HIGHER Infant Mortality Rate, Appalling Conditions and Emotional Abuse - the Mother and Baby Homes Report at a Glance

By Hugh O'Connell
January 13, 2021

A right for adopted people to access their birth information – including their birth cert and other records - among recommendations of the Commission

The Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary, which was a Mother and Baby Home operated by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary from 1930 to 1970

The 2,865-page report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has been published, covering the period from 1922 to 1998 – a span of 76 years.

Ireland was “especially cold and harsh for women” during the earlier half of the period under the commission’s remit and that all women “suffered serious discrimination”, the Commission says.

Women who gave birth outside of marriage were subject to “particularly harsh treatment”. Responsibility for this, the report states, rests mainly with fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It adds: “It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches."

Here are some of its key details and findings.


The Commission states that there were about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children in the Mother and Baby Homes and county homes it investigated. The greatest number of admissions came in the 1960s and 1970s. It states that it is likely there were a further 25,000 unmarried mothers and a larger number of children in the county homes it did not investigate. The proportion of unmarried mothers admitted to homes in the 20th century was “probably the highest in the world”.


In 1967, the number of babies who were adopted in Ireland was equal to 97pc illegitimate births – this was the highest in the world. The report notes that this dispels any myth that the 1960s brought major changes in family or societal attitudes or practices towards illegitimacy.

Large numbers of Irish women continued to give birth in Mother and Baby Homes in the 1970s, by which time most Mother and Baby Homes in other countries had closed. The report says that given Ireland’s low marriage rate in the early and mid-20th century and late age of marriage it seems possible the proportion of men who married their pregnant girlfriend may have been lower than elsewhere.

The report notes that illegitimate birth could destroy marriage prospects not just for the woman who had given birth but also her siblings, hence the pressures to keep it secret. The dominance of the family farm and family business and slow pace of economic development meant many Irish men and women in their late teens and early 20s were more likely to be dependent on their parents. “Land inheritance was important with farms passing from father to son,” the report states. “Agricultural concerns with breeding and lineage appear to have applied to marriage partners and children.”

Women ranged in age from 12 to in their 40. 80pc were aged between 18 and 29. A total of 5,616 were under 18. No evidence was found that gardai were told of pregnancies in under-age women.

The number of women under 18 who were admitted rose sharply in the 1960s and remained high for two decades. Dunboyne was the home with the highest proportion of women under 18 – 23.4pc of total admissions. Some women had mental health problems, some had an intellectual disability. Some pregnancies were the result of rape.

The women were admitted because they failed to secure support of their family and the father. They were forced to leave home and seek a place where they could stay without having to pay. “Many were destitute,” the report states.

The profiles of the women changed over the decades. In the early years they were domestic servants or farm workers. Later on they were clerical workers, professional, civil servants or students. “There is no evidence that women were forced to enter Mother and Baby Homes by church or State authorities. Most women had no alternative.” They were brought by their parents or other family without being consulted.

The overwhelming majority of women were maintained by the local authority but some were ‘private patients’ who were paid for by themselves or family members. In many cases they were cut off from the world and assigned a house name to give them assurance their privacy would be protected.

The report states that “it must be acknowledged that these institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the families provided no refuge at all”.


The vast majority of children were deemed ‘illegitimate’ by virtue of being born to unmarried mothers. It was because of this that they suffered discrimination for most of their lives. Most children born in the institutions have no memory of their time there, but some stayed after their mother left and a small number were there until age 7.

Before adoption became legal in 1953, children who left the homes usually ended up in industrial schools or were boarded out or nursed out by the local authority with evidence that the needs of foster families were placed above those of the child.

Children were sent to impoverished households who needed the monthly fee. In some cases they were placed with older unmarried women or in households consisting of an elderly brother or sister where there was little understanding of a child’s needs. Children were required to carry out heavy unpaid work in their foster home. Department inspections were perfunctory.


The higher rate of infant mortality, the report states, is probably the most disquieting aspect of the institutions. In 1945 and 1946 the death rate among infants and mother and baby homes was almost twice the national average for illegitimate children.

