about Niall Fortune, the founder of the fast-food chain Eddie Rocket’s, which quoted him speaking about the worst job he ever had to do. As a teenager, he said, he worked at Temple Hill, where a relative of his was a nun.
I called him up. He told me that it was the mid-1970s when he worked at Temple Hill.
He remembered a big laundry with kegs full of nappies, where he worked with another woman and a very old nun. He remembered the wards being bright and airy and the place well run.
He wondered whether the nurses were “real nurses”, or maybe mothers of the babies who were working there while their children were in care. Every now and then, he recalled, a car would come into the drive and bring a child away. He didn’t think much of it at the time.
Across online chat boards and Facebook groups, I found adoptees who wanted to know more about the place where they spent the first few months or years of their lives. Who cared for them, and were they ever held or loved? They formed a community bonded by a shared lack of knowledge.
People adopted from the Guild have been affected by two separate but related scandals: the use of false registrations to sever any documentary link between an adopted child and their birth mother, and the tendency of adoption societies and religious orders to supply false or misleading information to people seeking to trace a parent or a child.
As far back as 1997, in an interview with The Irish Times, a nun with St Patrick’s Guild admitted that the agency had sometimes supplied false information to adoptees and that some of their 13,000 files on adoptions included misleading or false information. Because of such practices, adopted people and mothers often feel they can’t trust the information they are given.
Online, there were also posts by former nursery nurses and the relatives of women who had trained and worked there. While most mother and baby homes were run by religious sisters, Temple Hill depended on a constantly changing team of young laywomen, who cared for the babies and trained as nurses.
These young women saw the inner workings of the institution every day.
I came across a Facebook post from one such woman, who had moved from Cobh to train at Temple Hill in 1979, aged 18.
On Good Friday in 2017, the last officially dry one in Ireland, I met Jennifer Sadurski in a cafe upstairs in Arnotts department store in the centre of Dublin, one level above the women’s clothes and lingerie.
As we talked, Jennifer took from her bag a crisp white envelope, from which she pulled a thin stack of colour photos and laid them out on the table between us. She allowed me to slowly go through them. These were stolen moments from inside the “infant hospital”.
The prints were small, and they were fuzzy. The snapshots were taken clandestinely on night shifts, when the nun, the matron and the older staff nurses were all in bed.
Teenaged faces grinned out from the prints, the trainee nurses dressed up in pointed white headdresses and high-collared white dresses. They posed for each other in awkward and dramatic stances, clearly egging each other on, suspended on the verge of laughter or sometimes caught in an explosive fit of giggles.
The food they were given was difficult to stomach, she remembered. It was a good way to keep slim.
In other photos were the armfuls of babies. Jennifer and another nurse sat inside a large metal cot, one of a row, with the white paint peeling off the metal bars; the nurses’ legs hung over the bars, and they were cradling two children each in their laps. The babies, nearing toddler age, were dressed in what look like T-shirts, with pastel cardigans on top.
One child was opening its mouth to chuckle, and Jennifer was gently pinching the cheeks of another. The cots seemed large enough to accommodate more than one baby.
At that time, Jennifer told me, she had “no clue” the mother and baby homes existed. Her parents would never have discussed such things with her.
When she started at Temple Hill, she said: “I didn’t realise what these babies were doing there, up for adoption because their mother couldn’t keep them.”
I broke down crying, especially for the girls with their parents, who were brought to the door and physically made to hand over the baby
The trainee nurses would discuss it among themselves, guessing at the possible reasons so many seemingly healthy newborn babies would come to the hospital without their mothers.
Eventually the penny dropped.
On occasion, it was Jennifer’s responsibility to answer the front door. Women of all ages, many even younger than her, turned up with babies in their arms. They were often in tears, sometimes accompanied by ashen-faced parents or nervous friends to hand over their children to the nuns.
“It was heartbreaking,” Jennifer told me. “I broke down crying, especially for the girls with their parents, who were brought to the door and physically made to hand over the baby.”
Jennifer would bring the women and their babies into a room and wait for the nun to come down and deal with them. She never heard what was discussed.
There was a feeling that gnawed at her, something unfair about the whole procedure. She felt that the mothers were having a choice made for them.
