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Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Blackrock, Co. Cork, Republic of Ireland

Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, the boards of guardians that had previously administered the country's poor relief system were quickly abolished, although in County Cork this process was not completed until 1924. In 1921, with the imminent closure of the Cork workhouse, its matron appealed to the guardians to provide alternative accommodation for unmarried women and their children. While visiting several such establishments in London, the board's chairman, Seamus Lankford, was introduced to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The order subsequently agreed to establish a mother and baby home in Cork, with financial assistance provided by the Archbishop of Westminster. Suitable premises were found at Bessborough (or Besborough) House, a large Georgian house with 210 acres of land, near Blackrock. The home opened in November 1922, its remit being 'the reformation of unmarried mothers and their children, and for deserted and orphaned children, but no girls who had a second child will be accepted under any circumstances.' The home's initial inmates came from the Mallow, Kanturk, Millstreet, Macroom and Cork Union workhouses. The unions were asked to pay 25s. a week for the joint maintenance of each mother and child.

In 1922, the Cork County Council decided to follow the example of County Clare and setup up a County Nursery. However, with Bessborough up and running, this plan was never implemented. In 1924, Cork's County Scheme for welfare provision placed the responsibility for overseeing the operation of Bessborough with the South Cork Board of Public Assistance. The Board agreed a weekly rate of 10s. 6d. for each resident, i.e. £1 1s. for a mother and child. The County Scheme also established a County Home in part of the old Cork Union workhouse, where single mothers and their children could be accommodated among a wide variety of other types of welfare case.

The Bessborough House site is shown on the 1912 map below.

Bessborough House site, c.1912.

In its early years, there was some confusion about the right of women to leave the home. It was eventually determined that women living there were legally free to leave. It is highly likely, however, that were not aware of this and, even if they were, may not have had anywhere else to go.

A report in 1925 noted that the 'girls' at Bessborough were usually 'retained' for about a year and trained for 'useful occupations', including housework, cooking, needlework, laundry work, dairy management, poultry rearing, gardening and farming, and that their religious and moral instruction received special attention from the Sisters and the chaplain. At the 'end of the period of detention' the women were placed in situations, most of them taking their infants with them on leaving. In February 1926, it was reported there were 53 unmarried mothers and 52 children in the home.

In 1928, the Mother General of the congregation visited Bessborough and found the women's sleeping accommodation to be unsatisfactory. About £5,000 was subsequently spent on repairs and renovations to the buildings.

Originally, Bessborough only received women who had already given birth. In 1930, a 24-bed maternity ward was opened in a separate small building and single expectant women were then admitted. In 1933, a £17,000 grant allowed the construction of a more elaborate maternity hospital, providing three eight-bed wards and two private rooms.

It was revealed in 1931 that twelve women and their children had been living in the institution as long as six years. The SCBPA advised that the Sisters they would only maintain women and children in Bessborough for up to two years, after which they had to be transferred to Cork County Home. It appears that women not wishing to transfer to the County Home, and who could make no alternative arrangements, remained in Bessborough as unpaid domestic servants until they were able to arrange for the future care of their children. A few women remained there for extended periods after their children had been boarded out and, in some cases, after their children had died. The Sisters received no maintenance payment for such 'old girls' who appear to have stayed on in the institution as unpaid domestic servants in return for their upkeep.

In the year ending March 1935, 120 infants were born in or admitted to Bessborough and 39 infants died. This gave Bessborough the highest infant mortality rate of four specialised mother and baby homes then in operation (Pelletstown, Tuam, Sean Ross and Bessborough). Although the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) appears to have been aware by this date of the very high infant mortality rate in all mother and baby homes, its seems to have attributed it to pre-existing factors such as congenital debility, congenital deformations, and other ante-natal causes traceable to the situation of the unmarried mother.

