Although the matter remains practically taboo there are questionable deaths in industrial and reform schools, Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes. “I remember lots of children dying,” said ‘Marion’. She told it to “Suffer the Little Children,” the book by Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan published in 1999.
Marion was placed in St. Joseph’s industrial school, Summerhill outside Athlone, County Westmeath in 1937. She was only a baby. She recalls “a girl who had her appendix out.” The nuns made the girl get up to work, despite the fact that when she came back from hospital she was ordered to rest. “A few days after they forced her to get up, she died. She was a lovely girl and she was only 15 years old.” There are similar reports from most of the industrial schools.
In a Dáil debate on the Ryan Report on June 12, Martin Mansergh of Fianna Fáil said: “There are a number of unexplained deaths in the Irish situation.” He was, perhaps unknown to himself, talking about something much more shocking than the dreadful physical violence or even sexual abuse. He was discussing dying as a child.
Mansergh was presumably referring to industrial and reform school deaths dealt with exclusively in the Ryan Report. In the early 1930s, two Christian Brothers were hanged in Canada for child-death so his thoughts were prescient. Mansergh was referring to deaths such as those of Bernard Kerrigan, Michael McQualter, Marian Howe, Patsy Flanagan, Bernard Young and others, who are known to have died contentiously.
However, in writing the life story of the only psychologist to have been to Letterfrack industrial school, something graver has arisen.
He was born in St. Peter’s, Castlepollard, County Westmeath, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary; transferred, aged four, to Tullamore county home, County Offaly; brought to Letterfrack, County Galway at age seven and transferred, at 10, to Salthill industrial school, County Galway. He was there until he was 16.
Naturally, he is quite sketchy on remembering Castlepollard. After all, he was only four when plucked from there. In order to see for ourselves and get the book underway, we called there in June 2007. The former mother and baby home is now a residential center for intellectually disabled adults and adolescents of both sexes. Run by the Midland Region of the Health Service Executive (HSE), it caters for people with moderate, severe and profound handicaps.
What we found was disturbing and repeated in other mother and baby homes run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. They ran these others in Bessborough in Cork city and Sean [pronounced shan, the Irish word for ‘old’] Ross Abbey, Roscrea, County Tipperary. Bessborough opened in 1922; Sean Ross Abbey in 1930 and St. Peter’s, Castlepollard in 1935. It struck us that the number of dead infants or mothers – at least for the casual observer – was impossible to measure.
The cemeteries have been renovated, mostly as ultra-twee “memorial gardens”. Angels and cartoon dogs, bears and cuddly toys now adorn them. There are however, very few names of the children or mothers who died in these places. Nuns however (or ‘sisters’, given that in correct usage, ‘nun’ refers to a female religious, who leads a contemplative life) are all given their own plots with their names inscribed. They, at least, have a proper Christian burial.
History professor at Warwick University, Maria Luddy, said that 60 out of 120 babies died in Sean Ross Abbey in its opening year. Had that rate been maintained – and, in fact, the unit expanded – it would have meant 2,400 deaths until 1970 when the mother and baby unit closed.
Considering that 60 babies died in the opening single year of Sean Ross Abbey, it is safe to assume that deaths, at least in their hundreds (being utterly conservative) if not greater, occurred. Remember, Sean Ross Abbey was just one of three mother and baby homes operated by the order in the state. The sisters sold babies and infants to the few wealthy in Irish society and American people.
Between the end of World War II and 1965, more than 2,200 Irish infants were adopted out of the country. It was mostly by parents in the United States. That’s 110 on average, every year, or more than two a week. Meanwhile, their birth-mothers had to work without wages – unless they could afford to pay – for two or three years. They wore uniforms, had their names changed and their letters were vigorously censored.
Writing of her nine months in Bessborough during 1951 and 52, June Goulding has said in her 1998 book “The Light in the Window” that women tarred roads: “. . . about eight to ten girls, all in varying degrees of pregnancy . . . and a roller that took three pregnant girls to pull”. They also plucked lawns – by hand – and polished, polished, polished.
