State feared public scandal over infant deaths at mother and baby homes

The State feared a “public scandal” in relation to the alarming number of children dying in mother and baby homes — 70 years before the Tuam babies scandal made worldwide headlines.

The revelation is contained in a letter sent on behalf of parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health Dr Con Ward in 1945 to the Bishop of Cork Daniel Cohalan.

The letter was in response to an angry letter sent to Dr Ward by Bishop Cohalan where he questioned the department’s request that the order remove the head of Bessborough over the “trouble” of infant mortality at the institution.

Records show there was an 82% infant death rate at Bessborough at the time.

“Rev Mother Martina has informed me that the Mother Superior in England was asked to remove her. That procedure was scarcely correct. Mother Martina is Reverend Mother of the Community of Sisters, it is an ecclesiastical appointment; it was not a correct thing to call for he removal,” he wrote.

However, in response, the department was clear that should information about the number of children dying leak into the public domain, it would result in a “public scandal”.

“The parliamentary secretary is only concerned with her position as matron of a home in which the death rate has reached an exceptionally high figure. The fact that 102 babies died in the institution before reaching the age of 12 months during the year 31st March last — the total infants born in the home and admitted after birth in that year being 124 — is viewed with disquietude.

“Apart from any public scandal which might result, the parliamentary secretary felt that the case called for immediate action and that to allow the Rev Mother Martina to continue as manager would mean acquiescence on his part in the state of affairs which has been disclosed,” stated the letter.

The 102 deaths referred to an 82% death rate at Bessborough reported to inspector Alice Litster for year ended 31 March 1944. Last week, the Irish Examiner revealed that this figure was substantially higher than the level of deaths the order recorded in its own death register.

Bishop Cohalan informs the department that he had spoken to the ex-chaplain at Bessborough and Sr Martina and that “the seriousness of the problem is realised”.

“The view is that a young doctor is needed, not a general practitioner but a specialist in gynaecology; that with a young doctor — gynaecologist — the cause of the mortality would be soon discovered and a remedy found,” he said.

The department agreed with this assessment but also expresses the hope that the re-organisation proposed by the superior-general of the order, whereby “an efficient and energetic Matron was to be transferred from Shan Ross to Bessboro, will have Your Lordship’s support”.


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