A inspection of the maternity hospital in 1941, by Dr Florence Dillon of the DLGPH, found much to criticise. The establishment was overcrowded and understaffed. It was approved for the accommodation of 26 women but there were 31 in residence. Although two registered midwives were employed, there were no qualified nurses and the Sister in charge of the maternity hospital had no qualifications for supervising maternity work. No domestic staff were employed, with domestic work in the hospital being performed by residents. Nonetheless, the premises were found to be clean and the staff appeared to be 'efficient and capable'. Two of the five toilets had been converted into store-rooms and the sink room was used to store mattresses. Maternity and confinement registers were not up to date. Breast-feeding was discouraged, which might have had a bearing on the high infant mortality rate. Finally, during the inspection, the Sister in charge, Sister Kyran, was 'discourteous and obstructive'.

Another DLGPH inspector, Miss Alice Litster, supplemented Dr Dillon's report with her own knowledge of Bessborough. She described it as pleasantly situated in well-matured grounds. There was a fair sized lake, good gardens and ample space for exercise and children's games. The home was run with a fair degree of efficiency and a general atmosphere of kindness towards the mothers. Their appreciation for the institution was illustrated by the presence of some former patients who lived there and apparently content to help in the general work without pay. The food appeared to be plentiful and good. The children were well-cared for, properly clothed and well-fed. The women were employed at farm and garden work, butter making, knitting, kitchen and household work generally. There appeared to be no difficulty in finding employment for discharged patients. Miss Litster viewed the overcrowding as typical of all 'special institutions' at that time. She felt there was 'too little interaction' between women and their children in the home. She was more critical of the maternity hospital. Although the matron appeared to be efficient in its management, it appeared to lack the atmosphere of kindness found in the main home. Former patients described her as harsh, domineering and as 'a slave driver'.

The DLGPH communicated their concerns, especially those about the matron's lack of qualifications and other shortcomings, to the home's Mother Superior, who dismissed most of them as being simply untrue, claiming, for example, that mothers were positively encouraged to breast feed.

In the year ending March 1943, were admitted to Bessborough and 70 died. All but one of the 70 deaths occurred in infants under one year old. Miss Litster identified the unsatisfactory milk supply to the home and the failure to breast feed as the main causes of the high death rate and the unhealthy condition of the children. The cows that supplied milk to Bessborough were not tuberculin tested and that the milk produced was not subject to the same standards governing the general milk supply. The number of infants who were wholly breast-fed after leaving the maternity hospital was 'negligible'. Miss Litster questioned if the failure to breast feed was due to incapacity on the mothers' part and if this might be related to an inadequacy in their own diet. On the day of the inspection, which she noted was 'a fast day', the dinner served in the home consisted of potatoes, cabbage, cheese, tea, bread and butter. Tea consisted of bread, butter, lettuce, scallions and tea. Breakfast was tea, bread and butter.

Miss Litster also reported that the thirty older children at the home appeared much healthier than the younger ones. Although a number of the children were of school age, no education was provided for them, contravening legal requirements. As a result, the DLGPH wrote to the local Boards of Assistance who placed children at Bessborough, directing them to find a suitable foster homes for each child, and that funding for the maintenance at the home of children over the age of two would cease.

In September 1943, following continued pressure from the DLGPH, a qualified nurse was appointed as matron of the maternity hospital. The high death rate continued, however. During the year ending 31 March 1944, 105 infants were born in Bessborough and a further 19 were admitted after birth: a total of 124 admissions. During the same period, 102 deaths among infants under 12 months old were recorded. Miss Litster calculated that this represented a death rate of 82%. Miss Litster noted that deaths were proportionately higher among the hospital's private patients, who numbered 40 babies during that year, and were also higher in the main home, where the DLGPH had no rights of inspection. She further observed that the hospital took no precautions against the admission of women suffering from venereal disease. New admissions were not isolated but admitted directly to the hospital.

