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Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, 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 and replaced in each county by a Board of Health and Public Assistance. The Board in North Tipperary initially hoped to transfer all the children in its care to the St Francis' Industrial School for Girls, at Cashel. When that proved impossible, they aimed to pursue a policy of boarding-out as many children as possible and proposed an increase in the boarding-out allowance to 25s. a month, in a bid to attract more foster parents. After was vetoed by the government Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH), unmarried mothers and their children continued to be housed at the County Home in the old workhouse at Thurles.

In 1930, the DLGPH approached the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who were by then running the mother and baby home at Bessborough to see if they would opening a second establishment. The congregation agreed and subsequently purchased Corville House, a large Georgian manor house and its estate at Corville, Roscrea, North Tipperary, at a cost of £6,000. The site then became known as Sean Ross Abbey, with its entrance on what is now Short Corville Road. The home was in operation by the following year and a DLGPH inspector, Mrs Margaret Crofts, visited county homes in Tipperary and in neighbouring counties to encourage health authorities to send 'first offender' unmarried mothers who applied for public assistance to Sean Ross.

The Corville House site is shown on the 1906 map below.

Corville House site, Roscrea, c.1906.

The home's first Mother Superior, Mother de Sales Gilmartin, also wrote to local health authorities to inform them that women at Sean Ross would be taught cooking, housework and needlework, and that she envisaged that a dairy and poultry farm would be established, where women would be employed and trained. Mother De Sales told the North Tipperary board that the charges for those entering the home would be 12s. 6d. a week for expectant women and £1 1s. a week for mother and child.

In May 1934, the secretary of the North Tipperary Board of Health visited Sean Ross and gave a favourable report on it. The various wards and nurseries were large and well ventilated, the beds were modern, and the clothing and bedding were in good condition and spotlessly clean. There was a spacious day hall, and playrooms for the children. Central heating and electric light were installed. The food supplied to the patients was the best available. The milk used came from a herd of milk cows kept on the home's own farm, which also supplied all the fresh meat consumed in the home. All the bread was baked in the home's modern bakery in the home, and all the vegetables came from its garden. The unmarried mothers were employed at various occupations. In the bakery, they were trained to do all classes of baking. In the laundry, others were employed at making and repairing clothing and bedding, knitting stockings etc. In the kitchen, the patients did the cooking for the entire House. Others were employed in the dairy, poultry farm and garden. Supervision appeared to be strict, but the residents all appeared happy and contented. The report noted that the home was getting overcrowded but an extension was under way.

The DLGPH report for the year ending March 1934 recorded that 193 women had been admitted to Sean Ross, with 191 of them being single expectant women. In the same period, 124 women were discharged: 97 to their parents' home; 22 to other institutions and five married. The report noted that there were 160 births recorded during the year and 60 infants had died. It was suggested that the high infant mortality rate in mother and baby homes generally was 'caused by an epidemic of some kind, measles, whopping cough, etc., which spreads quickly among the children and wipes out the weaklings'. It noted that the nurseries were laid out to accommodate too many children and the provision for isolation was not adequate.

A report by the Hospitals Commission in 1934 found that the demand for services at Sean Ross was so great that overcrowding in the institution 'was evident almost from the beginning'. Additional accommodation, as well as improvements to existing accommodation, was necessary and 'a matter of extreme urgency' as infant mortality in the home was 'exceptionally high'. Overcrowding and unsuitable accommodation were the chief causes of the high infant mortality. The Commission recommended that a grant of about £30,000 be made for the extension and reconstruction of the home.

In January 1935, the home's maternity hospital, which was known as St Gerard's, was licensed for operation. In September of that year, the foundation stone was laid for a new chapel, dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. A report on the event described the home's residents as being dressed in 'brown garb'.

In the 1930s, diphtheria was a regular problem among the children at Sean Ross. The fever hospital at Roscrea, adjacent to the district hospital, was North Tipperary's main treatment centre for the disease and was regularly overcrowded and understaffed. In some cases, children from Sean Ross admitted there with other ailments contracted diphtheria and either died of the disease in the hospital or were discharged while still infectious. Since diphtheria was the chief cause of infant mortality at the home in 1936-37, it was likely that women and children discharged from Roscrea fever hospital to Sean Ross brought diphtheria into the institution on their return. The layout of the maternity building and the free communication between its wards was probably a contributory factor in the prevalence of the disease. Diphtheria-linked mortality continued to be problem until the mid-1940s, when a vaccination scheme became established. Another problem hit the institution in 1944 when there was a severe outbreak of typhoid at the home, caused by a fault in the sewage system.