They were routinely worked until well into labour; got no painkillers (even over-the-counter brands, such as Aspro and Anadin). They weren’t given sutures (stitching) or antibiotics (after 1928 when they were invented). She recounts they had to give birth in chromium commodes, in order not to ‘soil’ their beds. (Fundamentalist Catholics sometimes referred to such babies as “the spawn of Satan”, a designation that encouraged the more rabid literally “to beat the devil out of them”.)
They were routinely given babies other than their own to breastfeed and had the joy of ‘Sister’ whispering to the women – especially those in labour: “was the five minutes pleasure worth all this?” Goulding also describes the “cruel custom” of compelling mothers surrendering their babies to carry them along a corridor before handing them over. “I had witnessed the horrific ritual that would be repeated for each and every mother and baby in this hell-hole.”
In 1928, for instance, ‘illegitimate babies’ (henceforth people born ‘outside marriage’ because of the pejorative phrase) suffered ‘infant mortality rates’ five times higher than children born within marriage. In other words, 10 out of 33 babies born ‘outside marriage’ died before their first birthday. That’s greater than 30 per cent. The equivalent for those born within marriage was two out of 33.
In the 1930s, it was more than four times as high. The rate of infant mortality for children born within marriage was, at the time, between five and six per cent. So, roughly a quarter of all babies born outside marriage died before the age of one. These were death rates for childbirth in the 17th century.
In 1948, the rate of mortality among babies born inside marriage was 47 per 1,000 live births. The rate for babies born outside marriage was 149 per 1,000 births. These figures were quoted by John Cunningham the former Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at University College Dublin. He said at UCD in March, 1951 that “this area does not necessitate state intervention”. Still, it’s more than three times as high.
There was infanticide, of course. Mothers or other relatives ‘distraught’ by the birth outside marriage – sometimes birth-fathers and fathers of mothers grieving lost ‘respectability’ – undoubtedly killed babies and infants. Such people valued a rule, encouraged by the Catholic Church to relegate the Fifth Commandment – ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – in favour of Church hatred of babies born outside marriage.
It’s clear that the reason the Church was so totally against babies born outside marriage was it meant a loss of control. Between 1870 and 1970, the average Irish rate for birth outside marriage was less than three per cent. Today, 32 per cent of Irish and 44 per cent of British people are born outside marriage. Demonising those born outside marriage was the most effective means to ensure the vast majority of marriageable people had a Church wedding.
The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge owned the High Park Convent in Dublin’s Drumcondra. There they ran the largest Magdalen laundry in Ireland. In 1993, the nuns were forced because of losses from an aerospace company, Guinness Peat Aviation, to sell a portion of convent land to the State.
It emerged that 133 graves – a further 22 were later discovered – existed on this land. The graves held the remains of women interred anonymously between 1866 and 1984. These graves were for Magdalen women and girls who had worked in the convent laundry and as maids: cooking, cleaning and caring for nuns, many of whom were elderly. In 1997, the unmarked graves of 27 women were discovered on the grounds of a former Good Shepherd convent in Cork. Indeed, unmarked graves exist in almost all former Magdalen laundry sites.
It appears the nuns did likewise in mother and baby homes. There is, in Castlepollard graveyard, only five headstones. Two are for deceased nuns: Sr. Alphonsus Ryan, who died in October 1957 and Sr. Brigid O’Keeffe, who died in November 1964; one for a lay person, Margaret McGrath (a benefactor?); one five feet tall marble structure requests people to pray for the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
The fifth headstone is more recent. Most of the graveyards received an updating in the 1990s. It is just 18 inches tall, about three feet wide and made of limestone. “In Memory of God’s Special Angels Interred in this Cemetary” (sic) it says. There are no names of children buried there nor is there any indication of their number. I had the eerie feeling I was standing and walking on a mass grave of babies and infants.
It’s the same in Sean Ross Abbey and Bessborough. Unlike St. Peter’s, which has only the graves of two nuns, the nuns’ cemetery at Sean Ross Abbey has 24 small headstones. These mark deaths from 1942 to 2004. All the graves are on one side of the small graveyard, which is scarcely wider and considerably shorter than the one in St. Peter’s. It does however have a five feet tall marble cross, identical to the one in Castlepollard.
