Regina Coeli Hostel, Dublin, Republic of Ireland
The Regina Coeli Hostel was opened on 5 October 1930. It was located just off North Brunswick Street, in what had been part of the frontage of North Dublin Union workhouse. The hostel site, shaded yellow, is shown on the map below.
The hostel was run by the Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic organisation, founded in 1921 by Frank Duff. It admitted women who were homeless, separated, alcoholic, suffering from mental health problems, or destitute for other reasons. Both short-term and long-term accommodation for single mothers and their children came to form an significant part of the hostel's activities. Unlike other establishments of the time, the hostel supported unmarried women who wanted to keep their children. In 1932, the hostel provided 78 places. Women were referred to the hostel by a variety of routes. Some, particularly domestic servants, were brought or referred by their employer. Others came via one of the city's maternity hospitals, such as the Coombe Hospital, or were referred by members of the legion of Mary.
The Regina Coeli did not distinguish between 'first offenders' and 'second offenders'. However, it did refuse to admit, or re-admit, women whom it classified as 'street cases', i.e. those who were, or had been, engaged in prostitution. They were generally referred to the Legion's Sancta Maria Hostel. Others who were not allowed entry included those who were married, or who had access to, or the means to pay for, their own accommodation.
A unique feature of Regina Coeli was the fact that many women entered the hostel on multiple occasions and others stayed, sometimes intermittently, over the course of many years. Some of these long-stay women gave birth to a number of children during their years in the hostel. Many women kept in contact with the staff in the hostel after they had left and sometimes returned for a further stay when not pregnant. On more than one occasion, women who subsequently married, informed the hostel of this and sent some wedding cake. One woman spent fourteen years on and off in the hostel with her son, from 1946. Another, who arrived in 1954, stayed for nine years. Her daughter was sent to the Booterstown Convent but returned to Regina Coeli for holidays. A woman who arrived in 1953 stayed for ten years with her two children. A woman who entered in 1955 gave birth to six children during the course of her fifteen-year stay.
Miss Alice Litster, an inspector from the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH), visited the hostel in 1947. She reported that it:
It was quite common for women in Regina Coeli to go home and leave their child in the hostel. Sometimes the hostel staff had to contact them and ask them to return. A woman who left her baby at the hostel in October 1934 was, after some effort, eventually found to be getting married, though not to the man responsible. Her mother came to hostel to look after the baby — described as 'abnormal and delicate — but he died there in December. In 1936 a mother left the hostel, leaving her baby, who had curvature of the spine. Another woman went home in 1938, promising to return to look after baby, but later efforts to find her failed. In such cases, abandoned children could be handed over St Kevin's, the Dublin Board of Assistance institution, located in the former South Dublin workhouse site at James's Street. In cases where women who had left were located and then reluctantly reunited with their children, it was sometimes discovered that the mother had resorted to placing them in an Industrial School.
Women could leave their babies in the hostel while they went home to visit family or attend funerals. It is unclear whether this was done for convenience or because their families were unaware they had had a child. In 1939 a woman went home for ten days, during which her baby was in Regina Coeli and also spent some time in hospital. A woman went home in 1952 for her mother's funeral, then writing to the hostel asking to extend her time at home, which eventually lasted over three months. Her baby died while she was away. Some mothers left their children to go on a holiday. In 1954 a woman entered Regina Coeli pregnant and returned to the hostel following the birth. She then got married and left her baby in the hostel while she went on honeymoon. In 1942 a woman left her son to be 'minded here for a month as his mother went on holidays with her employer.' Women also left their babies while they went to hospital or when they were in prison.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the hostel received increasing criticism about its medical provision. The hostel was run by volunteers from the Legion of Mary and did not employ nurses, midwives or a visiting medical officer. The former workhouse building had primitive sanitary and washing facilities. Some of its residents would have been previously sleeping on the street or staying in other homeless shelters, so it is not surprising that there were repeated outbreaks of diseases such as measles, enteritis and typhoid. Where cases needed hospital treatment, the hostel was often slow in sending them there, with deaths sometimes resulting. The City Corporation made efforts to improve medical care at the hostel, such as appointing temporary nurses to work there during epidemics. In 1944, during an outbreak of measles, the Corporation appointed a doctor to attend the hospital for six weeks. However, since the hostel was not under the control of the city's Public Assistance Authority, a permanent appointment would not be fundable from the poor rates. A crisis point was reached in the mid-1940s. In 1943, when 233 children were admitted, the number of child deaths was 95.
In August 1946 an inspector from the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) and another doctor visited the hostel to try and identify measures to reduce infant mortality. They recommended the appointment of a visiting medical officer and a day and night nurse, who should ideally have training and experience in children's diseases. They also recommended establishing an isolation ward where new arrivals and suspected cases could be isolated until cleared by the medical officer. Although the arrangements for preparing infant feeds were fairly satisfactory, with each baby having its own bottle, they suggested that it would be desirable to provide a separate kitchen with adequate sterilising equipment. There were only seven permanent members of staff, no qualified nurse or doctor to care for the babies and mothers in the hostel. The permanent staff consisted of members of the Legion of Mary. The medical inspector noted that the policy of the Legion of Mary was to encourage mothers to go out to work, leaving their baby in the hostel in the hope that this would enable the mothers to keep their children. However it was not possible to encourage breast feeding if mothers went out to work. He reported that a considerable amount of money would need to be spent in repair, decoration, furnishing and suitable equipment before it could be considered suitable. The voluntary effort, though laudable appeared unable to cope with the situation in a satisfactory manner.
