Bethany Home: ‘No exception’ to high rates of infant mortality in Protestant-run institution

Matron believed children of unmarried mothers ‘tended to be weak and prone to illness’, commission finds

Flowers are seen on a grave at Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin for children who died in the  Bethany Home. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Flowers are seen on a grave at Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin for children who died in the Bethany Home. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

 

Across 49 years, the Protestant-run Bethany Home admitted 1,584 women and 1,376 children.

The deaths of five women and 262 children are associated with the institution, with the infant mortality rate in 1943 running at 62.1 per cent. Of the child deaths, 61 per cent occurred between 1937 and 1947.

Burial records were located for 235 Bethany children, with all but four buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross, Dublin.

The commission found that Bethany was “no exception” to the high rates of infant mortality seen in all mother and baby homes until the late 1940s. Women admitted aged from 13 to 62 years, with the highest numbers admitted in the 1930s and 1940s.

First located at Blackhall Place before relocating to Orwell Road in 1933, Bethany Home was formed after the closure of two Protestant charities - the Dublin Midnight Mission and Female Refuge, and the Dublin Prison Gate Mission.

Both aimed to provide shelter for women working as prostitutes, while the latter sought to rehabilitate former female prisoners.

The Commission of Investigation found the decision to re-focus on unmarried mothers showed “that the concern about illegitimacy’ in post-World War 1 Ireland was not confined to the Catholic community”.

The report finds that there was a “high incidence of infectious disease” among children in the home until the 1950s. The matron in the 1920s “subscribed to the not-uncommon belief that the children of unmarried mothers tended to be weak and prone to illness”.

‘Inherent illness’

In 1929, the deaths of six infants in a month were attributed to “the inherent illness of the infants in question”. Minutes of the management committee recorded brief comments on the health of “inmates”, which was generally ‘good’ or ‘very good’, but the report finds that “in the years when infant mortality was high it is doubtful that such observations were justified”.

In October 1936, five infants died in a month, four from heart failure, but the Matron observed that the health “of all was good, except for one delicate baby”.

At this time, “despite the recurring high infant mortality, the minutes of the management committee do not record any discussion of the causes of infant deaths, or what might be done (other than isolation) to reduce the numbers of deaths”.

It finds that overcrowding, inadequate facilities, the employment of under-qualified staff and the financial pressures at the home contributed to the high incidence of infant mortality from the 1920s to the 1940s.

While conditions improved following the move to Rathgar, basic facilities were still lacking. While the home was “well-provided” with bathrooms and washbasins, “none of these was in the annexe where the mothers slept until the 1950s”. Physical distance between the mothers’ dormitory and the nursery also suggests breastfeeding may have been difficult.

The commission heard from six women and men who were in Bethany as infants, two of whom stated they had rickets, but the report cannot determine whether this was due to conditions in the home or in foster homes, although rickets was present at the same time these witnesses were in the home.

Children leaving the home were usually “nursed out” to foster homes, sent to other institutions, left with their mother or family, or adopted - formally following the introduction of legal adoption, or on an “informal” basis on 112 occasions.

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The quality of care in some foster homes occasionally “gave cause for concern”. In one instance, an inspector found a nine-month-old boy boarded out two weeks previously “appeared to me to be in a dying condition… it was dirty and neglected and sore and inflamed from a filthy napkin”.

In 1940, a civil servant reported to the head of her department that children were being taken out of the country “in a haphazard manner”, and that advertisements had been placed in English Protestant newspapers seeking people to adopt children from Bethany.

In one instance, a woman from St Alban’s answered an advertisement and an eight month old baby “was sent to her without further enquiry”. The baby was later removed from her home after the police alerted local authorities to the conditions there. Around 50 children were adopted outside the State from Bethany.

Most of the evidence from witnesses relates to their experience in foster homes, other institutions, or adoption in Northern Ireland. One witness claimed there are serious questions about the legality of documents underpinning her adoption. The commission determined she was adopted informally before legal adoption was introduced. Witnesses complained about a lack of documentation relating to their birth, discharge and adoption.

Fleeing women

While limited information is available, records suggest most women left Bethany to go home or into a “situation/employment”. However, women were also ejected or fled. In 1958, the commission found, one woman was reported to be causing “considerable trouble” and was told to leave. She complied but “left her child, who was mixed-race, in the home”.

During its early decades, the home had little contact with the State, and was largely funded through private sources. Financial pressures were-ever present in the 1920s and 1930s, and “economy prevailed throughout Bethany” with “lack of facilities for drying clothes for mothers, babies and staff” in both premises. This approach persisted into the 1950s - in one instance 24 mattresses needed repair, but the matron and secretary “reduced this number to 12 and decided that this could be done using cheaper materials”.

It relied on voluntary labour for many years, and “despite a significant increase in the numbers of infants… there was no corresponding increase in staff numbers”. Low wages and limiting recruitment to Protestants “preferably with strong missionary impulses” meant hiring was handicapped, and “staff shortages probably meant that mothers had to carry out more work and the quality of care for mothers and infants may have suffered at times”.

Financial insecurity

The minutes of the board of management “convey a picture of chronic financial insecurity”. State funding first came from local authorities in counties where resident women had been born, and more funding from the State followed in the late 1940s, although financial difficulties persisted for years afterwards. The finances of the home may have limited admissions, which peaked in the 1930s when 509 women were admitted.

From 1940, when Catholics were excluded from entry, admissions fell sharply. State inspections found it to be overcrowded in the late 1930s, although a recommended limit of 20 women was never exceeded on average after 1939.

While most women came from Dublin, counties with substantial Protestant populations were also strongly represented, such as Cavan Wicklow, Donegal and Monaghan.

Religion played a central role in the ethos of the home. The report finds that “despite frequent protests to the contrary, those in charge of Bethany sought to indoctrinate residents in their own religious beliefs”.

“The ethos of Bethany was strongly evangelical,” the Commission found, with staff and management “determined to ‘save’ all the women who entered the home”.

Sectarianism

While around three quarters of women who were admitted were Protestant, Irish Catholic women may have gone to the home, the commission finds, as deep sectarianism meant their presence in Bethany would unlikely become known to family or neighbours.

It also facilitated placement and adoption of children if their mothers consented to them being raised as Protestant, and accepted women who had given birth to one or more children, who would be excluded from some Catholic homes.

The Catholic Protection and Rescue Society of Ireland (CPRSI) described Bethany as an “active source of proselytising” among unmarried Catholic mothers and “accused the Bethany authorities of trying to entice these women and their children to the Protestant faith”.

The report states that a “dominant” influence on the management and ethos of the home, especially in the decades after foundation, was the Church of Ireland’s Society of Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics, which aimed to convert catholics to Protestantism. Those involved in the home maintained religious liberties were never infringed. While a lack of records makes it difficult to determine precisely why this happened, the home largely closed its doors to Catholics in 1940.

In addition to its function as a Mother and Baby home, a total of 113 women who were not pregnant or had not recently given birth were admitted, as the home served as a place of detention for women accused of infanticide, petty crimes, and “concealment of birth”.

In the earlier decades, these women included “midnight mission cases” brought to the home by those associated with it or friends who “patrolled public houses and the streets at night”. One record shows women made repeat visits and sometimes stayed for months, but “then the craving for drink and company would get so acute that they succumbed again”.