By the start of 1945, all the evidence of the extraordinarily high infant mortality rate in Bessborough, no serious steps had been taken by either the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the South Cork Board of Public Assistance or the DLGPH to address the problem. The DLGPH increased the boarding-out allowance paid to foster parents and made renewed appeals to county managers to arrange suitable foster homes for the children from their areas. However, new foster parents failed to come forward. The DLGPH the began more direct action and closed Bessborough to new admissions. All further deaths at the home were to be closely monitored.

On 6 January 1945, Dr James Deeny, who had recently been appointed as the DLGPH Chief Medical Officer, inspected the Bessborough maternity hospital. Superficially, it seemed well-maintained, perfectly equipped, suitably staffed and spotlessly clean. The rooms used for milk storage and formula preparation were in equally good order. However, when the infants were stripped and examined, a catalogue of problems were uncovered. The vast majority of the infants had raw and inflamed skin due to nappies being changed too infrequently. Most nappies were soiled and the motions usually green, indicating infection, or insufficient or unsuitable feeding. Most of the children had infectious lesions and septic sores, due to some heavy infection. He concluded that the situation revealed gross ignorance on the part of the Sister responsible and the complacency or ignorance of the home's medical officer as criminal. He described the nun in charge of the infants' department as both stupid and ignorant and needing to be replaced by two nuns or nurses trained in children's nursing. He also recommended that Bessborough's Mother Superior should be replaced with someone with ability to administer an institution dealing with Maternity and the care of infants and children.

Dr Ward, the Parliamentary Secretary at the DLGPH, wrote to the Congregation's Superior General requesting the appointment of a new Mother Superior, qualified in midwifery and child care, and said that local authorities had been instructed not to send any further unmarried mothers and expectant women to Bessborough until acceptable management and staffing arrangements had been put in place there. Despite some initial resistance on the part of the order's Superior General and of the Bishop of Cork, Dr Cohalan, the necessary changes were gradually implemented. In 1952, it could be reported that the number of infant death in the previous twelve-month period was just two.

In the year ending 31 March 1955, 86 infants were born in, or admitted to, the home: one infant death occurred in the same period. At the time of an inspection, 92 women, 65 infants and 13 children were living in the institution. All 65 infants appeared healthy apart from one who was coeliac and one suffering from eczema. Arrangements had been made for the adoption of five infants, one locally and four to the USA. Thirteen older children were living in the home: arrangements had been made for the adoption of seven of them in the USA. The home is described as being well-run, the diet ample and good, and the beds comfortable. Great attention was said to be paid to the comfort and well-being of the patients and the facilities for recreation were good.

In 1974, it was reported that dormitory spaces had been converted into individual cubicles with wardrobes and lockers. In addition, recreational activities had also been improved and residents were provided with a TV room, recreation room, smoking room and a record room for playing music. All recreational areas were decorated with 'colourful tapiflex and Marley tiles'.

In 1982, a report by the Sacred Hearts Home, Hospital and Adoption Society indicated the changes that had taken place over the previous quarter century. The services now offered at Bessborough included: medical and obstetrical care; child care; individual/group counselling; group living; continuation of school education; adoptions; fostering; post-adoption family counselling and help with extra-marital pregnancies. The maternity hospital was staffed by a matron, six nurses and four visiting doctors. Services included prenatal classes with a psychoprophylactic exercise programme along with information sessions on nutrition and child development. Classes in child care were offered for women who planned to keep their babies. Nurses were available for personal health counselling and the identification and treatment of medical problems. Residents were examined by a resident midwife and by a specialist obstetrician at weekly clinics.

The same report stated that the adoption of her child was a decision that every single girl had to face and depended on the personal situation of each individual and the particular circumstances of each case. In some cases adoption would prove the correct procedure, while in other cases keeping the baby was a practical alternative. The decision should be a well-informed one carefully made by the girl herself once she has weighed up all the pros and cons guided by her Counsellor. It should not be a hasty one made largely in response to family and media pressures. When a woman decided that adoption was the best option for her child, her appointed social worker explained the legal procedures for adoption to her. Women who chose to keep their children were assisted with finding accommodation. Two houses for women leaving Bessborough with their children in the Mahon area from Cork county council which housed four women and their infants.

