Stories from the ‘homes’: The TD who landed woman in ‘trouble’ and the girls forced to ‘cut timber’
From overcrowding to no running water, infant mortality were high in many homes
Regina Coeli Hostel, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Dublin hostel Regina Coeli was unique among mother and baby homes in being the only place up until the 1970s that supported unmarried mothers who wished to raise their child, according to the commission set up to investigate such institutions.
Described as unconventional, the Regina Coeli Hostel opened on October 5th, 1930 and was run by the Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic organisation.
Between 1930 and 1998, some 5,631 mothers and 5,434 children were admitted.
A report detailing the first 19 months said the Regina Coeli catered for unmarried mothers and “young and elderly and good, bad, indifferent, criminal, proselytised and Protestant.”
Again, unlike other institutions examined by the Commission, the Regina Coeli Hostel never received direct state support for maintaining mothers and children.
Women were referred by social workers in Dublin maternity hospitals.
“It did not distinguish between first-time mothers and women on a second or subsequent pregnancy. It accommodated women with mental illness, and women who had been involved with crime who might not have been accepted in the private mother and baby homes.”
Women who had the means to pay for a private nursing home were not admitted.
While some women stayed for only a night or two, others stayed for years. Details of many of the women’s lives have been recorded on entry cards which were often updated years later with further information about the women. Some cards span decades and include details about the child.
The commission’s report details how one entry from 1933 stated that a TD was responsible for “her trouble”.
She had been “going to Leinster House and creating scenes there, trying to see him” and had been sent to Regina Coeli “by the porter from Leinster House”.
The records also contained information about the circumstances of the woman’s pregnancy.
“One entry from 1931 makes it clear that the woman in question was totally ignorant about sexual reproduction”.
“The cards also recorded instances of possible rape or incest. Rape is often recorded as assault or an attack.” In one case in 1951, a woman’s uncle was recorded to be the father.
A number of women also appear to have attempted to terminate their pregnancy, the report states.
It also details how there are “many references in admission records to women being returned to Ireland (from England) when it became evident that they were pregnant.”
“Some women who planned to travel to England were stopped before they left Ireland.”
Regina Coeli was also unusual in that it “admitted women who had been, or were currently, involved in crime.” The building was located in the centre of Dublin in a disused former workhouse. There were regular outbreaks of infectious disease among mothers and children.
The commission’s report details how in 1963 the hostel was condemned by Dublin Corporation as structurally unsafe.
“They recommended that it should close, with residents moving to a former sanatorium in county Dublin. Regina Coeli survived thanks to the support of Minister for Health Seán MacEntee; part of the building was demolished, residents were accommodated in chalets. A major reconstruction was eventually completed in the late 1970s, funded by the Eastern Health Board.”
Thirteen other mother and baby homes were investigated by the commission. These included:
Kilrush Mother and Baby Home
Conditions in the Kilrush Mother and Baby Home were “even worse than Tuam” and infant mortality rates were “appalling.”
Few records relating to the home, also known as the Clare County Nursery, could be found by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.
The records that were found depict a bleak environment which had no running water, baths or indoor toilets. The former workhouse was established as a mother and baby home in Co Clare in 1922 and was closed in 1932.
The rooms were not properly heated and women used to take their babies to bed with them to keep them warm
Kilrush was funded by the State and operated by the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy.
It could not be determined how many women passed through the facility but the commission estimated as the figure as between 300 and 400 mothers, along with a “much larger number” of children.
The number of children who died there is also not known but in 1927 a medical officer described the death rate as “appalling”.
At one point the death rate was so high that two extra nurses were hired to watch the children day and night, the report states.
In April 1924, the matron complained there were 164 residents in the nursery and children were sleeping two to a bed “with every habitable corner occupied.”
The conditions were “always very poor” from the start and consideration was given to closing down Kilrush just a year after it opened, the report said.
Reports from the time contain references to women being thrown out of the home without their children for “insubordination”.
In general women stayed for two years unless taken out by their family, and only then with permission from the management board. Some women tried to escape, including three who scaled the wall in 1924 before being returned by the Garda.
In 1926, one woman, Annie Sherlock, was arrested and charged with murder after bringing her child into bed with her at night.
The rooms were not properly heated and women used to take their babies to bed with them to keep them warm. Ms Sherlock’s daughter, Mary, died of asphyxiation during the night.
At an inquest a jury affixed “no blame to anyone” but a Garda insisted the mother be charged with murder. The outcome of the case was not recorded.
