From top: one in three ‘illegitimate babies’ died in their first year, an “excessive” rate fully five times that of legitimate children; Simon Hall
No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the Lord.
In 2014, Catherine Corless brought the attention of the world to bear on Tuam, County Galway and St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home. That summer, she was interviewed by RTÉ alongside Fr. Fintan Monahan, now Bishop of Killaloe.
Fr. Monahan was asked about the treatment of “illegitimate” children, and he gave the following response:
“I suppose we can’t really view the past from our point of view, from our lens.”
This is a popular refrain. The trouble is that it’s not quite true.
A great many people spoke up about the plight of illegitimate children throughout the twentieth century.
In this article, I will present statements from both the Registrar-General and Dr. Isabella Webb in 1924, the Relief Commission in 1927, Colonel Moore in 1930, Dr. Conn Ward in 1934, Dr. Robert Rowlette in 1936 and 1937, Inspector Alice Litster in 1939, an unnamed inspector in 1947, Dr. Noel Browne and Peadar Cowan in the 1950s, alongside Mary Robinson, Michael D. Higgins, and John Horgan in the 1970s.
Illegitimacy was a concept found in canon and common law referring to children born out of wedlock. The women and children of such unions were profoundly stigmatised.
Mothers who gave birth to illegitimate children were censured by society, leading many families to force unmarried pregnant daughters into Mother and Baby homes or Magdalene laundries, eventually giving up their infants for adoption or placing them into care. Canon Law excluded illegitimate children from all ecclesiastical office.
Professor Diarmuid Ferriter notes that it was in the summer of 1922, mere months after the establishment of the Free State, that the religious orders proposed segregating unmarried mothers away from other residents of the state’s workhouses, soon to be re-designated as County Homes.
This was the beginning of the state’s complicity with the operation of so-called Mother and Baby Homes.
These religious-run institutions operated from 1922 until as late as the 1990s. UCD’s Professor Lindsey Earner-Byrne has counted at least 89,247 illegitimate births in the state between 1922 and 1973. This is a conservative lower-bound.
Almost immediately, though, alarms were raised about conditions in these institutions. Over the coming decades, numerous government officials, politicians, and state inspectors spoke up about the plight of illegitimate children.
In 1924, during the life of the Cumann na nGaedheal government of W. T. Cosgrave, the Registrar-General for Saorstát Éireann released their annual report of numbers of marriages, births, and deaths. It included information about the high mortality rate for illegitimate infants.
The number of deaths of illegitimate infants under one year of age registered in Saorstát Éireann during the year 1924, was 529, consisting of 280 deaths of males and 249 of females.
Based on the number of illegitimate births registered, the resulting mortality rate is 315 per 1,000 births for both sexes, 330 per 1,000 for males and 300 per 1,000 births for females, as compared with 344, 375, and 311, respectively, in 1923. These rates must be regarded as excessive.
It may be stated that the illegitimate infant mortality as derived from the records for 1924, is about 5 times the mortality among legitimate infants, which as 65 per 1,000 births for both sexes, 72 per 1,000 for males, and 58 per 1,000 births for females. In other words, one out of every 3 illegitimate infants born alive in 1924, died before the completion of its first year of life.
In Northern Ireland in 1924, the illegitimate infant death-rate was 188 per 1,000 births and, in England and Wales, the illegitimate infant death-rate was 133 per 1,000 births, or about one death to every 8 illegitimate infants born alive. This rate is about twice that for legitimate infants, and it may be said that this proportion is maintained for that country yearly from 1906 onwards.
So, about one in three illegitimate babies died in their first year, an “excessive” rate fully five times that of legitimate children. The illegitimate infant death-rate in Ireland was nearly two-and-a-half times the rate in England and Wales, for example. A graph of these numbers makes the comparison clear.
Yet, for those children that did survive their first year, life was not so easy. In that same year, 1924, the pioneering Irish pediatrician, Isabella Webb, wrote about illegitimate children in The Irish Times in an article discovered by Dr. Elaine Byrne. She wrote:
A great many people are always asking what is the good of keeping these children alive? I quite agree that it would be a great deal kinder to strangle these children at birth than to put them out to nurse.
Dr. Webb was being deliberately provocative. This was stinging criticism of how these children — the lucky ones who survived infancy — were being treated in broader society.
A Commission on Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, including the Insane Poor, was appointed on 19th March, 1925. Their report was released in 1927. It concluded that the “County Homes,” former workhouses, were “not fit and proper places,” particularly their “maternity departments,” and recommended the following:
We are of opinion that all private Maternity Homes should be licensed annually by the local authority, and that no license be granted unless the Home is properly and suitably equipped for the purpose, and that it was in charge of a respectable person trained in maternity care and nursing.
The Commission ominously warned:
It cannot be too strongly emphasised that if failures or even scandals are to be avoided the homes must continue as at present to be carefully selected, and precautions taken to see that the foster parents are fit for the trust placed in them.
Regrettably, scandals are exactly what we would get.
In June 1930, the government passed the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation Order) Act, to make provision for the imposition on the father of the obligation to contribute to the support of their own child, however illegitimate.