A total of 9,000 children died in the institutions the commission investigated. This amounts to 15pc of all the children who were in the institutions. Before 1960, mother and baby homes did not save the lives of illegitimate children, in fact, the report states they appear to have “significantly reduced their prospects of survival”.

The very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.

Infant mortality peaked in most homes during the early and mid-1940s, coinciding with a national peak. The report states that 75pc of children born in Bessborough in 1943 died within the first year of life; 63pc born that same year in Bethany Home died. The Commission said despite its serious further efforts it was not able to establish where the majority of the Bessborough children are buried.

The Commission also identified 200 women who died when they were resident in the homes. More than half of these, 57pc, were associated with pregnancy. The highest number of deaths was in the 1930s.


Some institutions were owned and run by local health authorities such as the county homes, others were owned and run by religious orders such as Bessborough, Sean Ross, and Castlepollard.

While conditions in the homes were poor the commission notes that this was the case in Irish homes generally before the 1960s. Available evidence suggests that while conditions were basic there is no indication they were inadequate by the standards of the time. Conditions in county homes were generally very poor compared to “greatly superior” Mother and Baby Homes.

There are two exceptions, Kilrush and Tuam, which had “appalling physical conditions''. Kilrush had no electricity, running water or sanitary facilities and was eventually closed because of the cost of carrying out improvements. Tuam, which remained open until 1961, was not dissimilar in conditions. It had children’s rooms which were almost devoid of toys and heated by open fires or portable radiators filled with hot water.

Conditions in county homes were much worse than in Mother and Baby Homes, with the exception of Tuam and Kilrush, with most having no sanitation, no running water, heating and no place for children to play. The accommodation and care given to children in county homes is described as grossly inadequate.

Conditions in the homes overall improved over time and the commission said it has not seen evidence of major shortcomings in any of the homes operating between the 1970s and the 1990s.


The women and children should not have been in the homes, the report states. Conditions were regimented and institutional, especially in the larger homes.

There were a small number of complaints of physical abuse. Many women suffered emotional abuse and were often subjected to denigration and derogatory remarks. Little kindness was shown to them and this was particularly the case in childbirth.

Many of the women found childbirth to be a traumatic experience with the overwhelming majority being first time mothers. Women were subject to hostile comments made by neighbours to women and their families. Women who were transferred to maternity hospitals were subjected to unfriendly comments by fellow patients and their visitors.

The larger homes were inadequately staffed and there were no qualified social workers or counsellors until at least the 1970s. Women were dissuaded from telling their stories, because of concern about protecting their privacy.

Despite the introduction of an unmarried mother’s allowance in 1973, there is evidence that women who became pregnant afterwards were not always informed of the availability of the financial aid.

While it has been widely stated that women were required to stay for two years after their birth of their child there was never a legal requirement for this. The motivation behind this was said to be “both moral and pragmatic” – a belief that two years was sufficient time to reform or rehabilitate a woman.

The delay in introducing legal adoption is offered as an explanation for why many Irish women spent so long in the homes. A number of women admitted to Bessborough in the 1920s remained there for the rest of their lives.

Most women in Mother and Baby Homes were not required to do commercial work. They were expected to work but this was generally work for which they would have had to do if they were living at home such as cleaning, doing their own laundry, cooking and carrying out farm work. But the Commission adds that it is probably the case that more intensive and more frequent cleaning was required. There is some evidence that in some homes, such as Castlepollard, women were required to chop wood.


The report states that local authorities often deferred to the views of religious orders that ran the homes with examples cited including Galway County Council acceding to demands from the Bon Secours that children should remain in the home until the ages of five (boys) and seven (girls) despite this being against the Department of Health’s wishes.

There is no evidence that the Catholic hierarchy played a role in the day-to-day running of the homes. But their influence is clear from some examples cited, including when the bishop of Killaloe rejected a proposal by the Department of Health to turn Sean Ross into a home for children with special needs in the 1960s. The home’s closure was delayed for several years until the bishop died and his successor granted approval.