Bessborough ceased to provide maternity services in the mid-1980s. Women continued to be admitted to the home during the ante-natal period and were transferred to St Finbarr's Hospital for their delivery.

Bessborough continued to provide services for single women and their children, as well as married women with extra-marital children. In the period 1986 to 1992, 826 women, or an average of 118 women a year, were admitted to the institution. By 1998 this had dwindled to just 37 admissions. In 1998, the congregation decided to withdraw from the placement of babies for adoption but wished to continue its work of 'search and reunion' and the care of expectant women. The last single expectant woman was admitted to Bessborough in November 1998 and the last woman and child were discharged in November 1999.

Bessborough subsequently reinvented itself as the The Bessborough Centre, providing a range of support services for children and families. In 2018, the sisters put a large part of the site up for sale, putting into doubt the future of the services housed there.

The Bessborough Centre.

In January 2021, Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation made its final report, which examined the conditions and treatment experienced by the women and children at Bessborough and presented statistics on various aspects of the home.

One witness, a resident in the early 1960s, recalled that on her arrival at Bessborough, she was given a 'canvas overall' as a uniform. She said that her belongings were taken from her and she was not allowed to leave the home as there were bars on all the windows and the doors were locked. The women were occasionally allowed outside but were always escorted by nuns, who marched them around like soldiers. She had to adopt a 'house name' to preserve her anonymity. She was not allowed to maintain contact with family and friends. She wrote letters to her mother which were sent to London first and then posted to her mother in Ireland. The nuns supervised and censored her letters and forced her to write positive things about the home, while she and her baby were ill. She said there was a 'rule of silence' in Bessborough and that those who broke it were 'reprimanded'. They got up at 5am every morning and went to mass. Afterwards they fed the babies in the nursery, but never their own. For the rest of the day, she was assigned duties such as scrubbing floors. At around 7pm they were put to work in the community room where 20 or 30 of them sat around embroidering Christmas cards. They were put to bed at 9pm. They were never paid for the work they did. They were made to work even if very ill, as she said she was, and no excuses were ever accepted. There was no education given to them and no time for recreation. During the day they worked and prayed for forgiveness. They were able to bathe but were seldom allowed to do so. She only remembered eating potatoes during her time there, apart from a sausage on Sunday mornings. She said that her baby became ill but was never attended by a doctor. At the age of 19 days he was transferred to St Finbarr's Hospital and died 19 days later. She was told he was buried in the small cemetery near the home but not allowed to attend the burial.

For others, the home was seen as a more tolerable experience. It could allow them to hide their pregnancy from their family, pretending they were in London. The operators at the local telephone exchange would make it sound that calls made to their parents were being put through from England. Private patients seem to have a had a much easier time at Bessborough. One of these, a resident in the early 1970s, described it as a bit like going to boarding school. They sometimes had midnight feasts and went out roaming around the grounds and getting up to mischief. She said that there was a two-tier system at the home, with 'nice middle-class girls' like her, sitting around with nothing to do. They knitted, went out for walks on the grounds, and were bored. She knew that there were other girls in the kitchens and in the laundries and that there were babies somewhere, but it was all very secretive.

Of the 7,401 children at Bessborough for whom discharge records were available, 4,177 (59.3%) were placed for legal adoption (introduced in 1953), while a further 1,866 (26.5%) left with their mother. By 1967, adoption accounted for 73% of discharges. A total of 180 adoptions were recorded as being outside of Ireland, with 145 of these (80.5%) being to the USA.

One particularly striking statistic concerned the women's lengths of stay at the home, which ranged from one day to 61 years.


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