During debate on this bill, Fianna Fáil’s Colonel Maurice George Moore of old Moore Hall in County Mayo made this harrowing statement about the treatment of women at this time, particularly in rural areas:
The position of these girls in the country is ever so much worse than can be imagined by people who are not acquainted with the matter. In Dublin people can go here and there and cover up these things, but I know of cases in the country where girls who made one mistake were absolutely boycotted, turned out practically like lepers, driven out of their parents’ houses and obliged to live in such places as a little mud house on the side of a bog all their lives in the most terrible way. I think anything that can be done to ameliorate that state of affairs ought to be done, and I look forward with hope to this Bill to help their cases to some extent.
Then, in 1934, during the life of the Fianna Fáil government of Éamon de Valera, and in direct response to the Relief Commission report of 1927, the government passed the Registration of Maternity Homes Act, in order to try to improve standards.
Fianna Fáil’s Dr. Conn Ward, a medical doctor and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health, repeated the findings of the 1924 Registrar-General’s report and put the following on the Dáil record:
From the Registrar-General’s Report for 1924, it appears that one in every three illegitimate children born alive in 1924 died within one year of its birth, and that the mortality amongst these children is about five times as great as in other cases.
It is high for many reasons, but there is one to which we wish specially to refer. The illegitimate child being proof of the mother’s shame is, in most cases, sought to be hidden at all costs.
What frequently happens is that the mother, or the mother’s family, at the time the mother leaves the hospital or home, make arrangements with someone to take the child, either paying a lump sum down or undertaking to pay something from time to time.
These arrangements are often made or connived at by those who carry on the poorer class of maternity homes, and the results to the child can be read in the mortality rates.
If a lump sum is paid or if the periodical payment lapse, the child becomes an encumbrance on the foster mother, who has no interest in keeping it alive.
Read that statement again: “It is high [the mortality rate] for many reasons, but there is one to which we wish specially to refer. The illegitimate child being proof of the mother’s shame is, in most cases, sought to be hidden at all costs,” he says.
Independent TD for Dublin University, Dr. Robert Rowlette, another medical doctor, rose from his seat in Dáil Éireann in April 1936. This was exactly twenty years after the Proclamation had been defiantly read from the steps of the GPO, a declaration which had promised that all of the children of the nation would be cherished equally.
Dr. Rowlette was angry. He stood up and condemned a report from the Department of Local Government and Public Health which had provided the following inadequate explanation for the fact that the infant mortality rate amongst illegitimate children was much greater than the rate for legitimate children:
Doubtless the great proportion of deaths in these cases is due to congenital debility, congenital malformation and other ante-natal causes traceable to the conditions associated with the unfortunate lot of the unmarried mother.
Dr. Rowlette responded furiously to this suggestion:
I do not know on what that is based. I do not know of any evidence that will prove that there is greater general congenital debility or malformation in the illegitimate child than in the legitimate child. I suggest the difficulty is not ante-natal but is rather post-natal, that is, the lack of care given to the illegitimate child compared with that given to the child that is more welcome. I know it is a difficult problem but I do not know whether any particular attention is paid to it, or whether any particular scheme has been tried to ensure that these children whose lot, at best, should call for sympathy, are given the same chance, or nearly the same chance as the legitimate child in getting through its first year of life. It is a disgrace to a civilised country, and to a Christian country like this, that three-and-a-half times more illegitimates are condemned to death in the first year of their existence than legitimate children. The responsibility rests upon the community. I press upon the Minister the necessity of taking special steps to deal with this blot on an otherwise satisfactory report in regard to infantile mortality.
Once again, it’s worth emphasising his point: “I suggest the difficulty is not ante-natal but is rather post-natal, that is, the lack of care given to the illegitimate child compared with that given to the child that is more welcome,” he said. It was the lack of care which was killing these children at a much higher rate.
It goes without saying, perhaps, that the then-Minister for Local Government and Public Health, Seán T. O’Kelly, did not take any special steps in this regard.
Then, exactly one year later, in April 1937, during questions put to Minister O’Kelly, Dr. Rowlette made another statement on the same issue, this time echoing an internal department report which demanded an investigation:
In the year 1934-5 there were 2,030 illegitimate children born, and 538 died under the age of one year. That is to say, the mortality amongst illegitimate children was something like 26 per cent., while the general mortality all over the country was 7 per cent. That is a shocking position in a Christian country and I draw the attention of the House to the demand that was made in the report of the Department on this topic for 1934-35:
“This mortality rate is out of all proportion to the corresponding rate in respect of legitimate infants and calls for investigation as to its causes and as to what measures should be taken to effect a reduction in this abnormal mortality.”
That is a sentiment with which I think we are all in thorough sympathy and I press upon the Minister to consider inaugurating such an investigation, whether by a committee or by officers of his Department if he can spare them, because it is a shocking comment on the civilisation of the country, that a child, unfortunate enough in other respects to be born illegitimately, has four times a greater prospect of dying in the first year than the ordinary child.
This is truly significant. Official government reports, plain for all to see, had triggered calls within the department and then inside the Oireachtas for an investigation into the treatment of illegitimate children as early as 1937. Of course, no such investigation was ever inaugurated.