The revelations come just two months after the Government announced a statutory commission to investigate practices, deaths, illegal adoptions and vaccine trials at the country’s mother-and-baby homes.
Previous research done by adoption campaigners indicated a death rate of around 50% and above at Bessborough throughout the late 1930s and 1940s.
However, material uncovered by the Irish Examiner in the Cork City archives shows an official investigation carried out by the Cork County Medical Officer in 1943, on foot of inquiries from a Department of Local Government inspector, confirmed a death rate of 68% at the home.
Concern about the “habitual” high infant mortality rate at the home was so grave that the Cork County Medical Officer Robert Condy, prepared two separate reports about Bessborough for the Cork County Manager in 1943 and 1944.
The first confirms most of the children were listed as dying from “debility”, some from gastroenteritis, and “a small number” due to prematurity. It also speculates that the lack of adequate nursing qualifications by staff may have been a reason for the large number of children dying there.
“The Sister in charge of this home has no nursing qualifications and no hospital training in infants and children apart from two months in Temple Street Hospital, Dublin,” Dr Condy wrote.
“This may or may not be a cause but I suppose a qualified Nurse and specially qualified in infant feeding should be appointed for 6-12 months. The figures could then be compared with the previous term.”
A second report prepared in January 1944 by Dr Condy examines the qualifications of the staff.
It points out that only two of the four staff members in the maternity section of the home were State- registered nurses, with none having qualifications in treating children.
“There is therefore only one Nurse in this section who possesses the CMB [Central Midwives Board] Certificate, and no member of the Nursing staff has undergone any special training in infant hygiene and dietetics,” Dr Condy wrote.
In the infant home, a similar lack of qualifications was present in the three nuns running the section.
Dr Condy also took issue with the nuns boarding out children to foster parents from as early an age as just six weeks old.
“I am informed that the age at which infants are discharged from this section for boarding-out, averages around one year but infants have been boarded out at as early an age as six weeks,” wrote Dr Condy. “It would seem undesirable that infants should be separated from their mothers at such an early period.”
Both reports from 1943 and 1944 confirm that the State was aware that a “habitual” high child death rate was occurring at Bessborough.
These reports also seem predate those of State chief medical officer, James Deeny, who inspected the institution in the mid- to late 1940s and closed it down briefly due to his concerns about the level of child death there.
“The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing about it, had accepted the situation and were quite complacent about it,” Dr Deeny wrote in his 1989 memoir.