Families saw these homes as a solution to their shame and stigma
The State and Church colluded to get rid of an embarrassment to Catholic Ireland
In a letter to the Catholic Bishop of Waterford, Dr Bernard Hackett, in 1924, the minister at the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH), Seamus Burke, sought the bishop's support for establishing a home for unmarried mothers. He wanted such women removed from the county homes, both for their own benefit and in the interests of what he called "the respectable poor who are compelled to seek its shelter, so that there should be no undesirable associations connected with it".
Many of the Irish workhouses inherited as a result of British rule had been redesignated as county homes after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, but there was also in the 1920s a preoccupation with singling out unmarried mothers as belonging to a special class who needed to be placed elsewhere.
Although the majority of unmarried mothers continued to be institutionalised in the county homes, from this period onwards, communities of nuns established and staffed homes specifically targeted at these women, including Bessboro in Cork, Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Pelletstown in Dublin and Tuam in Co Galway.
The latter is now the focus of national and international attention due to the discovery of an unmarked mass grave containing the bodies of 800 children.
By 1931, the Department of Local Government and Public Health elaborated on the need for these new institutions: "In county homes little can be done to bring new influences into their lives and help them to start afresh.
Unless active measures designed to enable them to return eventually to the work- aday world are taken at the critical time, they are in danger of becoming a permanent burden on the ratepayers or of drifting into a life of degradation."
While there was occasional sympathy shown towards what were called "first offenders", who were seen as unfortunate rather than immoral, "repeat offenders" were regarded as in a different category; those who, in the words of a DLGPH report in 1927, "have lapsed a second time or oftener" and who were regarded as "hardened sinners". Mother and baby homes were regarded as more suited to "first offenders".
Many women had to stay in the homes for up to two years or more, some remaining even after their children had been taken away. Some of the children were fostered out or informally adopted (there was no legal adoption in Ireland until 1952) and some children remained in the institutions until they were old enough to be sent to industrial schools.
Some of the women were also kept for lengthy periods on the grounds, in the words of the nuns at Bessboro, that they were "very weak-willed" and confinement would secure them against " a second lapse".
Alongside the trauma experienced by those forced to give up their children, regimes were harsh and included manual labour and an emphasis on the women's redemption. Other "repeat offenders" ended up in Magdalene laundries.
For families and communities, these institutions, most of which were state-funded, could also provide a solution to the stigma and shame of pregnancy outside marriage by removing from circulation those who were deemed to have transgressed. What has been brought sharply into focus this week, however, is what happened to so many of these women's children.
Infant mortality rates for illegitimate children between the 1920s and 1970s were sometimes up to five times the rate of their legitimate counterparts and it appears that children in some mother-and-baby homes were particularly vulnerable.
Malnutrition was common and gastroenteritis and various infectious diseases spread quickly, especially when these institutions were overcrowded.
Some of the statistics contained in the annual reports of DLGPH, and highlighted by historian Lindsey Earner Byrne, are shocking. In 1930, for example, of the 120 children born in Sean Ross Abbey, 60 died, while at the home in Tuam in 1933, 42 children died.
In 1939, Alice Lister, an inspector from DLGPH, reported very high death rates in the homes; Bessboro had an infant mortality rate of 47pc, Sean Ross Abbey 18pc and Tuam 15pc, but by 1943 the death rate at Bessboro was a staggering 61pc and the rate at Tuam had risen to 35pc. Dr James Deeney, the State's chief medical officer, reacted by insisting that Bessboro close temporarily, but it subsequently reopened and remained in use.
This information makes it clear there was much knowledge on the part of the State about the problem of deaths in these institutions. What needs to be established is the extent of other documentation that would indicate the level of oversight, engagement and responses and the degree to which there was reluctance to interfere with the running of the institutions.
The spotlight on the Tuam home is another indication that there remain untold stories and hidden histories in relation to excessive reliance on institutions in Ireland in the 20th century. This is a particularly distressing case because of the volume of children's bodies in an unmarked grave. One question that needs to be answered is the extent to which the welfare and health of these infants was compromised by a notion of them as less deserving of care than their "legitimate" counterparts (the status of illegitimacy was not abolished until 1987).
In 1948, as highlighted by Earner Byrne, a hard-hitting document by DLGPH inspector Ann Lister on attitudes to illegitimate children, compiled for a report by a Catholic charity, was censored. The deleted section included this assertion: "These babies are our own; they are entitled to Irish citizenship; above all, the country needs them. From the point of view of church and State, there are no unwanted babies."
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD