Over 9,000 Irish women or ‘inmates’ went through these doors, forced to repent

In Adoption, Adoption Trafficking, Rights, Videos by Paul Redmond

Originally known as Pelletstown and later as Saint Patrick’s Mother and Baby home, 361 Navan Road, Dublin 7, it was originally a public Workhouse and probably designated a ’Special institution’ exclusively for single mothers in 1904.

It was converted for such usage in 1906 by George Sheridan at a cost of £11,000. Pelletstown was owned and financed by the Poor Law Guardians and the Dublin Union (ie. the state), and run on their behalf by the Sisters of the Daughters of Saint Vincent de Paul (later called the Daughters of Charity).

Saint Patrick’s was by far the largest of the nine Mother and Baby homes in terms of the numbers who passed through and approx. 9,000 to 12,000 women and girls went through its doors. It was also a massive ‘Holding Center’ in its own right for unaccompanied babies and children. It was certified for 149 beds for unmarried mothers and 560 cots/beds for babies and children.

Babies and children who passed away were sent for burial to the national Angel’s Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery in north Dublin. There are two periods when exact numbers of deaths are known and rough estimates from other years would indicate that at least 2,000 and possibly above 3,000 babies and children died during its 81 years of operation on the Navan Road. The Home was closely associated with Saint Kevin’s Hospital in Dublin city center now known as Saint James.

The Navan Road premises were sold for development in 1985 and the building was demolished and an upmarket housing estate stands in its place today. However contrary to popular belief, Saint Patricks did not close down as such but transferred it’s diminished operation too far smaller premises and continued until the early 1990s at a grand Victorian pile in plush Dublin 4.

The early years

During its early years, the newly independent Irish state began to publish Local Government Reports from 1925 onwards. Until 1945 these Reports contained details of “unmarried mothers” in Ireland and the state’s attitude towards them.

They also contained specific details and statistics from the various Mother and Baby homes although what was included varied wildly from year to year and sometimes contained no information at all about Saint Patrick’s.

The section on “unmarried mothers” gradually shrank to a couple of paragraphs annually before ending completely after 1945.

Loans (non-repayable) and Hospital Sweepstakes grants were awarded to St. Patrick’s several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s including money for two large nurseries with verandas, a new laundry, baths, and lavatories. £14,500 was given for general improvements.

A maternity annex was added as well as a “heating garden Infirmary“ (sic), and money for “improvements to the Catholic Chapel”. Later a maternity hospital was built and payments amounting to a total of £8,410 were made from Sweepstake Funds (see below for full details).
Conditions as seen in the Infant Mortality Rates

As can be clearly seen in the Infant Mortality Rates (IMRs) in the annual Reports, conditions were horrendous in Saint Patricks in its early days. The known IMRs are indefensible by any standards, rising to 50% in one year when the national Infant Mortality Rates were approx. 6% to 7%. Women and girls were treated extremely harshly, brutalized, neglected, and underfed. Their babies were born weakened and underweight while their breast milk was also well below standard due to their continued ill-treatment. The large and generally overcrowded wards facilitated the many infections and diseases that regularly raced through the hospital.

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Local Government Report 1929 -1930 with six years of Infant Mortality Rates for Saint Patricks. The national average at this time was about 6% to 7% year on year.

Early daily mass was a common feature of all Mother and Baby homes. The Priests drove the message home. The ‘inmates’ were sinners, dirty whores and barely above common street prostitutes. No man would ever want to marry them if they knew their filthy little secret. Landlords would not rent them rooms. Their own families had rejected them. Most of all they must repent!

They must be grateful to the generous nuns for taking them in. They must suffer. Hard work and no medication during labour was part of the price to be paid. The vast majority of former residents carried deep emotional and mental scars for the rest of their lives.

From the time St. Patricks opened, it was the unquestioned norm in society and official circles to separate single mothers and their children. Although there was a provision in law for ‘adoption by resolution’ it was rarely used and the majority of babies and children were raised in St. Patrick’s Home for up to three and fours years or boarded out around Dublin.