In 1944, an inspection was made of the of the Sean Ross premises:

  • The original mansion was a three-storey building with a women's dining room in a semi-basement, reception rooms on the ground floor, and three women's dormitories and two other small rooms on the first floor.
  • A three-storey extension to the main house had a large recreation room in the semi-basement; two dormitories, two bedrooms and sanitary accommodation on the ground floor; and a dormitory, two bedrooms, sanitary accommodation, and a washroom with 31 wash-hand basins on the first floor.
  • A wing off the main house had sleeping quarters for the nuns along with a laundry, stores and a kitchen.
  • The maternity hospital had a pre-natal reception and isolation block which had been built in 1934. The maternity block itself was a two-storey building which had originally been the stables of the mansion. The ground floor contained the labour ward, bathroom, kitchen, large dining room/day room and a babies' bathroom. The facilities for bathing babies were in such poor condition that their had been halted. The upper floor contained two eight-bed dormitories for mothers, a ten-cot nursery for new-born infants, a Sister's bedroom, sink room and separate lavatory accommodation.
  • Adjacent to the maternity block was another two-storey building housing pre-natal patients. The ground floor contained a work/dining room with a sanitary annex attached. The upper floor was a 14-bed dormitory also with sanitary annex attached.
  • The nursery block, also built in 1934, was single storey except for an administrative section at one end. The latter had cubicle accommodation for the nuns on the upper floor and an entrance hall, kitchen and doctor's office on the ground floor. The single-storey section, 130 feet in length, contained day and night nurseries and housed 108 infants at the time of inspection.

The suggested that Sean Ross's maximum capacity should be set at 120 women, in contrast to the 144 then living there. also He concluded that there were not enough baths and WCs for the number of residents. The existing provision represented one bath for every 38 women and one WC for every 16 women.

The recreation hall in the three-storey extension had a stage and was used for film shows and other entertainments. In 1946, it was declared to be unsafe because of insufficient exits and an absence of fire-resistant materials in the floors of the overhead dormitories. The hall was then taken out of use, inflicting a major blow on the life of the residents. It was eventually replaced by a new hall erected as part of redevelopment and renovation exercise in 1952.

By 1945, rising admission numbers were putting severe pressure on Sean Ross and the DLGPH was making great efforts to persuade the relevant local authorities to find foster homes for children maintained by them at the home. In March of that year, the Mother Superior, Sister Rosemonde, told the Department that Sean Ross was at maximum capacity and was closed to new admissions until further notice. The minimal success that local authorities achieved in arranging new foster placements when Sean Ross suspended admissions led to some of them having to house unmarried mothers and children in their County Homes. In a bid to attract more applications from prospective foster parents, some local authorities, such as Offaly County Council, increased the boarding-out rate from 30s to to 35s a month and advertised the revised rates in the local press, though with little success.

In 1945, three residents successfully applied for court orders to have their children committed to industrial schools, which would allow them to take up employment. A similar event took place in 1947.

In 1946, it was reported that the Sean Ross Estate contained 63 acres of arable land, of which 45 acres were used for growing potatoes, wheat, oats and other vegetables. The Sisters kept 44 dairy cows, which produced 60 gallons of milk a day, they reared their own cattle. All farm produce was used in the home. A portion of the lands at Roscrea was bog land from which the Sisters cut turf, also for use in the home. At the same date, in addition to providing training in cooking, housework and needlework, the congregation provided training schemes for the women at Sean Ross. Instructors ran courses in machine knitting and sewing, and many women found employment in Clery's department store, Dublin. Women who worked in the convent bakery were also said to be 'well sought after' and many went on to take up employment in the confectionery and catering industry.

A report in 1952 by Miss Alice Litster, an inspector from the Department of Health (successor to the DLGPH), recorded 141 women and 120 children in residence. St Michael's Ward housed eight infants under six months old and described as 'comfortable, healthy and thriving'. St Kevin's Ward housed 15 infants aged three weeks to five months. All but two were breast fed and were reportedly 'healthy and thriving'. St Brigid's Ward housed 30 infants aged six months to one year, all 'healthy and contented'. St Philomena's Ward housed 21 children aged 12 months to two years old. One child 'about two years old' was suffering from 'bad strabismus'. St Anne's Ward housed 31 children in the higher age groups, all appearing to be 'healthy, well-cared for and contented' and well supplied with play material, including a sand pit. In the maternity wing, there were 31 women residents (20 expectant; 11 postpartum) and 11 infants 'who all appeared healthy'. There were six children aged between three and five years living in the institution. Arrangements were being made to have three adopted to the USA and two others were due to be boarded out.

In 1953, Miss Litster noted that 140 children from Sean Ross had been adopted in the USA over the previous four years. She considered that the benefits for these children were obvious and that adoptions had been arranged for children who could not be provided for in a similar way in Ireland. She gave an example of 'a half-caste little boy' who had been adopted by 'a negro Catholic family' in the USA. However, she found it disturbing to see so many Irish children sent permanently out of the country. 'The babies so sent are the best of our children in the Home, the prettiest, the healthiest, the most promising.' She recommended that preference always be given to Irish adopters.

In 1954, Miss Litster noted that the new recreation hall was equipped with a radio and piano, a bookcase with books and magazines and a raised stage for concerts and plays. A new semi-basement refectory as somewhat dark but fluorescent lighting and mirrors were being installed to brighten the room. On the day of her visit dinner consisted of soup, meat and two vegetables, and a sweet (semolina and rhubarb). In the evening, the women were served tea, bread and butter, with sausage, black or white pudding, salad or stewed fruit.