The children’s cemetery is about one hundred metres away from that of the nuns. Tall, dense trees surround it. It measures about half an acre. Carved on an obviously recent but undated headstone is the following: “The Memorial Garden is dedicated to the Babies and Infants who died in Sean Ross Abbey and are buried here.” At the edges of the cemetery, there are reminders of four children and one adult buried there.
In the middle of this half acre of sorrow, there is a nameless, faceless and weathered cross. It was to do for all those buried anonymously in the children’s graveyard before the sanitising of the place as a ‘Memorial Garden’. Walking on the grass in the cemetery gave me the same, eerie feeling I had experienced in Castlepollard. How many tiny bodies were buried there? Dozens, scores, hundreds – perhaps even greater?
Bessborough House was sold with its 210 acres, in 1921, to the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. There’s a Lourdes-like grotto and acres of bluebells, some white. There are 25 nuns buried in the little cemetery. Babies Ellen, William, Patricia, Maura, Patrick, Mary, Teresa, Geraldine, Richard, Anne, Cathleen and Nellie died here – among many others – in 1931. Their Christian or first names are written in biro on plasticized paper plates pinned to the wall of a keep (built as a folly) on the grounds.
There is a sign in front of the keep: “In remembrance of all babies who died before or shortly after birth.” Behind the keep on which babies’ names are pinned, there’s a circle of roughly twenty metres. This circle, with grass at it centre, has rocks, lilies, trees, reeds and white bluebells around its perimeter. It also has an extraordinarily cheap-looking wooden cross – it looks like tea-chest wood and is uneven.
Until the Catholic Church makes records available, there has got to be suspicion. One inmate of Castlepollard told us she was reminded she “was there to do penance”. Yet doing ‘penance’ is one thing; withholding painkillers, stitching and antibiotics from expectant mothers is another. A number of them will die.
Fundamentalist Catholics might be against the giving of painkillers, stitching and antibiotics. The women must be reminded they are there to do ‘penance’. The best analogy is of a Jehovah’s Witness or a Christian Scientist refusing a blood transfusion to save their child. Despite their religious convictions, courts regularly override them and insist on the blood transfusion.
Irish courts conspired however with the religious. The State is as guilty as the Church on the matter. It’s not only the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. There are a number of other orders which ran industrial and reform schools, Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes. They require investigation.
If High Park is repeated around the country – and it appears that it is – who knows the number of children buried in what seem like mass graves? Certainly there are hundreds, possibly many more. After the Ryan Report the matter has lost some of its taboo. “I remember lots of children dying,” said ‘Marion’.
Where are they? Are they to be lost forever, without even a name (a Christian or first name to save detection of those with unusual surnames)? Bereft in life, they were treated similarly in death. Meanwhile nuns lavish money on maintaining and improving their own graves. If even one killing of a baby or a mother is suspected, the Guards should cordon off the place and investigate it.
That, at least, is what the State should do. It has spectacularly failed these children in life. It’s about to compound it by failing them in death. Between them, State and Church hastened death. For instance, 58 ex-industrial school pupils and former Magdalen women committed suicide between 2000 and 2005.
That’s way in excess of what you might expect from a relatively small population of 130,000 or so. It seems like there’s 10 times as many suicides among those whose fate was to attend Catholic Church-run industrial and reform schools and Magdalen laundries.
Society demanded it though. It was Holy Ireland against Pagan England as the Church of England waned, certainly after World War II. I can remember my own mother talking about “pagan England . . . heathen England . . . godless England”. Morality was the only way then that Irish people could feel superior to English people. The English, for their part, felt commercially, militarily, financially superior to the Irish. They had reason to.
It’s difficult to believe but these people have individually raped or gang-raped an unwilling child-victim. People who do that will do anything. As to the Church and State: let them hang their heads in shame. There are some excellent people among the religious and clergy. It really should be in their interests to weed out rapists, liars and people who take a perverse pleasure inflicting pain and, at least, hastening death on children.
Instead, they moved them from parish to parish to protect the Roman Catholic Church.