Mother and baby homes. Photo Credit - Brian Lockier/Adoption Rights Alliance
Shocking details of ‘a shameful chapter’ of Irish history reveal 177 babies died in just 38 years at the Kilkenny County Home.
Their individual graves are unmarked and many institutional records have been destroyed. It has also been revealed that many Kilkenny mothers were sent to the now infamous Bessborough home in Cork and Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, from the County Home.
The heartbreaking figures reflecting the stories of mothers and their babies have been set out in the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, published on Tuesday.
The County Home was located in Thomastown where the mother and baby section was just one department in the home that cared for many of the infirm and vulnerable in the community, and had evolved from the earlier workhouse. It was controlled by the local authority.
Many burial records from the home no longer exist - a groundsman having been told to incinerate records ‘around 1990’. However, the Commission visited the graveyard in 2019. It had been levelled and grassed, is well-maintained and now has a single cross marking its status as a former graveyard, with the inscription “Remembering those who died”. This graveyard operated from 1854 until 1978 and the Commission “considers it likely that children who died in Thomastown County Home were buried there”.
According to the report more than half of the mothers who lived at the County Home (54%) experienced the death of at least one child. Between 1919 and 1962, 764 live births at the County Home were attributed to single women. Of that, 140 infants subsequently died.
A report from a medical officer in the 1920s blamed mothers for “careless and indifferent mothering.”
Conditions at the Thomastown facility were ‘very poor’ with the nursery section the worst part of the institution, although all residents were affected.
Many women from the County Home were sent on to other homes, such as Sean Ross in Roscrea or Bessborough in Cork, although some remained in Thomastown, doing unpaid work in the other sections of the home.
Admissions of single pregnant women to Thomastown county home were highest in the years 1920 to 1923 and fell by around 50% thereafter. The report says this decline is most probably associated with the opening of Bessborough in 1922. Kilkenny was one of the first local authorities to engage with that institution.
Infant mortality at the home was worst in the 1920s, peaking in 1927 at a rate of 30%. The average death rate in the 1930s was 11%; in the 1940s it was 15.4%; and mortality dropped by the 1950s, with no infant deaths in 1953 or 1954.
The worst year for infant mortality at Thomastown was 1922, when 20 children born in the institution, or admitted there, died.
The average length of stay of children who were born in, or admitted to, Thomastown in the 1920s was 97 days, but this rose to 224 in the 1930s.
In the period 1920-1972, the registers record almost 60,000 admissions. The Commission identified the admissions of 75 married maternity cases, 970 single expectant women and unmarried mothers and 1,241 ‘illegitimate’ children.
In 1926, the Kilkenny board of health deemed the practice of admitting pregnant married women to Thomastown county home as ‘contrary to the working of the Scheme’ and married pregnant women remain largely absent from the records thereafter.
According to the Commission: “The unmarried mothers and children who were in county homes have attracted much less attention than those in the mother and baby homes but there is conclusive evidence that they experienced much worse physical conditions than the women who were in mother and baby homes.”
Local TD Kathleen Funchion has paid tribute to survivors and their families: “I want firstly to commend the bravery of survivors and their families who time and time again have been overlooked and subjugated by church, State and society,” she said.
Deputy Funchion said the Government needs to act urgently to ensure the human rights of survivors are protected.
Several helplines have been opened for those who are affected by this report.
Former residents of mother-and-baby homes can call the HSE National Counselling Service, open Monday to Friday, 9.30am and 5pm. For the Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Carlow and South Tipperary area the number is – 1800 234 118.
Details can also be found on a dedicated, HSE website - click here.
Outside of office hours, Connect Counselling provides telephone support. This service is available between 6pm and 10pm each day every day on 1800 477 477.
Support is also available in the UK and the USA.
Immigrant Counselling & Psychotherapy (ICAP) - 0207 272 7906, www.icap.org.uk
The London Irish Centre - 0207 916 2222, www.londonirishcentre.org
Irish Community Services - 0208 854 4466, www.irishcommunityservices.org
Leeds Irish Health and Homes - 0113 262 5614, www.lihh.org
For people based in the United States, the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers can be contacted for support. To find your local centre go to the CIIC website - click here to find your nearest centre.
You can download the full Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes on Gov.ie - click here to go to the summary and individual chapters.