The capitation rates for women and children in Mother and Baby Homes were financed from local authority rates. The Commission did not see any evidence that religious orders profited from running the homes and, in fact, at various times it is clear they struggled to make ends meet. Capitation rates did not keep pace with inflation but were considered more generous than social welfare to an adult and child living in the community.


Some oversight was exercised by national and local government but there was no clear policy on oversight and no clear demarcation between the roles of local and national government, the report states. Women inspectors in the Department of Local Government and Public Health and later the Department of Health tried valiantly to have conditions improved.

Evidence suggests that the department preferred to use persuasion rather than compulsion to bring about improvements. “The department’s main interest appears to have been the occupancy figures, and the rising cost of maintaining women and children in these homes,” it states.

The report states that there was no evidence that unmarried mothers were ever discussed at Cabinet during the first 50 years of independence and little public discussion about them or mother and baby homes in society before the 1960s. The report notes that the status of ‘illegitimacy’ was not abolished until 1987.


Between 1922 and 1998, 1,638 children, who were resident in Mother and Baby Homes and the four county homes under investigation, were placed for foreign adoption. The vast majority, 1,427, were placed for adoption to the USA. There was no regulation of foreign adoptions. Allegations of large sums of money being given to institutions and agencies in Ireland that arranged foreign adoptions are impossible to prove or disprove, the Commission finds.


The commission also found children in Mother and Baby Homes were subjected to vaccine trials without the consent of their parents or guardians. It identified seven such trials between 1934 and 1973 and found they were not compliant with regulatory and ethical standards of the time due to lack of consent and the failure to have necessary licences in place.

However, it found no evidence of injury to the children involved as a result of the vaccines. The trials all involved either the Wellcome Foundation or Glaxo Laboratores, both of which are now part of GlaxoSmithKline. They included trials for a measles and a “Quadravax” for polio, diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus.


The Commission recommends that there be a right for adopted people to access their birth information, including their birth cert and other records even though it is ”acutely conscious of the concerns expressed by some birth mothers about this”.

If a referendum is needed, as seems likely, then one should be held, the report states. A mechanism should be put in place to allow a birth mother to argue her privacy rights are being eroded.

While noting that the main problem with information about burials of children who died in the homes is that there in many cases there are no records, the Commission recommends that a right to information about burials should be given to parents and siblings.

The Commission recommends that counselling and enhanced medical cards should be provided to former residents who need them.

It says redress is a matter for the Government and recognises that it may not be possible to provide financial redress for all the wrongs in the past. Its report states that it is arguable that unmarried mothers not in the homes and who reared their children without State assistance have as good a case for redress as those in the homes paid for by the State.

A redress scheme, if it is being considered, could be modelled on the two comparable schemes, the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme, which would be for the children, and the Magdalene Laundries scheme which could be used for mothers. Redress for children in certain named homes does not arise, the Commission finds, however those children resident in county homes without their mothers should all be eligible for redress, it states.

Due to the introduction of the unmarried mother’s allowance in 1973, the Commission states that women who entered mother and baby homes after this year do not have a case for financial redress. However, it finds that women in county homes, women in Tuam and women who worked outside the institutions without pay should be eligible for redress.

Women who spent lengthy periods in the homes before 1974 should also be considered for redress. Six months has been selected as the cut off date because it was the average length of time a woman spent in a home in other countries.

The Commission said it does not agree with the contention from former residents and lobby groups that adoption should be renamed ‘forced adoption’.

The Government should consider earmarking a specific fund for current disadvantaged children, those in direct provision and naming it in honour of the children who died at Tuam. A number of scholarships should be created for further research in memory of the children who died with preference given to disadvantaged children.

A ex-gratia payment should be made to boarded out children, some of whom inherited farms from foster parents and became liable for taxes for which birth children and adopted children were not liable.

Digital copies of Department of Health records should be made available within six months to readers at the National Archives. Some files would need to be redacted or party redacted. This process should be completed within 12 months before being made available to the public.








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