By Majella Loftus
The final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes is harrowing, and at times difficult to read. Thankfully, our society has modernised and changed its attitudes toward unmarried mothers and their ‘illegitimate’ babies. However, the report highlights the scorn and shame which befell these women over many decades.
Courtesy of her tireless investigative work, diligence, and a willingness to help survivors, Tuam historian Catherine Corless was the catalyst that resulted in the five-year report finally being published.
She has welcomed the apology issued by the Sisters of Bon Secours, who ran the Tuam home, stating: “This is exactly what I have been looking for. It really means an awful lot.”
The story of the Tuam mother and baby home is one that will evoke memories for many people in households across Mayo and Galway. These people don’t have to be part of the history of ‘The Home’, but could tell stories of its existence; memories that were long buried, but which by being remembered and spoken of will bring closure to a time when society did wrong by these mothers and their babies and prevent such events ever happening again.
The story of the Tuam Children’s Home begins in December 1921 in Glenamaddy when Galway County Council, as part of its reorganisation of Poor Law services, converted the former workhouse into a home for children and unmarried mothers. It operated until 1925 when, due to the building’s poor condition, a decision was made to move the home to the former workhouse at the Dublin Road in Tuam.
From the start, the home was operated by the Sisters of Bon Secours, who called it St Mary’s Home, but it was owned by Galway County Council, which was responsible for maintenance and improvements. The key decisions on the building were taken by Galway Board of Health, which consisted of members of Galway County Council. In addition to unmarried mothers and their children, the home also admitted children of married couples or widowers/widows whose parents were unable to care for the children, and married women or widows with their children who were homeless or destitute, as well as children with physical and mental disabilities.
In 1931, an agreement was reached with Mayo County Council to admit women and children from all parts of Mayo to the facility. The fee paid by Mayo County Council was ten shillings a week per person, which increased to 11 shillings in 1944. By the time the home closed in 1961, the fee was 25 shillings a week for women and £1 for children.
Of the 2,219 women admitted to the home over the 38 years, a total of 686 women or just over 30%, were from Mayo. Most of the poorer women stayed on in the home for less than a year after giving birth. They were forced to work without pay while separated from their children who were raised by the nuns until they were adopted or fostered.
Mayo County Council paid the Sisters of Bon Secours the ‘capitation fee’ for each woman and child in the home.
By June 1935, the home was becoming overcrowded. The number of children admitted, including those born in the home, peaked in the 1940s with 142 admitted in 1946 alone. In March 1943, there were five children to every mother in the home, which was struggling to limit the numbers being admitted.
The numbers of ‘legitimate’ children in the home peaked in 1943, but this could be reflective of wartime disruption with fathers going to work in England or joining the army. The number of ‘illegitimate’ children also rose at this time. In 1944, there were 301 residents, 198 from Galway with 103 from Mayo.
When they worked in the Glenamaddy workhouse, the nuns were employees of the Poor Law guardians or the local authority and received a salary. However, when Glenamaddy closed and transferred to Tuam, the sisters received a gratuity totalling £900 from the local authority and did not receive a salary while in Tuam. It is likely the nuns lived on their capitation income from Galway and Mayo county councils.
The report found that 803 deaths occurred during the operation of the home. Some 196 of these were listed in documents seen by the as being born to Mayo mothers.
Each area of Mayo is represented as having had a mother who spent time in the Tuam home. The most number of mothers came from Castlebar and Ballina, at 25 each. A total of 21 mothers came from Westport, while nine each came from Ballinrobe and Newport, eight from Belmullet, and seven each from Kiltimagh and Ballyhaunis. There is barely a town in Mayo that did not have a woman stay at the home at some point during its 40-year existence.
From the start, the Tuam home provided difficult living and working conditions. A laundry was set up, catering for public demand, where the women worked and were trained for employment after they left.
However, the three-storey building was a typical workhouse with unceilinged dormitories, stone stairs and heated by open fires, with the exception of a stove in the kitchen. There was no central heating, despite numerous promises to upgrade the home, and open fires were still being used when it closed in 1961. Another problem was a lack of piped water. The water problem persisted because the home was located on higher ground on the outskirts of the town. Day-time pressure was insufficient to reach the home and it could only secure water from the urban system at night, otherwise, it was dependent on rainwater collected in a tank.
The building was not connected to the urban sewerage system until 1940 and problems relating to drainage continued long afterwards.
By 1945, it was reported a number of mother and baby homes had created isolation units where mothers or children were kept when they arrived at the home until the authorities were satisfied they were not carrying any infectious diseases. This was widely seen as an effective means of reducing sickness and mortality. However, it appears in Tuam, one room in the maternity unit was being used as an isolation room for women giving birth, but there was no isolation unit for children and other women who were admitted.
