The department of local government and public health’s 1930 report on the mother and baby home in Pelletstown in Dublin was upbeat in its assessment: “The health of the institution was excellent during the year. The death rate fell considerably.”
Despite the mortality rate of over 19 per cent, 1930 did signify an improvement on previous years, according to government documents accessible at the National Library.
“The fall in the death rate is attributed to the improved accommodation, better milk supply and better nursing,” the annual report notes.
One in five died
While fatalities had undeniably fallen, the fact remained that 66 – or almost one in five – of the 336 children housed in Pelletstown died in the year to March 31st, 1930.
Half the children housed in the institution died in 1925, with a measles epidemic cited as the explanation for the high death rate . The following year, more than a third died. The death rate rose to 42 per cent in 1927 before falling to under 20 per cent in 1930.
Between 1924 and 1930, 662 children died at the institution, an average of over 94 deaths a year. This compares to the 796 deaths recorded in the children's home in Tuam over a 36-year period between 1925 and 1960, an annual average of 22.
Local government and public health reports for 1922 -1945 contain periodically recorded data on numbers of deaths in five homes, including Pelletstown – later renamed St Patrick’s Home – and the children’s home in Tuam, both of which were maintained by Poor Law authorities. Pelletstown was run by the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent De Paul, while the Bon Secours Sisters oversaw the home in Tuam.
The reports also provide information on three other homes to which Poor Law authorities sent women who fell pregnant outside wedlock: the Sacred Heart Home in Bessborough in Cork, Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and Manor House in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. All three were run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary.
While the number of deaths in each home is not recorded for every year covered by the reports, they do provide some statistics on fatalities in different periods.
For example, continuous data exists for Pelletstown in Dublin for a seven-year period to March 31st, 1930. The number of deaths then goes unrecorded until the year ending to the end of March 1934, when 53 deaths were recorded. The final period for which deaths were recorded was the 12 months up to the end of March 1941, in which time 42 children died.
In the nine-year period to the end of March 1941, it was possible to compile the number of infant and child deaths recorded in Bessborough in Cork (238) and Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea (419). Records also exist for Manor House Castlepollard for the six years up to March 31st, 1941, during which time 69 deaths were recorded.
“The deaths in these institutions are generally caused by an epidemic of some kind, measles, whooping cough, etc, which spreads quickly among the children and wipes out the weaklings,” the 1933-1934 local government report notes.
It says the “nurseries are laid out to accommodate too many children and the provision for isolation is not adequate”, before going on to list steps being taken to confine the size of nurseries in Tuam and Sean Ross Abbey.
Four mothers died at Bessborough in the seven-year period up to the end of March, 1940, while seven died at Sean Ross Abbey in the same time period. In Manor House, eight mothers died in the six years to the end of March 1941. Details of the number of mothers who perished in other years are not available.
The department of local government and public health was aware the death rate among children born to unmarried mothers was unacceptably high. In its report for 1927, the department refers to figures compiled by the registrar general for 1925 and 1926 showing the mortality rate among what it called “illegitimate” infants was five times the rate of those born within marriage. A third of those who died failed to reach their first birthday.
This was acknowledged in the reports as a “deplorable” loss of life.
“It is recognised that illegitimate infants are handicapped by constitutional and environmental disadvantages, which tend to have a heavy incidence of infant mortality, but even when allowance has been made for these adverse factors, the death-rate of such infants is still disproportionately high in view of the experience in other countries,” the report says.
Due to the sporadic nature of the data in the departmental reports and the scant information they provide on the private mother and baby homes that were also in operation at the time, it is likely that the true number of deaths of women and their children will only come to light once the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, announced by the Government this month, completes its work.
One important unknown not covered in the reports is the number of children born to unmarried mothers who died in county homes.
What is known is that some 70 per cent of these women were sent to county homes. However, the local government reports do not contain figures for the number of children born to unmarried mothers resident in these homes, nor do they give a picture of the number of deaths recorded among such children.
WHO RAN THE HOMES?
St Patrick's Home, Pelletstown, Dublin Located on the Navan Road in Dublin, Pelletstown was originally set up in the late 19th century for impoverished children and was later renamed St Patrick's Home. The home was run by the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul under the control of the Dublin Board of Assistance and was provided and administered by Poor Law Authorities.
Children's Home, Tuam, Co Galway A mother and baby home which was provided and administered by Poor Law Authorities under the Galway Board of Health and Public Assistance between 1925 and 1960 and run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours. The institution has been at the centre of controversy in recent weeks after research carried out by local historian Catherine Corless revealed that 796 children died at the home between 1925 and 1960.
Sacred Heart Home, Bessborough, Co Cork. Opened in 1922, the Sacred Heart home in Bessborough was one of three homes run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary to which Ireland's poor law authorities sent unmarried mothers. A maternity unit was opened at the institution in December 1930, a grant for which was "made from Sweepstakes funds at the minister's disposal". The home was "intended primarily for young mothers who have fallen for the first time and who are likely to be influenced towards a useful and respectable life", according contemporaneous government reports.
Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea, Co Tipperary The 1928 local government report cited a "pressing need" for other institutions similar to the Sacred Heart Home in Bessborough, Co Cork, to be set up, and in 1930, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary set up a mother and baby home Roscrea, where it operated until 1970.
Manor House, Castlepollard, Co Westmeath The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, which already ran mother and baby homes in Cork and Roscrea, established the home in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath, in 1935. The institution closed in 1971.