In 1956, in an effort to reduce expenditure, the Department of Health held consultations on the possibility of reducing the minimum length of stay of mothers in the homes run by the Congregation (Sean Ross, Bessborough and Castlepollard) from the existing two year norm to six months. In 1958, local authority managers were informed that 'in suitable cases' the early discharge of women was now possible. The Department also said that the Sacred Heart homes were prepared to accept 'some mothers' in their second or subsequent pregnancies but that the congregation would not admit mothers accompanied by children. The Department also began to consider that, with falling admissions to the homes, the number could be reduced from three to two.

In 1958, Department of Health inspector, Miss Margaret Reidy, expressed alarm that the infant death rate at Sean Ross had increased since 1954 and had remained high during 1958. Furthermore, it appeared that seven in every ten deaths during this period were due to viral pneumonia. It was unclear what interventions may have taken place, but the death rate showed a marked fall the following year.

In 1963, the Department of Health stated the principal exit pathways for children on their discharge from a mother and baby home. The first, and regarded as the most desirable, was for a child would leave in the care of the birth mother or her family. Where this was not an option, the next, in decreasing order of preference, were legal adoption, boarding out by a health authority, placement in a foster home by a voluntary agency and, as a last resort, placement in a long-stay institution such as an industrial school.

In January 1965, Dr Hourihane of the Department of Health medical inspectorate visited Sean Ross and he was 'impressed by the general atmosphere in the Home'. The mothers 'appeared to be content and well-dressed' and the relationship between the mothers and the staff 'was good'. All the infants were 'healthy, well-nourished in appearance', were 'obviously well-cared for' and the overall cleanliness of the home was 'first-class'.

In 1964, the Department of Health began to examine the occupancy levels in the Sacred Heart mother and baby homes. The department noted that the combined available accommodation in the homes during 1963 was 880 beds and that total occupancy for the year was 485. The Department considered that 'sizeable economies could be achieved' by closing one. At that time, the Tipperary Association for Mentally Handicapped Children was trying to establish a centre for the institutional care of children with intellectual disabilities in the county. In September 1964, the Department asked the Superior General of the Congregation to consider converting one of their institutions in Ireland to a home for 'mentally retarded girls', with Sean Ross suggested as the most suitable. The Department suggested that this would represent 'a worth-while contribution towards the mentally retarded in this country' and also help the order's financial difficulties experienced by the congregation in Ireland due to the falling numbers of admissions. The following month, the Congregation's council unanimously agreed to the proposal in principle, but considered Sean Ross to be the least suitable — its location too remote for the purpose and had been discussed by the order for use as a home taking only younger mothers. The order also argued that the overall capacity of their homes was effectively smaller than it had once been because women entering the homes in 1965 had different expectations and typically arrived with 'their transistor sets and large kits of beautifying aids'. Nonetheless, the change of use of the Sean Ross home requested by the Department of Health eventually went ahead.

In October 1969, Sean Ross ceased admitting single expectant women. The last mother and baby were discharged before Christmas 1969 and the institution ceased operation as a mother and baby home. In August 1970, it opened as St Anne's Hospital for Mentally Handicapped Children. In 2008, operation of the site was taken over by the Sisters of Mercy.

The 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty Year Search by Martin Sixsmith, and the subsequent film Philomena were based on events at the Sean Ross mother and baby home.

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 Sean Ross.

One witness, a mother at the home in the 1950s, recalled her time there. She had to be up early every morning for church, then had her breakfast and two slices of bread or toast. They were then assigned jobs. Hers was in the laundry, dealing with cloth sanitary towels, which were washed out by hand,. If the day was was fine, she had to lay them out on stones in a yard and turn them every now and again. In the meantime, she helped with mangling the large sheets. She said that the food in Sean Ross was sparse and that she was constantly hungry. There was bread in the morning and possibly soup at lunchtime, but very little. She was not told what to expect during her labour and her experience was 'awful'. Because of the pain, she was tied down to the bed and thought she was going to die. It was absolutely horrific but she was not given any painkillers. Afterwards, she was told that it would teach her, and to offer it up for the sins she had committed. She had to return to work in the home a few days after giving birth. She took up her duties in the steam room and breast-fed her baby three times a day. The women were excited to spend time with their babies at feeding times and in the evenings. She thought that she would be in Sean Ross for her whole life. She said that no one ever discussed her baby's adoption with her. She believed that her mother and married sister, without consulting her, had made arrangements with the nuns for her baby's adoption. She did not sign adoption papers. She got up one morning and was told to put on her own clothes. She remembered that her baby was dressed in a blue suit and that there was a car waiting outside. He was four months old and she was still breast-feeding him. She thought they were going somewhere nice but she and the baby were taken to the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society, in South Anne Street, Dublin. She was asked to feed her baby and he was then taken from her.


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