A report by the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) in 1950 found the most urgent matters were repairs to the floor in the nursery and the provision of sanitary accommodation and central heating. There were no floor coverings and the only furniture consisted of beds and cots. Some rooms had no heating at all, not even a turf fire.
“There was a lack of washing and toilet facilities on the second floor of the building,” the report stated. “Hot water was available in only three locations, apart from the laundry.”
Improvements were planned in the early 1950s but these were a casualty of the economic crisis in 1956, which resulted in massive cuts in public capital expenditure.
By 1959, a full renovation would cost around £200,000, and there were fears this would result in further damage to the building because, when central heating was installed in other former workhouse buildings, dry rot had spread rapidly.
The report states the “appalling” conditions persisted.
A report by the Department of Health in November 1959 found “some rooms had stoves, some open fireplaces, some children’s day rooms had small radiators that were filled with water that was heated on a stove or open fire and then poured into the radiators”.
The report also found the day rooms had the minimum amount of furniture and play facilities. The room for slightly older children had a rubber ball and two seats.
“It had no floor covering and no furniture other than beds and cots. Access was by the typical stone stairways common to all county homes, with a very dangerous turn near the top in every case. There were no washing facilities or toilets on the first or second floors.”
Records also show that officials of Galway County Council made serious efforts to pursue the putative fathers of the children born in the home for maintenance or to secure a contribution from the woman’s family.
In the early 1930s, the senior assistance officer of the County Homes and Home Assistance Committee, a sub-committee of the Galway Board of Health, directed that women entering the home should be interviewed by the county solicitor. The women were mostly servant girls while the putative fathers tended to be labourers or servant boys.
The solicitor was said to be “zealous” in pursuing both putative fathers and the families of unmarried mothers to recover some of the cost of running the Tuam home, although it is probable that many of his efforts were not successful. There is evidence, however, that some expectant mothers paid £5 on entry to the home.
Women remained in the home for less than a year. The average stay after giving birth ranged from 200 to 259 days. However, the children remained there for years.
The policy of the DLGPH was to encourage boarding-out when children were two years old, and there was sustained pressure on mother and baby homes and county homes to place children who were over two years old in foster homes. However, Galway was unique in having an agreement with the Tuam home to keep the children of unmarried mothers until school-going age.
“The agreement drawn up between Galway County Council and the Sisters of Bon Secours when the home opened provided for this. In the agreement with Mayo County Council in 1931, one clause stated that: ‘ages for boarding out children be the same in Mayo as for Galway, namely, boys five years, girls seven and a half years. Each board to deal with their own boarding out arrangements.’ ”
When Mayo County Council attempted to change this arrangement in 1935 and remove the children at an earlier age, the Sisters informed the local authority that their agreement with the Tuam home would not be renewed. Galway Board of Health expressed the view that the Sisters were acting in the best interests of the children, as boarded-out children were often used as cheap labour in farms in the West of Ireland.
The most common destination for children who left the home was boarding out in Mayo and Galway. The children who went to parents or other family members included many of the ‘legitimate’ children who had been sent to the home. It is not clear that children who left with parents or other family members stayed with them, many were likely to have been subsequently placed in institutions, boarded out, or adopted. The institutions included industrial schools, facilities for children with intellectual or physical disabilities, or hospitals.
Records show there were a total of 3,349 children resident in Tuam over the course of its 40 years. Some 2,694 were the children of unmarried mothers, while 655 were the children of married or widowed parents. The women were often wives of men who had gone to England but were not sending money home. There was also an occasional prisoner’s wife and other homeless and destitute women. There are several reports of families ending up in the home after being evicted.
Because of the high costs associated with upgrading the Tuam home in the late 1950s, it emerged Galway County Council were considering moving the home to the former Woodlands sanatorium in Galway in 1957, which was being used as an orthopaedic hospital. The county manager wrote to the Archbishop of Tuam Joseph Walsh, who replied that the proposed transfer was “undesirable in every way”.
“Anyone who has experience of the workings of a home for unmarried mothers will tell you that such a home must be in a place that is quiet, remote, and surrounded by high boundary walls. It is most difficult to deal with unmarried mothers. In many cases, they are on the lookout to get in touch with men, and some of them cannot repress their excitement, even when a man comes to the home to deliver a message. Many of these unmarried mothers are anxious to get off without delay. The only thing that prevents their leaving is the strict supervision and boundary walls. In some cases, it has been known that attempts were made from outside to get at the inmates.”
A decision on the home was postponed until January 1961 when the council decided to close the facility as there was adequate space for the women and children in other homes elsewhere.