State archives may hold key to mother and baby homes

According to records held in the archives of the Kerry County Library, in December 1929 the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) issued a circular to all Irish local authorities requesting information on "unmarried mothers" in county homes.

State archives may hold key to mother and baby homes

They also asked what steps were taken to transfer them into specialised mother-and-baby homes such as Tuam in Galway; Bessborough in Cork city, Kilrush in County Clare (closed in early 1930s); and Pelletstown in Dublin — (other homes including Sean Ross in Roscrea and Manor House in Castlepollard had yet to be opened).

Local authorities were informed that six-monthly returns of women in county homes had to be submitted to the department as it was important for the ‘minister’ – the leading pro-Treatyite and future Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy – to be kept informed of the extent of the problem.

After identifying ‘suitable’ cases of ‘unmarried mothers’ in the Kerry County Home, the DLGPH wrote to the Kerry authorities stating that ‘the minister considers that it would be well if they were transferred to the Sacred Heart Home, Bessborough where special arrangements have been made for dealing with such cases’.

A number of women were subsequently sent from the Kerry County Home to the Bessborough Home — run by the Sacred Heart Congregation — and maintained by a capitation fee paid for by the Kerry ratepayers.

This demonstrates the nexus of central government, local government and religious authorities involved in the systematic placing of women and children in mother and baby homes in independent Ireland.

These institutions differed from Magdalene Asylums which had their roots in eighteenth century philanthropy and were turned to by the State in the twentieth century in an ad hoc manner.

Mother and baby homes were established as separate institutions for unmarried mothers and children at the behest of central and local government authorities during revolutionary and early independent Ireland in an attempt at reform of former workhouses which were euphemistically renamed County Homes.

Engineers using ground-probing radar at the burial site at the former mother-and-babies home at Tuam.

The recent controversy over the high number of unmarked graves in Tuam has brought Mother and Baby Homes to the public’s attention.

However, it remains clear that major gaps in understandings of the nature of these homes and the complex place they held in Irish society remains.

As the Government decides on the nature of any potential inquiry, it should be kept in mind that a large amount of relevant archival material remains in the hands of the State.

The archives of local authorities, which reveal much about the process of how women were committed, maintained, and financed in these homes, are scattered across the country in local repositories in county archives and libraries.

Some of this material is well-archived, accessible and open to researchers while in other cases such material, largely due to lack of resources, remains un-archived and inaccessible.

Even more important are the records of the central government body which was responsible for all local authorities — the DLGPH. This department was established at the foundation of the Free State and remained until 1947 with the creation of separate Departments of Health, Social Welfare and Local Government in 1947. The records of this DLGPH are dispersed across the various departments that subsequently emerged, and some were transferred to the National Archives of Ireland.

These records won’t tell the full story, and personal testimony and local knowledge is vitally important. However, it’s evident that this material has the potential to unlock much about mother and baby homes — especially for the years 1920-40 when the system was established but for which oral testimony is limited.

Any inquiry needs to fully examine such material — ideally with the consultation of historians.

Importantly, the scope of such an inquiry has to look beyond mother and baby homes.

It is evident these were part of a much wider network of institutions, many of which were state-run such as county homes. Indeed larger numbers of unmarried mothers were in county homes.

In 1927 out of 1,202 unmarried mothers maintained in institutions by local authorities, 967 were in county homes and the remainder in specialised institutions including mother and baby homes.

Throughout the twentieth-century up to 70% of unmarried mothers institutionalised by the State found their way into county homes. Local authority child welfare was not confined to institutions and many children were boarded-out or fostered to families in local communities (in 1939 2,349 were boarded-out by local authorities); the conditions that these children lived under are also in need of attention.

Other voluntary-run institutions including rescue homes, orphanages and children’s homes run by various religious denominations existed.

While the 2009 Ryan Commission and the 2013 McAleese Report covered industrial schools and magdalene asylums, a fully comprehensive inquiry such as the on-going Northern Irish Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry — this is currently inquiring into all voluntary and State residential institutions that existed between 1922 and 1995 — seems needed.

Any inquiry that concentrates on just mother and baby homes runs the risk of being piecemeal and the likelihood of future controversies.

* Dr Seán Lucey is an historian based in Queen’s University Belfast. His forthcoming book The End of the Irish Poor Law? Welfare and Healthcare Reform in Revolutionary and Independent Ireland will be published by Manchester University Press in 2015.

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