Conditions in some of the houses where they were sent were appalling and many died of neglect and underfeeding (see annual Reports below).

The children were often an easy source of income and nothing more. In 1933 the nuns opened Saint Philomenas Home in Stillorgan in south County Dublin. It was “certified in pursuance of the Pauper Children (Ireland) Act 1889, for the reception of boys and girls who may be eligible to be sent to certified schools“.

In this case “certified school” means “Industrial School”.  Saint Philomenas was used almost exclusively for children who were too old for the nursery wards in Saint Patrick’s but too young for Industrial Schools. It was later split when the boys were transferred to Saint Theresa’s in nearby Blackrock.

When the children reached the ages of 7 or 8, girls were normally transferred to Lakeland’s Industrial School in Sandymount while the boys were sent to the notorious Artane Industrial School on Dublin’s north side.

There is strong anecdotal evidence that at some point mixed-race babies from around the country and in particular from the other M&B homes, were routinely transferred to Saint Patricks.

The babies were held there until they were old enough to be transferred to Saint Philomenas or directly to Industrial Schools and it was extremely rare for them to be adopted.

Casual racism and sectarianism were commonplace in the M&B homes and among the religious but while Protestant babies were kept exclusively at the infamous Bethany Home in Rathgar, the mixed-race babies and children bore the racism firsthand and additional beatings, abuse and shaming throughout their time in state ‘care‘.

Many mixed race Irish citizens are suffering the emotional and mental scars to this day. Most left Ireland as soon as they could. At some unknown point, Saint Patricks also developed a ‘secure unit’ for women who returned pregnant a second time. They were known as ‘Repeat offenders’ and their area was off limits to the first time ‘offenders‘. Other Mother and Baby homes usually refused ‘second-timers’ and sent them to Saint Patricks.
Changing times

There was a softening of conditions in the late 1940s into the early 1950s in common with the other Mother and Baby homes in the state.

There were several factors involved in this change of attitude including the appointment of Doctor James Deeny as the state’s Chief Medical Officer in 1944. After a personal visit to the notorious Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Cork followed by a serious confrontation with the Sacred Heart nuns, Dr. Deeny courageously closed their M&B Home and thereby effectively laid down the law to all the M&B homes including Saint Patricks.

The beginning of the Banished Babies trade in 1945 where Irish babies and children were effectively sold to rich Americans because of a shortage of babies to adopt in America also meant that children were worth more alive than dead. At least 254 children were sent directly to America from St. Patricks.

A third major factor was the passing of the 1952 Adoption Act. Afterward, it became socially acceptable to adopt babies and hence generous donations poured in. Suddenly babies were worth more alive than dead. Conditions were still appalling and subhuman by today’s standards but Infant Mortality Rates fell sharply in the mid-1950s and continued to do so until Saint Patrick’s closed.

From the early 1950s to the mid-1970s was the Golden Age of the Adoption Machine as up to 97% of all babies born to single mothers were adopted. The money flowed in from America, from donations, from the Government paying per capita for every single mother and baby by the week.

The beginning of the end

Conditions softened sharply again throughout the 1970s as ‘Unmarried Mothers Allowance’ was introduced by the Government and a private group to represent the interests of single mothers called ‘Cherish’ was formed at the same time.

In Saint Patricks, radios became more common and now ‘residents’ as opposed to ‘inmates‘, stood up to the nuns. As the 1970s progressed and single mothers in common with the rest of society were better educated and more aware of their rights, an increasing number left with their babies.

They found the greatest challenge was to source living accommodation as Landlords would not rent flats or house shares to single mothers due to the prevailing stigma attached in a still staunchly Catholic dominated society. Their families would generally not help either as worry about ‘what the neighbors thought’ was still a powerful social influence.

From the mid-1970s, an occasion nun was discretely helpful to those seeking to leave and assisted in finding flats. Numbers continued to fall from their all-time highs around 1973 and Saint Patrick’s was effectively finished by the early to mid-1980s. Society had moved on.

