Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home, Roscrea
What were Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes?
Mother and Baby Homes existed across the Republic of Ireland from the foundation of the state in 1922 until the closure of the last home, at Bessborough in County Cork in 1998.
When and why were they set up?
Ireland’s network of Mother and Baby Homes were initially set up after the country gained independence in 1922. While similar homes existed across Europe, the impetus for the creation of the network of homes in Ireland came from the Catholic Church - although the Homes were by no means exclusively Catholic institutions.
Both the new national Government and the Church believed that a newly independent Ireland should be a beacon of ‘morality.’ As such, Mother and Baby Homes were established to ‘reform’ so-called ’fallen women.’
Who ran Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes?
Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland either operated as private institutions or under the direction of Local Authorities, receiving funding from Church congregations and/or from the State.
However, whoever managed the Homes, the day-to-day running was carried out by religious sisters.
Who were the residents?
Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes were set up to accommodate unmarried pregnant women or those who had given birth to a child.
Once admitted to a home, it was expected that mothers stayed there for a period of time before being discharged. The length of time that a mother or child remained varied from institution to institution.
What were conditions like?
Conditions in Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes were often poor, particularly in the years leading up to the mid-1960s. For example, a 1936 inspection into Bethany House describes conditions as being “overcrowded” with nursing staff “inadequately trained”.
Many homes lacked adequate washing and toilet facilities for the number of women that they were set up to accommodate. In addition, overcrowding was a long-term problem at various Homes, making basic privacy impossible.
Infant mortality was a constant issue through many years in the homes. Infant deaths were six times higher in the homes than in Ireland’s wider population. In the 1930s, infant mortality rates in Bessborough Home were up to 10 times the national average.
Communal living and overcrowding meant that diseases spread easily, and enteritis, diarrhoea and malnutrition contributed to significant numbers of death. Although infant mortality levels began to reduce over time thanks to better sanitary conditions and immunisation programmes, they continued to exceed the national average.
Why did women enter Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes?
Women often entered the homes as there was no viable alternative.
The attitudes of society at the time meant that there were very few options available for unmarried mothers. Residents’ parents or wider family couldn’t or wouldn’t offer support. Unmarried mothers received no financial support from the State; they also found it difficult to gain or keep employment.
How were the residents of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes viewed?
The language used to describe residents is revealing and, many would say today, shocking.
The homes are intended to “rehabilitate” those admitted. Women are initially described as ‘first time offenders’, while those admitted on more than one occasion are “second” or “persistent offenders.” A witness to a 1925 Commission described those who entered a home on more than one occasion as “a danger to the community.”
In short, it is the language of criminalisation.
What were the prospects for women leaving Ireland’s Mother & Baby Homes?
For many former residents the experience of living in the homes had lifelong effects, and they recognise the barriers and disadvantages they have endured as a result. Their experiences have affected their physical health, emotional wellbeing, community links, education, work and more.
Perhaps most significantly, many women left the homes without being able to bring their children with them, with many reporting that they felt forced to give them up. Many adoptions were illegally registered, and children were frequently adopted by parents in the United States and in Australia.
If you spent time in one of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes or a County Home as a mother or a child and want more information on the Irish Government Mother and Baby and County Home Action plan, please contact Renewing Roots.
All conversations are confidential, and there is no obligation to continue if you decide against doing so.
Speak to a specialist case work on your area - see our team page for more details.
Or see a list of homes covered by the payment scheme.