Tragic history | 

Ireland had highest number of women and children living in State-run homes, Mother and Baby Homes report finds

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes found 56,000 women were forced to live in refuges since the foundation of the State in 1922 because they were abandoned by the fathers of their children and their families.

Tuam Mother and Baby Homes site. Photo: Ray Ryan

Philip Ryan

Ireland had more women and children living in State-run homes for unmarried mothers than anywhere else in the world, according to a shocking new report detailing the plight of those forced to live in Mother and Baby Homes.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes found 56,000 women were forced to live in refuges since the foundation of the State in 1922 because they were abandoned by the fathers of their children and their families.

The commission says it is not aware of a similar investigation into institutions in any other country but said it is “probable the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were in Mother and Baby Homes was the highest in the world”.

The five-year investigation finds responsibility for the “harsh treatment” endured by these women “rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families” but was also supported by the State and the Church.

“However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the families provided no refuge at all,” it adds.

The harrowing report details how 57,000 children were born in Mother and Baby Homes until they were closed in 1998 and how, shockingly, 9,000 died while in their care.

People gather to protest at the site of the former Tuam home, where a mass grave of around 800 babies was uncovered (Niall Carson/PA)

Of even more concern is the fact that the death rate among children deemed “illegitimate” by society during this period was far higher than those deemed “legitimate”, according to the report.

Between 1945 and 1946 the death rate among children in Mother and Baby Homes was almost twice the national average of those not living in these institutions.

The report reveals the high infant mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.

Children suffered physical abuse in the homes and also emotional abuse from local residents in their communities because they were raised in the institutions. However, the report did not find incidents of sexual abuse towards the children.

The women living in these homes suffered emotional abuse and were regularly subjected to “denigration and derogatory remarks”. “It appears that there was little kindness shown to them and this was particularly the case when they were giving birth,” it says. “The atmosphere appears to have been cold and seemingly uncaring,” the report adds.

The women were offered no counselling and were warned not to share their stories with other residents.

The commission said there was little evidence of the mothers being physically abused and no evidence of sexual abuse.

However, it found 200 women died in these homes with more than half (57pc) related to child birth. During the 1950s, there were also a significant number of deaths related to infectious diseases.

The commission raises serious questions about the failure of the Government and local authorities to intervene and address the living conditions and discrimination suffered by those living in these State-supported institutions.

It also found no evidence of the Cabinet ever discussing the plight of Mother and Baby Homes residents in the first 50 years after Ireland gained its independence.

It was not until the introduction of new adoption laws that some women were able to leave or avoid staying long-term in the homes.

The introduction of the Unmarried Mother’s Allowance in 1973 was the first time any financial support was given to single women facing these conditions.

At least 1,638 children from the homes investigated were put up for adoption, with the vast majority sent to the US.

The report includes allegations that significant money was exchanged between Church authorities and adoptive parents but the commission was unable to prove or disprove the veracity of the claims.

At least seven vaccine trials were carried out in homes with children involved in some of the tests. Consent was not obtained for the tests and proper ethical and regulatory approval was not sought.

Focus may shift in the coming weeks to county homes, which were not investigated, but admitted 25,000 women with special needs, mental health problems, venereal disease or a criminal conviction.

These women were often rejected by Mother and Baby Homes. And the accommodation and care given to children in county homes was “grossly inadequate” and descriptions given in the report are “extremely distressing”.

The commission raises the serious concerns of former residents about the laws preventing adoptees from searching for their biological parents.

The report recommends holding a referendum on the right of unrestricted access to birth information for adopted people.

The commission says there has been “quite vitriolic criticism” of the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) over how it provides information to adoptees. However, it says the criticism is “unfair and misplaced” as the agency is implementing current legislation.

“The commission considers that there should be such a right even though it is acutely conscious of the concerns expressed by some birth mothers about this. If, as seems likely, a referendum is required to allow for the necessary legislation, then one should be held,” it adds.

It says parents and siblings should be given information on where children were buried by the homes and highlights difficulties in accessing information related to deaths that occurred in the institutions in Tuam, Co Galway and Bessborough, Co Cork.

The commission says the introduction of a redress scheme is a matter for the Government but says children as well as their mothers would have a strong case for compensation from the State.

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