Bessborough letters reveal an intertwined relationship between Church and State which was complex and complicit, writes Donal O’Keeffe.
“Oh Ireland, my first and only love, Where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove!” wrote James Joyce, over a century ago.
In the mid-1940s, the soaring infant mortality rate at the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork triggered a power struggle between Church and State, eventually resolving in the abandonment of a threatened investigation into almost 700 deaths at the home.
Correspondence between Ireland’s Chief Medical Advisor Dr James Deeny and Bessborough Mother Superior Rosemonde – contained in Deeny’s papers in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland Archive and seen by The Avondhu – reveals a sometimes-fraught relationship between the 1940s Irish State and the Catholic Church, even though both were united in a shared social agenda.
Bessborough became a mother and baby home in 1922, and its infant mortality rate rose from an annual average of nine deaths in the 1920s to 27 in the 1930s, and 36 in the 1940s.
Between 1922 and the end of 1946, 674 children had been officially certified as having died at the home.
Between April 1943 and March 1944, at a time Ireland’s national infant mortality rate was 6.6%, 124 babies were either born at Bessborough or admitted there after birth, while 102 children were officially certified as having died there, with inspection reports citing an 82% infant mortality rate in the home.
As reported previously by Conall Ó Fatharta in the Irish Examiner, a June 1941 government inspection report stated that the nun in charge, Superioress Martina Gleeson, had no qualifications in supervising maternity care. It also noted a “tendency to discourage breastfeeding” and suggested this might be partly responsible for Bessborough’s soaring infant mortality rate.
In a chilling response, Gleeson denied this, saying that women were in fact forced to breastfeed.
A subsequent, August 1943, inspection report by Alice Litster found that, of the 27 babies in the day nursery aged between three weeks to nine months, only eight were breastfed and only three fully.
“The greater number were miserable scraps of humanity, wizened, some emaciated and almost all had rash and sores all over their bodies, faces, hands and heads.”
The response from Bessborough blamed the mothers, claiming “In the majority of cases the mothers are inclined to be fretful and have no love for their infants.”
Dr Con Ward, parliamentary secretary at the Department of Local Government and Public Health – effectively Minister for Health – directed in 1944 that “for the time being”, no expectant mother should be sent to Bessborough, ordering they instead be referred to the County Home.
Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, responded angrily to Ward’s February 1945 request that matron Martina Gleeson be replaced, but Ward’s office responded that should the number of children dying at Bessborough leak into the public domain, it would result in a “public scandal”.
Dr James Deeny, Ward’s senior advisor, subsequently travelled to Bessborough, and inspected the “spotlessly clean” home.
“I marched up and down and around about and could not make out what was wrong; at last I took a notion and stripped all the babies and, unusually for a Chief Medical Adviser, examined them,” Deeny recalled in his 1989 memoir To Cure and to Care.
“Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up.
“Without any legal authority I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and got rid of the medical officer. The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing about it, had accepted the situation and were quite complacent about it.”
The medical officer Deeny fired was Dr JT O’Connor. O’Connor had claimed Bessborough’s 82% infant mortality rate was due to “illegitimate” children sometimes failing to digest breast milk.
Bishop Cohalan reported Deeny’s actions to the Papal Nuncio, who visited Taoiseach Eamon de Valera. De Valera showed him Deeny’s report, and the Nuncio conceded that Deeny’s actions had been correct.
“Later, when the place had been disinfected and repainted,” Deeny writes, “the Order supplied a new matron and we appointed a new doctor.”
Mother Rosemonde was appointed to Bessborough in September 1945. A handwritten note to Ward, presumably from Deeny, reads: “We might give the new Rev Mother, who appears to be very capable, a chance to pull Bessboro together before we press for a withdrawal of the maternity licence”.
Deeny’s papers in the RCSI archive show Deeny travelled to Cork on Thursday 29 August 1946, where his first meeting was with Dr Condy, County Medical Officer of Health, at his South Mall office.
Bessborough is next mentioned in Deeny’s papers in an August 18, 1947 letter which begins with an apology for the delay in writing, caused by a lag in contact between Deeny’s office and Dr Condy.
“I have just been on the ’phone to [Condy] and arranged with him that the special investigation into the death of each may be dropped for the present. In the event of any indue [sic] rise in the death rate, those investigations would have to be resumed.”
The power play is obvious. Two years after Rosemonde’s appointment, Deeny is laying down a marker: Keep playing ball and I’ll call off the dogs.
As with Ward’s “public scandal” threat, and Dev’s showing the Bessborough file to the Nuncio, Deeny is establishing who’s the boss.
We will probably never know whether Deeny was bluffing, but it seems likely that the threat of “public scandal” held as much terror for the State as it did for the Church.
The position of Minister for Health was established in 1947, with Fianna Fáil founder-member James Ryan its inaugural incumbent. Ryan visited Bessborough in September 1947. It appears to have been a surprise visit, because Deeny says “the Minister was very impressed with Bessboro which he visited at such short notice for which I must apologize”.
Deeny says he hopes Rosemonde will be able to “keep Enteritis under control”, and reminds her that “Dr Connolly and his staff are there to help you”.
Deeny then refers to a planned visit by the head of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to Ireland, suggesting that upon the Mother General’s arrival she make an appointment to meet with Minister Ryan.
“At this stage I am not in a position to tell you what the prospects are of another house in Éire, but I know that the Minister is particularly interested in the problem of the unmarried mother, and it would be of assistance to him to have an opportunity of discussing the work of your Order in this field.”
Three years after 102 babies died in a 12-month period in its care, and weeks after the State called of a threatened investigation into almost 700 deaths, the Congregation, which also ran the Sean Ross Abbey and Castlepollard homes, was shilling to the State for new business, and the State didn’t tell it where to go.
As it transpired, no new mother and baby homes would be opened, but Deeny’s phrase “the problem of the single mother” is telling.
Deeny is justifiably proud in his memoir that – post 1947 – Bessborough’s annual death rate never again reached double figures, but survivor testimony shows it remained a heartless place decades later. Cindi Bonny, whose baby Zoei in 1994 was the last child to die in the care of the home, recalls that she was denied pain medication during labour, half a century after Deeny’s intervention.
Religious orders supplied services the Irish State was unwilling or unable to provide, and Church and State really did work hand in glove, the left and right hands knowing exactly what the other was doing; united in a shared social agenda.
To claim, as seems to be the contention of the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation – a claim repeated in the Dáil by Taoiseach Micheál Martin – that all of society was responsible for what was done to Irish girls and women, and to their babies, seems almost wilfully to ignore how utterly intertwined Church and State were, and how absolutely Irish society was warped by a prurient, misogynistic, respectability-obsessed version of Catholicism.
Our survivors, and their beloved children, deserve far, far better from all of us, Church, State, and society.