In response to renewed pressure to appoint a medical officer for the hostel, its founder, Frank Duff, claimed that he had found such a person among the Legion of Mary's membership. However, the appointment of this doctor never seems to have materialized. Duff was also said to resent interference from anyone in his running of the hostel. Duff subsequently agreed that a small room as the hostel be used to quarantine new arrivals for five days before they were admitted to the main establishment.
In 1947, following a visit to Regina Coeli by the Minister of Health, the hostel was described by the DLGPH's chief medical officer as:
In 1948, there were discussions between the DLGPH and the Legion of Mary about the registration of the hostel as a maternity home. The Department assured Frank Duff and his colleagues that the Minister appreciated their very important work and wished to do everything possible to assist. However they reiterated that the hostel must have adequate medical and nursing staff. Frank Duff replied that all the work was done by voluntary staff and employing nurses or a doctor would give rise to very considerable difficulties as it went against the Legion's creed of voluntary service. He would, however, welcome an arrangement where nurses on the staff of Dublin Corporation would visit the hostel daily and on request. The Department also promised him that an application of £10,000 towards the cost of improvements would be granted and that a contribution towards the hostel's annual expenditure would also be forthcoming.
The battle over medical appointments continued. In 1952, however, the Dublin Public Health Department was holding clinics at Regina Coeli under the maternity and child welfare scheme. An additional medical officer was appointed later that year, whose the duties included a weekly clinic at the hostel. Women and children underwent medical examinations, and baby formula and various vitamins and dietary supplements were distributed. By this date, the children were being immunised against diphtheria and whooping cough.
Apart from disease, there were a number of cases of the injury or death of children from other causes. These included children burning their hands in a fire, being scalded by boiling water, and falling down stairs. There are also reports of children having been abused or neglected, and even a small number of instances of suspected infanticide by mothers.
In 1949, plans were made to carry out major improvements at the hostel. It was proposed to segregate mothers and children by the age of the children. A ground-floor refectory would be converted to accommodate mothers and babies from birth to six months. A first floor dormitory would be converted to provide sleeping accommodation for mothers and babies aged from six months to two years, and the second floor would provide similar accommodation for mothers and children aged from two to four years. The most ambitious improvements proposed were in the accommodation for mothers with children who were over four years of age, who would be housed in small family units in a vacant building, dividing each dormitory into six cubicles and a common room with an open fireplace for cooking and an adjoining sanitary annexe containing a washroom, toilets and bath. It was planned to create nine dormitories, providing 54 units for mothers and children. The units were to be organised on the basis that most women went out to work, but at least one woman in a unit of six acted as housekeeper and looked after the children.
By 1963 the survival of Regina Coeli was in jeopardy. An inspection of the building by the Dublin Health Authority condemned the building as unsafe and ordered the evacuation of the 250 residents. Frank Duff resisted the proposal to close the hostel and a compromise was reached. This involved demolishing part of the building, the east block, and erecting 'chalets' to provide temporary housing. At the time there were 54 single mothers and 90 children in the hostel. In May 1965 the Department of Health (successor to the DLGPH) contacted the Dublin Health Authority about the need to rehouse the families in Rosary House, the hostel's west block. In 1966, the Health Authority outlined proposals for the accommodation to be provided in the renovated Regina Coeli for 'elderly ladies and unmarried mothers'. It would comprise 79 bedrooms and ancillaries for elderly ladies and units for unmarried mothers comprising of 44 beds in total. The proposed 'family units', designed for the mothers and children, would consist of 11 double units, with 11 bedrooms, a toilet, kitchen and living quarters and one washroom per unit. It was noted that built-in wardrobes, though considered desirable, might have to be reconsidered on the grounds of economy and that wash-hand basins might not be deemed necessary in bathrooms as they were being provided in each bedroom.
From the 1960s onwards, the circumstances of the women entering the hostel changed and some women sought entry because of domestic violence, homelessness or drug addiction.
In January 2021, Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation made its final report, which included an examination of the conditions and treatment experienced by the women and children in the Regina Coeli. Between 1930 and 1998, a total of 5,631 unmarried mothers and 5,434 of their children made use of the hostel.
Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.
- The Legion of Mary, De Montfort House, Morning Star Avenue, Brunswick Street Dublin 7, Ireland.
- Nicolson, Jill Mother and Baby Homes: a survey of homes for unmarried mothers (1968, Allen & Unwin)
- Redmond, Paul Jude he Adoption Machine: The Dark History of Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes and the Inside Story of How Tuam 800 Became a Global Scandal
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