More than 15,000 women and 18,829 children passed through Pelletstown during its 80-year operation.
The facility, which was also known as the Dublin Union and included St Patrick’s on the Navan Road and Eglinton House, operated from 1919 to 1998. It was not exclusively a mother and baby home and also housed unaccompanied children.
Just over 3,600 children died there, with 78 per cent of those deaths occurring the first 22 years. Pelletstown was unique in that its infant mortality rate did not spike during the 1940s, unlike the mortality rate in the rest of Dublin.
“In the years 1943-45 infant mortality in Pelletstown was 14.8 per cent, which was substantially lower than other mother and baby homes,” the report states.
One woman said she was sent to Pelletsown in the mid-1950s after being raped by a priest
Staff did not believe in keeping a woman in the home indefinitely if the woman did not give up the child for adoption. Mothers were encouraged to leave their children behind in the home and visit them regularly while an adoption placement was found.
If a woman wanted to take her child home she was told she would not be a successful parent unless she had assistance from her own parents.
The commission spoke to several former residents. Their main complaints were that Pelletstown was a “highly institutionalised” setting which had no privacy and that the sisters were emotionally cold, “especially during births.”
Pain relief during birth was inadequate or non-existent and woman had no choice but to place their children for adoption, former residents testified.
One woman recalled “no overt abuse” but added “there was no actual humanity that I remember, or anyone talking to us”.
Another said she was sent to Pelletsown in the mid-1950s after being raped by a priest. She gave birth there and when her baby was nine months old she was told the child was “leaving.”
The woman was later told she had signed adoption papers but she disputed this. She later gave birth to twins who were taken away immediately and she assumed they had died. All three children later found her.
Belmont Flatlets in Dublin were a more modern type of facility which accommodated young mothers who did not suffer the social stigma experienced by previous generations.
It operated between 1980 and 2001 and housed women and their babies in hostel-type accommodation, the commission said.
“This was not a mother and baby home in the traditional sense. It was more akin to a hostel or supported living facility than to a mother and baby home,” the commission said.
The mothers cared for their own children with help from public health workers. All mothers left the home with their children, meaning there were no adoption records for the commission to examine.
The Castlepollard mother and baby home was opened in 1935 and closed in 1971. During that time, 4,972 women were admitted and 4,559 children were born there or admitted. It was owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
It opened for admissions in June 1935 after the Meath Board of Health had in the preceding decade discussed reports that unmarried mothers and their children were “accumulating in large numbers” in Trim county home, the commission report reveals.
At that time a Westmeath councillor proposed that unmarried mothers in Meath and Westmeath should be “removed to a standalone institution where they could be ‘put to work’. He considered it a scandal that ratepayers should ‘foot the bill’ for maintaining unmarried mothers and their children and that if the women were put to work then ratepayers would be ‘relieved of this responsibility’”, the report says.
By the end of March 1936, 60 single expectant women and 12 women accompanied by a child had sought admission there.
By 1937 it was “grossly overcrowded” and the situation would continue to worsen.
“By 1941, women and their older children were sleeping in unheated lofts above the stables some distance from the main house. There was one toilet for 44 women and no space to store clothing or personal belongings,” the commission says in its executive summary.
Furthermore, in the 1940s, a series of distressing complaints emerged.
A Westmeath councillor told the county council that women resident in Castlepollard were compelled to undertake manual work “more suitable to men” and that “girls” had to “cut timber” as well as wield heavy sledges, the report says.
There were also allegations that the women at the home were undernourished and heavily overworked and that in order to avoid soiling the floors, children, when suffering from diarrhoea, “had been kept on nursery chairs for so long that the intestines were known to have on occasion protruded.”
There were further allegations that mothers were beaten or treated badly. After learning of the complaints, the councillor said that if any of the allegations were true, the institution was “not fulfilling its primary purpose of ‘reforming’ women who were ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”
An inspector, Miss Litster, met the former resident who made the complaint. Miss Litster concluded a report into the matter and said none of the claims made by the former resident would hold up to the scrutiny of an inquiry.
In March 1945, seven council members, including the county manager and a local TD reported on a visit to Castlepollard.
They said they were “agreeably surprised to find such a well-run and up-to-date institution in the county and was a credit to the Sisters”.
The councillor who had instigated the visit “reluctantly agreed with the committee’s findings but protested that the council should have the power to undertake surprise visits to the institution.”
Overcrowding continue until the 1950s.
A total of 247 children died in Castlepollard and 60 per cent of deaths were in the 1940s, the commission found.