Sunday 18 November 2018

Tragic toll of infants lost to hunger and epidemics

In the winter of 1926, 24 babies died in the space of two months when measles swept through the home.

Memorial: site of the mass grave in Tuam – there are many other burial grounds in Ireland. Photo: Niall Carson.
Memorial: site of the mass grave in Tuam – there are many other burial grounds in Ireland. Photo: Niall Carson.
People leave candles and mementos during a march and candlelit vigil from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to the gates of Dail Eireann on Merrion Square, Dublin, in memory of the Tuam babies. PA
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

THEY are the babies that society has tried to forget. Many were born in "shameful" circumstances to unmarried or impoverished mothers at a home in Tuam.

Those who weren't given up for adoption were sent to industrial schools or Magdalene Laundries.

Seven-hundred and ninety-six babies died, their resting place unmarked.

The local historian who discovered the scale of baby deaths in St Mary's can find no burial records. They are thought to have been buried in unmarked graves on the site of an old septic tank. There is no plot with their names on it that says they lived – for however short a period – or that they died.

Today we publish for the first time official public records documenting the harsh, short lives of the 796 babies and children who died in Tuam.

The records, compiled by the General Register Office and released on Friday to this newspaper, do not say where the babies are from to protect their privacy. The records give the babies the dignity of being called by their name, while the notes and causes of death entered after their names tell their own story.

Patrick Derrane, who was five months old and who died of gastroenteritis in August 1925, was the first recorded baby death. The last was Mary Carty, who died in January 1960. She was four-and-a-half months old and her death attributed to a "fit". A note on her entry simply says: "Was a restless baby." The Bon Secours closed the home the following year.

Some babies are registered only by their surname, mostly because they were born premature. There is "Unknown" Bell, a boy born at 26 weeks in 1950 and dead three hours later; "Unknown" Maye, a girl, who was five days old and died in 1945 of a cerebral haemorrhage; and four-day-old "Baby" Fallon, a boy who died in May 1957, of sudden circulatory failure.

There were epidemics for every decade of the home's existence. In the winter of 1926, measles swept through the Tuam mother and baby home, taking with it 24 babies in just two months.

Mary Wade, three years and three months, was the first child to die of it, on April 5. Maud McTigue, six-and-a-half, died of measles and meningitis three days after Mary Wade. The rest succumbed in quick succession. On 22 April, three children died; John Carty, who was one year and nine months, Madeline Bernard, who was two-and-a-half, and Maureen Kenny, who was eight. There were 39 deaths at the Tuam home that year, and measles accounted for two-thirds of them.

There were many more outbreaks. In 1936, 22 babies died in another measles epidemic. Thirteen babies died in April and May 1944. Seventeen died in June and July 1947.

The babies died of congenital conditions, viral and bacterial infections, abscesses, blood poisoning, whooping cough, and simply from being "debilitated since birth" or "delicate". Some also died of hunger. Marasmus is a form of acute malnutrition in children and young infants who are not getting enough to eat, and not getting enough nutrients. Children who suffer from it look emaciated and their stomachs are swollen.

Ten babies had "marasmus" listed as their cause of death. In other words, they died of hunger. They include Patrick Kelly, two-and-a-half months old, who died in 1929 and Patricia Judge, who died in July 1932. But why did four babies die of hunger in 1933? Mary Finola Cunniffe, six months old, died in May that year and John Kilmartin, who was two months, in August. Brigid Holland, aged two months, died of marasmus, asthma and cardiac failure in September. So did Mary Brennan, four months old, who had marasmus for three months.

The others were Patrick John Loftus, who died in May 1937 aged 10 months; Margaret Linnane who died in January 1938, aged three and a half months; Teresa Heneghan died a few days after Margaret on 23 January 1938; the last recorded death from malnutrition was Brigid Hurley who died in October 1939, aged 10-and-a-half months. Cause of death was "dyspepsia and marasmus since birth".

Sunday Independent

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