Mother and Baby Homes report finds ‘rampant’ infant mortality, ‘appalling’ conditions for thousands

Taoiseach condemns ‘dark, difficult and shameful chapter of recent Irish history’

A grim picture of a cold and callous Ireland that damaged the lives of tens of thousands people by consigning them to institutions emerges from the report of the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes.

It found that mothers and babies suffered material and emotional deprivation in the institutions, where infant mortality was sometimes rampant and women felt they had no choice but to give up their children for adoption.

The huge report, which runs to some 3,000 pages, is a scathing indictment not just of the institutions it examined over a period of five years, but of the society that required them.

Indeed, the report is principally a condemnation of that society – its rigid rules and conventions about sexual matters, its savage intolerance, its harsh judgmentalism, its un-Christian cruelty.


Those seeking to deflect blame from the people and families that made up Irish society onto the religious orders who ran some of the homes will find little encouragement in its pages.

It says that the responsibility for the harsh treatment suffered by the women “rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families.”

The prevailing social mores which promoted this practice, the report finds, was “supported and contributed to by the State and the churches”.

However, it also says that the homes “provided refuge” for the women “when their families provided no refuge at all”. There was no evidence that women were forced into the homes, it finds – but lots of evidence that they had no alternative.

Some 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children passed through the homes during the period examined by the commission, 1920-98. The report says that a further 25,000 women and a larger number of children were likely to have been resident in the county homes that were not examined by the commission.

The Mother and Baby Homes report main coverage

The Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, which includes the Bethany Home Survivors and The Castlepollard Mother & Baby Home Group said they had mixed feelings about the report.

The coalition said thousands of people born into institutions, or adopted out to families by “rogue adoption agencies” were not covered by the report.

Speaking at Government Buildings, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the report described a “dark, difficult and shameful chapter of recent Irish history” in which an “extraordinarily oppressive culture” had “treated women exceptionally badly”.

Mr Martin said that the report presented “all of Irish society with profound questions”. He stressed that no foreign power had forced Irish society into these actions. “We did this to ourselves,” he said. “All of society was complicit in it.”

Mr Martin confirmed that the apology would take place in the Dáil on Wednesday, as planned.

‘Brutally misogynistic’

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said “the report makes clear that for decades, Ireland had a stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture, where a pervasive stigmatisation of unmarried mothers and their children robbed those individuals of their agency and sometimes their future”.

“For decades, Irish society was defined by its silence, and, in that, its complicity in what was done to some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Both Mr Martin and Mr O’Gorman said that religious orders who ran the Mother and Baby Homes should make a contribution to the costs of any redress scheme.

Mr O’Gorman said that it would be “appropriate that there is a significant contribution from the religious orders to the costs of redress”, while the Taoiseach added that the orders should make a contribution “especially where lands have been sold”.

He said that the Government approach would be “survivor-first”.

The Taoiseach also said that the report has been sent to the DPP.

The survivors’ coalition rejected Mr O’Gorman’s assertion that what happened could be explained by “misogyny”.

“What occurred was but an aspect of the newly established State which was profoundly anti-women both in its laws and in its culture and out of which emerged the Mother and Baby Homes. While it was wrong for families and others to send vulnerable, unmarried, pregnant girls to be incarcerated in Mother and Baby Homes, the homes were handsomely paid by the taxpayers of Ireland.

“We must not overlook the fact that the Government and the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches ran the homes together, hand in glove. What they did represents a damming indictment of church and State.”

In a statement, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, which ran Mother and Baby Homes at Castlepollard, Bessborough and Roscrea, said they “sincerely apologise to those who did not get the care and support they needed and deserved”.

“It is a matter of great sorrow to us that babies died while under our care. We sincerely regret that so many babies died particularly in regard to Bessborough in the 1940s. We also want to recognise the dreadful suffering and loss experienced by mothers.”

The statement continued to say the order is distressed and saddened that it is “so difficult to prove with legal certainty where many of these infants were buried”.

