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“Continuous requisitions” for coffins at Kilrush Mother and Baby home

THERE were “continuous requisitions” for coffins at the old County Clare Nursery in Kilrush, according to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Final Report, which was published on Tuesday.

The County Clare Nursery, which was on the site of the Kilrush Workhouse on the Cooraclare Road, was open from 1922 to 1932 and it appears a very large number of children both were born and died there.

According to the Commission’s report, “The death rate in Co Clare institutions is very high when compared with the numbers in the baptismal record. As the nursery was the only institution for ‘illegitimate’ children in Co Clare it is probable that at least the majority died there.”

Between 1923 and 1932 there are records of 168 so-called ‘illegitimate’ infants dying in institutions in Clare, with 27 passing away in one single year, 1926. This figure does not include slightly older children who died in the institutions during the same years.

A Dr Counihan, the medical officer for Kilrush, described the death rate at the nursery as appalling and he sought new dietary scales for children there.

The report states that the records of meetings held at the time show coffins were frequently sought for the nursery, and not always for very young children. “Another indicator of the high mortality rate was the continuous requisitions for coffins which are recorded in the minutes. This record also points to children of different ages dying in the nursery as the coffins were of different sizes.”

It was owned and financed by Clare County Council and run by the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy from 1922 to 1928, and by directly employed staff from then.

The condition of the facility was always poor, from the outset until its closure a decade later, the report found. “It was so bad that its closure was considered less than a year after it opened. In December 1922, the Local Government Inspector, James McLysaght, who inspected all the county institutions at the request of a committee of inquiry set up by Clare county council, said that it was a ‘perfect scandal to have anyone in the place’. He pointed out that there was no sanitary accommodation and no water supply and that it would cost a lot of money to make it habitable; he was concerned that the prevailing conditions, ‘would give rise some time or other to an outbreak of fever for which the County Board of Health would be responsible’.”

While there were ongoing complaints thereafter, it continued to function without much in the way of improvements.
There was also an issue with overcrowding, according to this week’s report. “In April 1924, the matron complained that the institution was overcrowded as there were 164 residents in the nursery and children were sleeping two in a bed with ‘every habitable corner occupied.’”

While records are not precise, it appears that 300-400 mothers were at the nursery at some point, with many more children.

There is evidence that the mothers were in some cases effectively imprisoned at the nursery, who, in some of the documents dating from the period, were referred to as inmates. “In April 1924, on foot of an inspection by county councillors, the board ordered that ‘unmarried mothers and children be kept for a period of two years from the date of their admission order’. There was no legal basis for this although it does seem to have been the approved policy of the Department of Local Government and Public Health. It is not clear that this was implemented fully in Kilrush. There are instances where women were ‘detained’ when they should not have been. For example, a woman came to collect her daughter and the daughter’s baby but this was not allowed as the baby was only seven weeks old and allowing her out would cause ‘much dissatisfaction amongst the other inmates’.”

At times the nursery exercised a huge level of control over the long term futures of the mothers and their children, acting outside the law of the time. “In March 1925 a woman called for her unmarried daughter and ‘strongly insisted on taking away the child of the latter’. The matron refused, pending the instructions of the board. The board ordered that the mother be discharged and the child boarded out. On another occasion a mother who had spent two years in the nursery was ‘most anxious to leave with her four illegitimate children’. The matron stated she did not think this woman was capable of taking care of herself and her children. The nursery chaplain was of the same view and the order from the board was that the woman be ‘retained’ in the nursery. There was no legal basis for the retention of this woman and her children, but she almost certainly was not aware of that.”

The Gardai played a role in preventing women from leaving. “In general, it would appear that many of the women stayed for two years unless taken out by their family and then only with the permission of the board. There were a number of ‘escape’ attempts. In May 1924, the matron reported that three women had ‘scaled the wall’ but had been arrested and brought back by the Gardaí. In October of that year, she reported that two women escaped over the wall leaving behind their two children, one aged three weeks and the other five months. The matter was reported to the Gardaí.”

A 1922 report found that pregnant women were doing very unsuitable work at the nursery. “The mothers are neglected, they have no proper clothing and no comfort of any kind. They are willing to do any work even the most menial and unpleasant. A certain number worked in the laundry under the old management. The washing was done with scrubbing brushes. We are supplying washboards. A strong mangle is required. We don’t consider it is humane to allow expectant and nursing mothers to wring out heavy twill sheets and blankets as they do at present. We feel strongly that the lot of these poor women should be improved. Some are under 20 years and we feel confident we could get good results both to the women and the Home if we could, with discretion and common sense, give them comfort in their work, food and clothing.”

Owen Ryan

About Owen Ryan

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Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.