Dr James Deeny defied Church and State in 1940s Ireland to temporarily close Cork’s Bessborough mother and baby home. The subsequent drop in the home’s infant mortality rate suggests Deeny’s intervention saved literally hundreds of children’s lives, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

When Dr James Deeny was appointed Ireland’s Chief Medical Adviser in 1944, his first priority after tuberculosis – Ireland had Western Europe’s highest incidence of the disease – was the country’s shockingly high infant and maternal mortality rate.

“One of the things I tried to do was organise public health monitoring,” Dr Deeny wrote in his 1989 memoir To Cure and to Care.

“For example, going through returns for infant deaths in Cork I noticed there was something unusual and traced the matter to a home for unmarried mothers at Bessborough outside the city. I found that in the previous year some 180 babies had been born there and that considerably more than 100 had died.”

Deeny’s book doesn’t give an exact date for this observation, but the officially certified deaths related to the Bessborough in the 1940s, which I have seen, are shocking.

In 1940, 41 Bessborough children are certified as having died. In 1941, the figure is 39. In 1942, the figure has jumped to 70.

In 1943, 98 Bessborough children are certified as having died, in what was the single worst year for infant fatalities in the Cork mother and baby home.

In 1944, 68 Bessborough children are certified as having died. In 1945, that figure is 36. In 1946, 15 died, and in 1947 the figure was 20.

Deeny travelled to Bessborough, and inspected the mother and baby home.

“It was a beautiful institution, built on to a lovely old house just before the war, and seemed to be spotlessly clean. 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. Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up. There was obviously a staphylococcus infection about.

“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.”

For Deeny, there was to be a post script to his intervention.

“A couple of days later I had a visit in Dublin from the nuns’ ‘man of affairs’ and he was followed by the Dean of Cork, Monsignor Sexton, and finally the Bishop of Cork complained to the Nuncio, who went to see (Taoiseach) de Valera. The Nuncio, Archbishop Robinson (formerly a millionaire American stockbroker) saw my report and said we were quite right in our action …

“Later, when the place had been disinfected and repainted and so on, the Order (the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) supplied a new matron and we appointed a new doctor. During the succeeding years, while many hundreds of babies were born each year, the number of deaths never exceeded single figures.”

Deeny is correct: in 1948, seven Bessborough babies are certified as having died. In 1949, eight. In 1950, three.

Bessborough would continue as a mother and baby home for decades, with the final infant death associated with the home certified as having occurred in 1994. The highest number of deaths in any one year after 1950 was in 1957, when seven Bessborough babies are certified as having died.

It’s difficult to nail down a precise date for Dr Deeny’s Bessborough intervention. He was appointed Chief Medical Adviser in 1944 and Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil lost the February 1948 general election, so it had to be before that date.

The Irish Examiner’s Conall Ó Fátharta has reported on Bessborough for over a decade. He notes that in 1944, Minister for Local Government and Public Health – effectively the minister for health – Dr Con Ward, issued a circular directing that “for the time being”, no unmarried mother or expectant unmarried mother should be sent to Bessborough, ordering they instead be referred to the County Home.

Ó Fátharta has written that the following year, the Bishop of Cork Daniel Cohalan, responded furiously to Ward’s request that the matron in charge of Bessborough be replaced.

“Rev Mother Martina has informed me that the Mother Superior in England was asked to remove her,” wrote Bishop Cohalan. “That procedure was scarcely correct. Mother Martina is Reverend Mother of the Community of Sisters, it is an ecclesiastical appointment; it was not a correct thing to call for the removal.”

Minister Ward’s parliamentary secretary responded that should information about the number of children dying at Bessborough leak into the public domain, it would result in a 'public scandal'.

“The parliamentary secretary is only concerned with (Mother Martina’s) position as matron of a home in which the death rate has reached an exceptionally high figure. The fact that 102 babies died in the institution before reaching the age of 12 months during the year (to) 31st March last – the total infants born in the home and admitted after birth in that year being 124 – is viewed with disquietude.”

The officially certified deaths relating to Bessborough for the year dating from April 1st, 1943 to March 31st, 1944 do indeed number 102. James Deeny says that “in the previous year some 180 babies had been born there and that considerably more than 100 had died.”

Was Deeny referring to 1943 to 1944? If so, there’s a discrepancy between the numbers of births the department mentions and what Deeny remembers, but it does seem likely this is the period Deeny recalls, when infant mortality in Bessborough was at 82%.

Having said that, 20 children are certified as having died in Bessborough in 1947, so that would suggest Deeny’s intervention was about that point. Bessborough’s infant mortality figures drop to single figures after 1947.

I haven’t been able to establish whether Mother Martina was the matron sacked by Deeny, but Deeny’s intervention was not to be the end of Bessborough’s institutionalised inhumanity.

June Goulding, who worked as a midwife in Bessborough from 1951, wrote in her 1998 memoir The Light in the Window, that women who gave birth there were denied pain relief during labour, or penicillin when they developed abscesses from breast feeding.

Ms Goulding said women injured during childbirth were not stitched as they had to “suffer the pain of being torn” to “atone for their sin”.

The nun who ran the labour ward in 1951 forbade any “moaning or screaming” during childbirth. Painkillers were not permitted.

“Nobody gets any here, nurse,” Goulding was told. “They just have to suffer.”

To return briefly to Minister Con Ward’s 1944 decree that Bessborough be temporarily bypassed and expectant mothers be referred instead to the County Home, lest anyone think county homes were much better, here’s Dr James Deeny:

“When I started to visit County Homes shortly after I was appointed, I found women, some of them old, who 30 or 40 years before had been unmarried mothers, were disowned by their families and had fetched up for shelter in the workhouse.

“They had been assigned to work in the kitchen or laundry as ‘able-bodied female paupers’. They had spent years or even a lifetime working without pay, dressed up in the workhouse garb, literally slaves.”

James Deeny’s intervention undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives, but babies continued to die in Bessborough, and staff continued to treat women with cruelty and indifference.

That legacy of evil continues to this day, with the burial records of over 800 Bessborough babies missing, and the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation describing the affidavit provided by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary as “speculative, inaccurate and misleading”.

Which is an interesting look for an outfit that advertises its piety by naming itself after an 'illegitimate' child and his mother.