Bessborough Mother and Baby Home: Register of deaths reveals trends and anomalies

When news broke that 796 children were listed as having died at Tuam Mother and Baby Home last year — it made global headlines.

Bessborough Mother and Baby Home: Register of deaths reveals trends and anomalies

Despite knowledge of ‘angel plots’ on a range of Mother and Baby Home’s around the country — it was the media storm it sparked that forced the Government’s hand in launching a State inquiry.

There was the usual expressions of outrage and horror from a whole host of Government politicians.

All of this hand wringing occurred while two Government departments were in possession of a HSE report since 2012 which revealed that the order which ran Bessborough recorded 472 infant deaths in 19 years between 1934 and 1953 — a higher death rate than Tuam.

This figure was taken from the order’s own death register which has now been released under Freedom of Information — with the names of the children redacted.

The order confirmed to Tusla via its solicitors last year that the death register was the only one in existence and that it “does not hold any other death register”.

Quite apart from the fact that the numbers listed are significantly lower than those reported to Department of Local Government and Public Health inspectors — the register reveals the details of hundreds of children who are recorded as having died behind the walls of Bessborough.

It’s not only the details of children recorded in the register. A total of eight women are listed, along with 472 infants.

The very last death recorded is that of an 82-year-old woman in January 1953. Listed simply as “Spinster”, her cause of death is recorded as: “Old age. Chronic bronchitis.”

In addition to revealing the numbers of babies recorded as dying in Bessborough between 1934 and 1953, the register, which runs to some 52 pages, also lists each child’s date of death, former residence of the deceased, the child’s name, gender, age at last birthday, profession (which is marked ‘son’ or ’daughter’ in most cases), cause of death, duration of illness, initials of the officer recording the death and the date when the death was registered.

The recorded causes of death include: marasmus (severe malnutrition), congenital debility, gastro-enteritis, spina bifida, congenital syphilis, pneumonia, bronchitis, congenital heart, congenital deformity, tubercular peritiorities, cardiac shock, heat stroke, mastoiditis, tonsillitis, prematurity, meningitis, tubercular meningitis, cerebral meningitis, congestion of the lungs, abscess of the bowel and convulsions, among others.

Some of the children are listed as surviving just minutes while one child is recorded as having died of “prematurity” at three years old.

The register is a formal ledger supplied by the Registrar General for Ireland “for the purpose of facilitating the accurate Registration of Deaths in Public Institutions”. It states it is recording “deaths in Bessborough Home, in the Registrar’s District of Blackrock, Supt-Registrar’s District of South Cork, County of Cork”.

The very first death recorded is in February 1934 of a three-month old female infant. The cause of death is listed “congenital heart”. The death was registered that same month.

In total, 41 children are recorded as dying in Bessborough in 1934 — the fourth highest death rate in the 19 year period.

The top five years in terms of infant mortality recorded in Bessborough, as recorded in the death register, are 1943 (75), 1942 (57), 1944 (50), 1934 (41), and 1938 (38).

An examination of the years where high levels of deaths are recorded reveals some alarming trends.

Out of the 75 deaths recorded for 1943, 16 come in the month of April alone. A further 14 come in the month of August. That amounts to a child dying roughly every two days in Bessborough for two whole months.

Similarly, in 1942, 57 infant deaths are recorded. A total of 11 of these deaths are for the month of July alone. In January of 1944, 11 out of the yearly total of 50 deaths come in the month of January.

The recording of the date when deaths were registered also throws up some anomalies.

For example, the first six deaths recorded in the Register all contain the day, month and year the death was registered. From then on the consistency of entry is extremely patchy.

For example, for entire swathes of the register it is unclear as to on what date, if any, large numbers of deaths were registered.

Some simply contain a month, while others seem to indicate that large numbers of deaths were recorded on the same day.

The cause of death listed throughout the register are also noteworthy.

For example, more than 80 of the 472 infant deaths are listed as being due to “marasmus” — or severe malnutrition.

The death of baby boy in October 1934 is initially listed as “marasmus” but a line has been drawn through it and “premature” inserted overhead. The boy is listed as having survived for just three hours. The date when the death was registered is not listed.

In another case, a three year old baby girl’s death in 1946 is listed as being due to “prematurity”.

Just four infant deaths were recorded in 1949. However, the cause of death in all of the cases is listed as “convulsions”.

In 1951, just two deaths are recorded — that of a 21-month-old boy and a two- year-old boy. The cause of death in both cases is “toxaemia”.

The other most commonly cited causes of death are gastro-enteritis and bronchitis. For example, all of the nine infant deaths listed in October 1941 are cited as being due to gastro-enteritis.

A total of seven women resident in Bessborough are recorded as having died between 1934 and 1953.

The first of these women is listed as having died in December 1936 at the age of 21 years-old. Recorded as a “spinster”, the cause of death is “acute leukaemia” which lasted for three months. There is no entry for the date when this death was registered.

In March of the following year, a 22-year-old “spinster” is listed as having died of ”pneumonia”. There is no indication as to when the death was registered.

A 27-year-old woman, also listed as a “spinster” is recorded as having died of “pneumonia” in February of 1938. Once again, there is no indication in the register as to the date this death was registered.

Two women are recorded as having died in December 1940 — a 40 year-old “spinster” and a 67-year-old “attendant”. In both cases, the date when the death was registered is not recorded.

The last woman recorded as having died in Bessborough is the very last entry in the death register. She is listed as an 82-year-old woman who died of “old age” and “chronic bronchitis”. She is the only woman for which a date for the registration of the death is recorded.

By the late 1940s and the move towards legal adoption in 1952, the number of children listed as having died in Bessborough falls dramatically.

Between 1948 and 1952 just 13 children are recorded as dying. In 1953, for the first year on record, no child dies.

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