Young mums denied painkillers to make them 'suffer for their sins'
THEY were made to scrub the hard, cold floors on their knees with a toothbrush, and to cut the huge lawns with only a scissors.
Mothers at the Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Co Cork, privately referred to as "a secret penitential jail", were refused all social contact with the outside world, and not allowed to even speak with each other.
Former inmates believe up to 3,000 children are buried in unmarked graves at the country's largest mother and baby home.
John Barrett, who was born at Bessborough on July 17, 1952, told the Sunday Independent: "If there are 800 babies buried in a single plot in Tuam, I can guarantee you that there are thousands buried at Bessborough. I would estimate from my information that there are probably between 2,000 and 3,000 children buried there."
The infant mortality rate at Bessborough in the late Forties was 55 per cent – meaning burials would have been taking place on a weekly basis.
The young women were routinely forbidden from attending the funerals of their babies and, in one case, a woman who lost her baby received nothing more than a pair of his shoes as she was sent home.
June Goulding, who worked as a midwife at Bessborough in 1951 and wrote a harrowing memoir of her experiences entitled The Light in the Window (1998), recalls how she was told by staff that the purpose of not offering pain relief medications to the young pregnant women was that they could "suffer ... and atone for their sin".
Nora Sullivan, who went to visit a friend sent to Bessborough after becoming pregnant in the Fifties, said it was the closest thing to a concentration camp she has ever seen.
"I met my friend and she was not allowed to look at me in the face. She kept her head bowed the whole time I was there," she said.
"I was not allowed to give her the fruit I had brought and, as I was leaving, I saw a couple of other young girls on their hands and knees washing the floors, I think it was parquet flooring, with tiny brushes."
Bessborough was effectively shut 30 years after it opened because a Department of Health inspector, Dr James Deeney, was appalled at its high mortality rate.
The closure, which sparked a row in the Fifties between the government, the Bishop of Cork & Ross and the Vatican, remained in force when Dr Deeney revealed that 100 of 180 babies born there over a 12-month period had died.
Campaigners now want the entire Bessborough cemetery sealed off, inspected and excavated to determine precisely how many babies were buried there.
Mr Barrett is calling for a public inquiry led by an overseas judge to resolve what he described as "the greatest scandal in the history of the Irish State".
The Blackrock home – which was substantially bigger than similar mother and baby homes in Tuam, Co Galway and Roscrea, Co Tipperary – became notorious for its cruel and brutal regime. The facility was later the focus of controversial vaccine trials on babies and the secret shipment of 98 children to the US for adoption by wealthy Catholic families.
Bessborough opened in 1922 when the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary arrived in Blackrock at the invitation of the then Bishop of Cork & Ross, Dr Daniel Cohalan.
Dr Cohalan, best remembered for his denouncement of the IRA during the War of Independence, believed the Bessborough facility was vital for the protection of local morals.
It operated for over 40 years and, at its peak in the Forties and early Fifties, over 350 women and babies were resident.
A major investigation is now under way by campaign groups to cross-reference the number of known graves at Bessborough with Cork's registry of deaths.
A portion of the Bessborough cemetery has been off limits for decades and repeated requests by campaigners for excavations and the erection of memorials were denied.
"This place (Bessborough) was huge compared to either Tuam or Roscrea.
"There were hundreds of young women and babies here at any one time," John said.
He lived for five years at the home before he was finally allowed leave to rejoin his mother after she had indicated she was to marry.
However, John was later taken and placed in a church-run school in Cork, where he was repeatedly abused in the Sixties by notorious paedophile, Br Ambrose. "I consider everyone who went through the doors of these terrible places to be my brothers and sisters. We owe to them and to each other to find the truth. But for the grace of God there go I," he said.
The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary this weekend said they would "welcome" an independent inquiry.