A young woman came to the door once with her parents. Her father was very tall. Another woman, who looked to be in her early 20s, arrived with a friend. “We weren’t allowed to engage in conversation,” Jennifer said. “I had to show them to the room with the nun. They were usually expected.”
The Coombe hospital would deliver babies to Temple Hill with ID tags on. Jennifer remembers one such baby, a girl born prematurely. When the trainee nurses went to wash her, they discovered that her name and date of birth had been scrawled in red ink on her back. They felt the nurses who had sent her must be heartless to write on her body in that way.
Jennifer still remembered the girl’s name. She turned out to be a healthy baby and was later adopted. But the image of the baby’s branded back still haunted Jennifer. It would not have happened, she felt, if the baby had not been born out of wedlock.
In the corner of a cafe in Blanchardstown shopping centre, tucked down the back of a shop packed with picture frames, trinkets and crafting materials, I met another woman who had trained to be a nurse at Temple Hill.
Catherine Garton trained from 1974 to 1976 and was just 20 when she became certified. The job was live-in, and it was the first time she had ever been away from home. When she arrived, the matron in charge brought her to her room and gave her a uniform and a veil. She was to present herself for breakfast at 8am.
I was educated by them, trained with them, worked with them, I didn't meet a decent one
In the morning, she followed the other young women filing into the reception area. They were laughing and that put her at ease. The air was thick with the smell of talcum powder and there was the soft sound of babies chuckling to themselves in the wards.
Many of the girls she worked with complained about the strictness of the nuns. But, as the eldest girl in her family, she was used to burdening chores. She threw herself into caring for the children. A cuddle or a song could seem to change their whole world and that made the work feel rewarding.
“Adults can be cold and sterile,” she said. “But children just accept you.” She knew nothing about why the babies were there; all she knew was that there were many of them. She didn’t ask for much more information.
“I have no time for them,” Cathy said of the nuns. “I was educated by them, trained with them, worked with them, I didn’t meet a decent one.” Her head shook as she said the words. “Not one.”
Then she corrected herself. There was one exception, a nun she was fond of at school. She was the only religious sister that Cathy thought of as a normal human being. “They lacked that connection,” she said. “I don’t know whether it was beaten out of them or whether they never had it.”
Cathy told me that in her conversations in recent years with adoptees, the first question they often asked was how they were cared for and what the place was actually like. They had heard of babies wearing dirty clothes and of dark, cold rooms crowded wall-to-wall with cots.
Cathy was adamant that these stories were inaccurate. She could criticise the nuns for many things, but during her time at Temple Hill the children were beautifully dressed and they had the best of everything.
They were put in little cotton gowns until they were six weeks old, and then in bright little Babygros. If the Babygros got tatty or spoiled, they were thrown away. The bed linens were of good quality and the wards were decorated in Berger paints, a fancy new company that specialised in daring new shades at the time: beautiful pinks and lavenders and yellows.
The place she described seemed a different world to the hospital that Jennifer Sadurski worked in just a few years later, where clothes and Babygros were donated and the nurses competed with each other to get the best clothes for their babies. The toddlers in her photos wore T-shirts that didn’t seem to quite fit.
They never came crying. But they always left crying
Sometimes, a doorbell sounded. Some young women came alone. Others were with a social worker, or with their mother or aunt, or with a friend. Only rarely were they accompanied by a man. “They never came crying,” Cathy told me. “But they always left crying.”
Some were there to visit their baby. They would nervously hand Cathy a card with a name written on it, trying not to look her in the eye. She would guide them to the parlour, a small room with two chairs, where they were left to wait as she went to find the baby.
At the nurses’ station she handed over the slip of paper. The baby was brought to the parlour and the mother granted between 45 minutes and an hour to spend. (A number of mothers who had babies in Temple Hill told me they were allowed only half an hour.)
Cathy figured these were mothers who were still hoping to take their baby home; or maybe they were coming to see them one last time before signing the papers for adoption.
She remembered seeing one young couple through the window while she was up in St Joseph’s ward, both of them strikingly tall and wearing matching cashmere jackets. They held hands as they walked to the front door. Cathy assumed they must be adoptive parents, dressed in those coats.
After a while, though, she saw them again through the window as they left. The woman was limp, struggling to walk, as if she had been gutted. “Those things don’t leave you,” she told me quietly.
This is an edited extract from Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s Institutions for ‘Fallen Women’, published by Penguin Ireland