State abandoned in 1947 proposed investigation into almost 700 Bessborough deaths

Decision came after the Co Cork mother and baby home was temporarily closed

Between 1922 and in December 1946, 674 children died at Bessborough mother and baby home. File photograph: Provision

Between 1922 and in December 1946, 674 children died at Bessborough mother and baby home. File photograph: Provision

 

The State in 1947 abandoned a threatened special investigation into the deaths of nearly 700 children at the Bessborough mother and baby home, but warned that it could resume if the institution’s infant-mortality rate did not fall.

The decision to halt the investigation came after the State’s chief medical adviser, Dr James Deeny, had temporarily closed the Cork home and sacked the Sacred Heart nun then in charge.

The disclosure is contained in a letter from August 18th, 1947, part of a collection of Deeny’s papers donated by his family to the Royal College of Surgeons, and seen by The Irish Times.

“I have just been on the phone to [Condy] and arranged with him that the special investigation into the death of each child may be dropped for the present,” says the 1947 letter to the new head of Bessborough, Sr Rosemonde.

“In the event of any indue [sic] rise in the death rate, those investigations would have to be resumed,” says the letter, which is attributed in the files to the deputy chief medical adviser, but seems to have been written by Dr Deeny.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes reported last week that 923 children died in Bessborough, though just 816 deaths are registered with the General Register Office.

Temporary closure

Between 1922 and its temporary closure in December 1946, 674 children died there, including 102 between April 1943 and March 1944 – where it then had an 82 per cent infant-mortality rate. Ireland’s national infant-mortality rate was about 7 per cent for the same period.

In 1945, 36 children were certified as having died at Bessborough. In 1946, that number was 15. In 1947, 20 children died, seven children in 1948, eight in 1949 and three in 1950.

“During the succeeding years,” wrote Deeny, “while many hundreds of babies were born each year, the number of deaths never exceeded single figures.”

In 1944, department of local government and public health official Con Ward directed that “for the time being”, no unmarried mother or expectant unmarried mother be sent to Bessborough because of the death rates.

In February 1945, Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork objected to the call to replace Bessborough’s matron, Mother Gleeson, but the department of local government warned that a “public scandal” might result if the death rates became known.

In his 1989 memoir To Cure and to Care, Dr Deeny recalled visiting Bessborough: “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 got rid of the medical officer. The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing about it, had accepted the situation and were quite complacent about it,” he wrote.

A complaint from Bishop Cohalan led to a visit by the papal nuncio to taoiseach Éamon de Valera, but on seeing Deeny’s report, the nuncio conceded that Deeny had been correct. Deeny ordered Bessborough be thoroughly disinfected before it was reopened.

Replacement

Mother Gleeson was replaced as matron by Sr Rosemonde in September 1945 and her removal appears to have been accepted by the nuns in the face of the threat of a State investigation, the withdrawal of Bessborough’s licence and, with it, all State funding.

In his August 1947 letter to Sr Rosemonde, Dr Deeny urges her to “keep enteritis under control”. Letters from a month later refer to a planned visit by the head of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to Ireland.

The September 1947 correspondence indicates that the Sacred Heart congregation was then interested in opening another mother and baby home in Ireland, and Deeny suggests that the order makes an appointment to meet with the minister for health, James Ryan.

“At this stage I am not in a position to tell you what the prospects are of another house in Éire, but I know that the minister is particularly interested in the problem of the unmarried mother, and it would be of assistance to him to have an opportunity of discussing the work of your order in this field,” the letter says.