Mr O’Gorman said that the Government accepted the recommendations of the report and that it would publish an action plan which laid out the steps it would take in the coming months.

He said there would be a package of health supports, counselling, records, exhumation, restorative recognition scheme, ex gratia payments groups to be set up, and a state apology.

Blighted lives

The women’s lives were blighted by becoming pregnant and by the responses of the father and their families, the report finds. They had little choice but to enter the mother and baby homes; they had nowhere to go and no money. Clerics and other authority figures in many cases reinforced the families’ cruel treatment of their daughters.

But it also finds that the homes run by the religious orders were in many instances “greatly superior” to the county homes run by the state, where residents often endured “appalling physical conditions”. The report found no evidence of sexual abuse, few instances of physical abuse, but abundant evidence of “emotional abuse” suffered by the women and their children. In some instances, women carried out work for which they were not paid, it finds.

While stressing that the conditions in the homes reflected those in which much of the population lived for the first five or six decades of the last century, the report finds that even by the standards prevalent at the time, some of the homes – Tuam and Kilrush are mentioned specifically – were brutally harsh.

Infant mortality

There are also “disquieting” findings of infant mortality in some institutions; in one year, 1943, 75 per cent of the children who were born or who were admitted to the Bessborough home in Cork died. It says that before 1960, the homes did not save the lives of “illegitimate” children (as they were legally termed then), in fact, the children were more likely to die in the institutions.

Infants stayed in the institutions for varying lengths of time. Many were adopted or “boarded out”, where they were fostered out to families or households; some were well treated, others suffered harsh treatment, working on farms or in businesses, sometimes for no pay.

It is the personal stories told to the Commission’s confidential committee that will command many people’s attention, and which reveal the toll on individual’s lives of the type of society that existed in Ireland for decades.

They describe a society where sex education was practically non-existent and ignorance, fear and shame enveloped women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage. Even into the 1960s, it finds “girls and women were continuing to become pregnant without realising how and why.” There are many accounts of rapes as a result of which women became pregnant.


The principal concern of many families was not for the women who became pregnant, but for their own reputation. One witness told the committee that her mother had “called her a prostitute and a whore. Three of her uncles were priests and her parents were worried about how her pregnancy would affect them. Both sets of parents were also very concerned about how an ‘unmarried pregnancy’ would affect the careers of the witness’s brothers.”

“The women should have been at home with their families,” the report says, “but they were rejected by their families.”

Conditions in the homes, especially until the later decades of the 20th century were often brutally harsh, and women were routinely castigated as “sinners” and worse. Witnesses from the early decades of the period under examination described being forced to scrub floors and while working on their hands and knees, they were “verbally abused about their status as ‘fallen women’. Witnesses reported being called ‘sinner’, ‘dirt’, ‘spawn of Satan’ or worse,” the report finds.

However, many residents, especially in later years, gave more positive accounts of their time in the homes, with some reporting that they were helped to cover up the fact they were in the institutions by the nuns arranging to have letters they had written home mailed from England.


The report makes a number of recommendations.

It says that children who were adopted out of the homes should have a right to information about their birth mothers. Citing potential legal difficulties under current laws, it says that a constitutional referendum should be held if necessary to provide for this right. The right to one’s identity, it finds, is an important human right.

It also recommends that redress should be made available for survivors of the institutions. While it says that financial compensation is a matter for the Government to decide, it says that many of the former residents were in similar situations to residential institutions which have already been the subject of State-funded redress schemes. The State, it points out, had a supervisory and regulatory role in the institutions.

However, the report makes the point that the physical abuse in the mother and baby homes, insofar as it existed, was “minor” compared to the regimes in place in residential institutions and reformatories examined by the Ryan Report. It acknowledges, however, the emotional abuse suffered by many former residents.

In some instance, it says, women did work that they should have been paid for but were not, and should be compensated for that.

However, the report rejects the proposal that adoptions from the mother and baby homes should be reclassified as “forced adoptions”, though it acknowledges that many women did not feel they could refuse to have their babies’ adoption and so believe they did not give informed consent.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times