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Scapegoating the Sisters for the Deaths of 800 Babies

Public Domain/Image Courtesy of Brian Lockier

Susan E. Wills - published on 06/10/14 - updated on 06/07/17

Are the deaths of 796 children proof of abuse or neglect by the sisters of Bon Secours?

No. The infant mortality rate in Ireland was one of the highest in Europe. One blogger researched the infant mortality rates in major cities of Ireland between 1925 and 1937. He discovered that the rate at St. Mary’s (17 deaths/year among an average of 200 children, or 8.5% mortality rate) was equal to the rate in the general population of Dublin (8.3%) and lower than infant mortality rates in Cork (8.9%), Waterford (10.2%) and Limerick (13.2%).

State-issued death certificates showed that the St. Mary’s Home children “died variously of tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis, among other illnesses.”

Caroline Farrow quotes (and links to) a letter in the Irish Times that offers context for the high infant mortality rates in homes like St. Mary’s:

Cohorting infants in institutions puts small infants at risk from cross-infection, particularly gastroenteritis. Early infection to the gastrointestinal tract can cause severe bowel damage. Without the availability of recent technology, many such infants would die from malabsorption resulting in marasmus [severe malnutrition]. …
In foundling homes in the U.S. in the early 20th century, mortality was sometimes reported as greater than 90 per cent among infants cared for in such institutions. Lack of understanding of nutrition, cross-infection associated with overcrowding by today’s standards, and the dangers of unpasteurized human milk substitutes were the main factors.

What do we know of how well St. Mary’s was run and the children were cared for?

Catherine Corless published a summary of her research on the Facebook page Mother/Baby Home Research. “The Bon Secours Sisters,” she writes, “were a nursing congregation who had come from Dublin to take charge of the hospital wing of Glenamaddy Workhouse.” After Ireland won its freedom, all the Workhouses were closed, but Galway County decided to open a Mother/Baby Home at the site of the Tuam Workhouse. “The Home building itself was [then] in a good structural state but needed quite a bit of repair.” The building and land belonged to the Galway County Council (GCC) which was “responsible for repairs and Maintenance.”

The GCC contracted with the Sisters of Bon Secours to provide shelter to unmarried mothers and their children for a weekly fee of 10 shillings (half a pound Irish) for the “maintenance and clothing of inmates” (Connacht Tribune, 1928), as well as the salaries of doctors. Mothers who could pay £100 for the delivery services, could leave after giving birth. Others had to agree to stay there for a year, working to reimburse these costs by “filling domestic duties, cooking, cleaning, minding the babies and children and tending to the gardens.”

The archives reveal differing opinions on how well the home operated. A Mayo Health Board report in 1935 declared, “Tuam is one of the best managed institutions I have seen in the country.” A newspaper story reporting on an inspection in 1949 stated that inspectors found “everything in very good order and congratulated the sisters on the excellent conditions.”

Yet a 1944 report by the health board stated that some children were “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile,” and with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” And in the 1950s, a travel writer visited the home and wrote: “The grounds are well kept and had many flower beds. … Each of the Sisters is a fully trained nurse and midwife. … The building was fresh and clean.”

The archives expose decades of tension between the desires of the sisters to provide better care for the mothers and children and the desire of the community (“ratepayers”) and Council board members to pay as little as possible for these “misfortunates.”

In November 1935, solely as a cost-cutting measure, the Mayo Board reduced the age at which the Home children could be “boarded out” to age four for both girls and boys. The nuns objected, stating that they would be unwilling to renew their contract with the Council, if that were the case. They wanted to keep the girls under their care until after they received their First Holy Communion and been properly instructed in the faith, adding, “That would be a great safeguard to the little girls going out into the world.” The Board “compromised” by reducing the boarding out age of girls to five instead of the threatened four.

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