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Conal Ó Fátharta’s indepth article (Irish Examiner, November 23) exposed the scandal of child mortality in Bessborough mother and baby home during the 1940s.
He showed how the state had to battle with the Roman Catholic Church to bring in reforms. Ó Fátharta demonstrated how even Bessborough’s medical officer, Dr O’Connor, tried to justify death and illness, because the children were ‘illegitimate’.
Dr James Deeny became Chief Medical Advisor of the new Department of Health in 1944. It was he who raised the storm between Church and State. He detailed visiting Bessborough in ‘To Cure and to Care’ (1989, p85’). “I… could not make out what was wrong; at last I took a notion and stripped all the babies and, unusually, for a Chief Medical Advisor, examined them. Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up… without any legal authority I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer. The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing about it.”
I write because not so long before this, in 1939, the then Deputy Chief Medical Advisor, Dr Winslow Sterling Berry, was tasked with investigating large scale increases in death and illness in Dublin’s Protestant evangelical Bethany Home. Since outsiders had publicised removing children to hospital, Sterling Berry visited Bethany three times in 1939. Each time he covered up death and neglect.
In October 1939, Sterling Berry wrote in the same terms as later did the Bessborough medical officer:
“... it is well recognised that a large number of illegitimate children are delicate and marasmic [emaciated] from their birth and if removed from constant medical supervision and nursing attention often quickly deteriorate.”
Unlike in Bessborough, there was no attempt to get rid of those running Bethany Homes, and there was no ban on sending children there. The only thing Sterling Berry (son of the Bishop of Killaloe) did was to force the home to stop admitting Roman Catholics, so as to dampen public attention. He succeeded; the attention went away and children started dying again.
The contrast between the two approaches is striking.
It is difficult not to conclude that is why Bethany Home children continued to become ill and to die during the 1940s. These facts have been brought to the attention of the commission of investigation.
Faculty Head, Journalism & Media
Griffith CollegeDublin 8
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