Dozens of baby deaths at Belfast homes due to malnutrition

Down and Connor Diocese says findings on Nazareth House and Lodge ‘add to our shame’

An examination of a sample year of burial records for  the Public Ground site at Milltown Cemetery (above) has established the graves include those of 63 children from Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge who were aged between two weeks and almost two years when they died in 1942. File photograph: Google Street View

An examination of a sample year of burial records for the Public Ground site at Milltown Cemetery (above) has established the graves include those of 63 children from Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge who were aged between two weeks and almost two years when they died in 1942. File photograph: Google Street View

 

At least 43 babies died of severe malnutrition at two Sisters of Nazareth children’s homes in Belfast in a single year.

An examination of a sample year of burial records for Milltown Cemetery’s Public Ground site has established the graves include those of 63 children from Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge who were aged between two weeks and almost two years when they died in 1942.

Some babies born to women sent to mother and baby homes went home with their mothers or were adopted, but others went into baby or children’s homes, including the Nazareth homes.

Belfast-based data journalism project, Detail Data, established the cause of death for 56 of the 63 children by searching for death certificates held by the General Register Office, which is part of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Detail Data is a partnership between the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and The Detail news website.

‘Severe malnutrition’

Some 77 per cent of those for whom death certificates could be found (43) died from marasmus, which the Collins English dictionary defines as: “general emaciation and wasting, especially of infants, thought to be associated with severe malnutrition or impaired utilisation of nutrients.”

The causes of death for the other children included cardiac failure due to a range of issues (convulsions, influenza, congenital issues and broncho pneumonia), prematurity and convulsions.

The Catholic Church’s Down and Connor Diocese, which owns the burial records, said Detail Data’s findings “add further to our shame”.

Most vulnerable

In a statement, the diocese said: “These findings demonstrate how as a Church and as a society we have failed to protect the most vulnerable members of our community. In life and in death, children should be treated with the utmost care, dignity and respect.

“Lack of resources, restricted financial support, the historical context of war, the poor nutrition available at the time, disease and the societal destitution prevalent at that time will have all played a part. However, no simple explanation can be provided to explain away the deaths of these children, nor should one be attempted.”

The Sisters of Nazareth said: “The information that you have shared is extremely concerning and sad. All children should be loved unconditionally and treated with equality and dignity. If the Government launches an investigation, we will fully co-operate.”

Amnesty International is calling for “a proper investigation of these alleged human rights abuses to establish the truth of what happened to women and children in these institutions.”

A report of the Registrar General in Ireland states the “legitimate” infant mortality rate for Northern Ireland in 1942 was 72 per 1,000 births, but it was 157 for “illegitimate” children.

One of the 21 girls and 42 boys buried in Milltown that year was six-week-old George, who died from severe malnutrition (marasmus) and a “septic scalp”.

Separate mass graves

Marie died aged two months in January 1942 from “cardiac failure due to marasmus”. Jean, who appears to be Marie’s twin sister, died two weeks later from “haemoptysis due to congenital heart disease”. The sisters were buried in separate mass graves.

In some cases, information in the burial records contradicted details recorded on the death certificates. For example, baby James was buried on June 4th, 1942. However, his death certificate states that he died on June 14th - 10 days after his burial.

Children’s ages vary widely between the two sets of records, and in some cases their gender is contradicted. It is possible for the death certificates to be corrected if new information is brought forward.

Down and Connor Diocese, which owns the burial records, said it was not possible to be definitive about what caused the discrepancies.

The diocese “considers that the details contained within its cemetery burial records are as accurate as possible and consider that they will have been provided by family members or friends of the family”.

Poor literacy

“Discrepancies caused by poor literacy and/or possibly inaccurate reporting and recording could explain some inconsistencies along with the fact that it was much more difficult to travel to report to the proper state registry at that time”.

The diocese gave permission for the publication of information from the records on condition that only the first names of the children would be published. It said it had to comply with data protection legislation and avoid identifying living relatives.

The two homes were situated 200 yards apart. Nazareth House was for girls while Nazareth Lodge was for boys.

The children’s former addresses include different areas of Northern Ireland, but also some south of the Border, in locations such as Donegal, Dublin, Letterkenny, Dundalk, and Tipperary.

Mothers of 53 of the children had their professions listed as domestic servant or servant. In the three other cases, the certificate specifies their father was a labourer.