Naming the Bessborough babies is the very least we can do

Treated as disposable in both life and death, these children deserve an identity
Naming the Bessborough babies is the very least we can do

Plaque remembering the babies, women and girls on the Greenway between Rochestown and Blackrock near the walkwalk over the Southlink motorway at back Bessborough house in Cork.

To remember the names of the Bessborough babies is the very least we owe to Irish citizens who were considered disposable in life and in death, at a time when to be born in the Cork mother and baby home was akin to a death sentence.

I walked the grounds of Bessborough in August 2019 with Catherine Corless and her husband Aidan. As we crossed the section of ground identified in a 1950 Ordnance Survey map as a children’s burial site, Catherine told me about the moment when the Tuam Babies story shifted in the public imagination.

“It was only when people saw the names in the papers that they realised these were real people, real children,” she said. 

It gave each and every baby an identity, a statement to say that they spent time on this earth, that they existed.

Catherine is the historian who gathered the death certificates of the 796 babies who died at the Tuam home, and it was she who realised those children were lying in a disused Victorian sewerage system. 

Or, as some put it more succinctly, and controversially, dumped in a septic tank. 

Catherine’s work was the first stone in the avalanche which led to this week’s report from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Inquiry.

After this conversation, I obtained through a Freedom of Information request to the General Register Office (GRO) the death certificate details of 816 children registered as dying at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, at the adjacent Sacred Heart Maternity Hospital, or after transfer to St Finbarr’s Hospital.

This week, the Irish Examiner published those babies’ names, and they are familiar names, including Buckley, Creedon, O’Connor, and O’Keeffe. 

I hope that the Bessborough babies are a little more real now for that.

Between 1922 and 1998 the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary ran Bessborough, admitting 9,768 mothers and 8,938 babies. According to the commission’s final report, 923 children in the care of Bessborough died.

Last year, the commission cited “small” discrepancies between Bessborough’s records and those given to the GRO, but the commission’s report shows that 107 more babies died — or were said to have died — in the care of Bessborough than were actually certified by the GRO. 

Such discrepancies can only compound survivors’ long-held and often-confirmed suspicions surrounding false reporting, vaccine trials, and forced adoptions.

Nora Cronin, the first child registered as dying in Bessborough, was five months old when she died on Saturday 30 December, 1922, her cause of death listed as “gastric convulsions”. 

Over the following 72 years, hundreds more would die, the majority in the first three decades of the home’s existence.

Bessborough is a tale of two eras: pre-1945 and post-1945. Of the 816 deaths notified to the GRO, 659 occurred before 1945. 

Between 1922 and 1930, 81 babies are certified as having died, an average of nine per year, with the average age at death 32 weeks. The leading reported causes of death were marasmus (a medical term relating to starvation), accounting for 31 deaths, and gastroenteritis, accounting for 19 deaths.

An ageing memorial at Bessborough.
An ageing memorial at Bessborough.

Between 1931 and 1940, 267 children died at Bessborough, average age at death 13.5 days. Marasmus accounted for 72 deaths, gastroenteritis for 33 deaths.

Between 1941 and 1950, 364 children are certified as having died, 311 between 1941 and 1945, average age at death 13 weeks. 

Congenital illnesses were the leading reported cause of death, accounting for 102 deaths. Gastroenteritis accounted for 41, and marasmus accounted for 38.

Professor Louise Kenny, of the University of Liverpool, says the majority of children born in Bessborough in the early 1940s died of what were then entirely preventable illnesses.

To be born in Bessborough in the early 1940s was almost certainly a death sentence.

“These kids were not dying from sepsis, measles, or illnesses not treatable at the time; some were dying simply because they were considered disposable," she said.

Ireland’s infant mortality rate was 66 deaths per 1,000 births (6.6%) between 1941 and 1950, while in Bessborough the rate for the same period was 360 deaths per 1,000 births. 

A baby born there between 1941 and 1950 was over six times more likely to die in infancy than a baby born in the general population.

Between April 1943 and March 1944, 124 babies were either born at Bessborough or admitted there after birth, while 102 children were officially certified as having died there, with government inspection reports at the time citing an 82% infant mortality rate in the home.

Noting the high incidence of deaths attributed to marasmus and gastroenteritis at Bessborough, Prof Kenny suggests gastroenteritis appears to have been used as a catch-all term.

I’ve never seen so high an infant mortality rate, not even in the most famine-stricken parts of Africa.

As Conall Ó Fatharta reported previously in the Irish Examiner, a June 1941 government inspection report found that the matron, Mother Gleeson, had no qualifications in supervising maternity care, suggesting a “tendency to discourage breastfeeding” might be partly responsible for Bessborough’s soaring infant mortality rate.

In 1945 Dr James Deeny, chief medical adviser, travelled to Bessborough, discovering: “Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up.” 

Deeny closed the home and sacked Gleeson. Bessborough reopened under Mother Rosemonde and conditions improved dramatically, with annual infant deaths dropping to single figures within two years, where they stayed for the following five decades.

Bessborough remained a cruel place, according to June Goulding, a midwife there from 1951, writing in her 1998 memoir The Light in the Window that women were denied pain relief during labour.

It’s hard, trawling through the data from Bessborough’s early decades, not to question the truthfulness of the language used. 

Other questions arise. Were children certified as dying of “congenital debility” in fact disabled children who were allowed to die? And did they all actually die? Or, as a 2012 HSE report worried, were records falsified to cover up illegal adoptions?

Catherine Corless, pictured beside a grotto in the grounds of the Bon Secours mother-and-baby home. Picture: Laura Hutton/
Catherine Corless, pictured beside a grotto in the grounds of the Bon Secours mother-and-baby home. Picture: Laura Hutton/

Some children are reported as dying of “congenital syphilis”, but for all the implicit and unjust judgment of the mothers in that, never once is there a mention of the fathers.

Between 1931 and 1975, the occupations of deceased babies were recorded. Of 676 children, 628 were listed as “child of domestic servant”. Thirty-five were “child of farmer’s daughter”. Five were “child of schoolgirl”.

If, as Prof Kenny suggests, some Bessborough babies died because they were considered “disposable” in life, then many were disposable in death too.

The bodies and burial records of over 800 children are missing, and the Commission of Investigation concluded last year that it is “highly likely” that some of those babies may be buried on the Bessborough grounds.

On Wednesday, 10 August, 1994, a two-day-old baby girl named Zoei Bonny died at St Finbarr’s Hospital, Cork. Her cause of death was “bilateral pneumothoraces due to arterial ventilation”.

Of the 816 Bessborough babies certified as having died in the care of Bessborough, Zoei is the most recent.

Zoei is beloved, and she is mourned still. Naming Zoei is the very least we could do.

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