After the Navan Road premises was sold in 1985, the nuns transferred their remaining staff and residents to 75 Eglington Road in Donnybrook in plush Dublin 4.

Here the girls and women were in supervised ‘Flatlets’ and were regularly seen by passers-by and local residents, huddled in groups outside, smoking and chatting. Anecdotal evidence is that the residents were mainly professional women in their 20s, bored out of their minds and eager to get back to their careers.

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Eliginton House in Donnybrook, Dublin 4. The second home of Saint Patricks. Source: Paul Redmond

Miscellaneous facts about Saint Patricks

In late 2012 RTE’s Primetime program broadcast a ‘special’ further elaborating on the secret but officially authorized Vaccine Trials in M&B homes in the late 1950s and 1960s.

However, in part two, the program also revealed for the first time that 461 bodies of dead babies and children from Saint Patrick’s M&B home and it’s associated hospital, Saint Kevin’s, were ’donated’ to various medical institutions.

There is no evidence of consent being sought or received from the natural mothers involved. Between 1940 and 1965, Saint Patricks and it’s associated hospital Saint Kevin’s “donated“ the bodies of at least four hundred and sixty-one deceased babies and children for routine dissection practice and/or put to use by medical students and/or used for research in all the major medical teaching institutions in the state including Trinity College Dublin, The College of Surgeons, and UCD medical school where, coincidently, the same Professor Meehan and Doctor (later Professor) Hillary who conducted the vaccine trials worked.

While the nuns remain adamant that they received no money for the bodies, they certainly would have saved a considerable sum by not using Undertakers to arrange for the removal and burial of bodies in Glasnevin where they had to pay to open the graves.

Prime Time – Anatomy Of A Scandal

On June the 28th, 1984, Independent TD Tony Gregory asked a question in the Dail about the numbers of children remaining in Mother and Baby homes where the mother was no longer present. He received a detailed answer. In Saint Patricks there were:

1 is 4 years old
2 are 5 years old
2 are 6 years old
1 is 7 years old
1 is 10 years old

And in a follow-up question, Minister for Health Desmond replied that the children listed are “severely handicapped” and have been resident since birth. See details at the following link.

On the 18th of June 2014 about four weeks after the Tuam 800 went global, a front-page article by Pamela Duncan in the Irish Times with a follow up on page 7 reveals that “More than 660 children died in Dublin residential home in seven-year period”. Duncan’s article involved original research and was based on several of the same LGRs transcribed below. It was the first article during the frenzy after the Tuam 800 story to go into detail about Saint Patrick’s M&B home on the Navan Road.

There are currently two Saint Patrick’s groups on Facebook for former residents.

Saint Patricks at both it addresses’s are under investigation by the current Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby homes. Survivors are giving testimony at the moment. The Inquiry is due to report in 2018.  See here for details.

Historical blind spot

The events of the 1916 Uprising are seared into our national consciousness when around 500 men, women and children died on all sides. At least four times that number died in Saint Patricks and yet they are forgotten.

At the very highest estimate, 3,500, an equal number of Irish citizens died in Saint Patricks as died in the entire 30 years of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ across Ireland and the UK.  Yet Saint Patricks is a ghost. A historical blind spot in our books and folk memory.

Over 20,000 and probably far more than 25,000 Irish citizens, were former residents of and deeply affected by, Saint Patricks Mother and Baby home on the Navan Road in Dublin. The majority went to their graves still suffering the emotional and mental scars from their time in this notorious “home”. May those who passed away, Rest In Peace.

Paul Redmond was born in Castlepollard Mother & Baby home and adopted at 17 days old. He has founded several activists or support groups and campaigns for justice for survivors of forced adoption and institutional abuse. He also researches and writes extensively about the history of M&B homes and is a contributor to Adoptionland: From Orphans to Activists. 

Paul Redmond Copyright: 2015 except Local Government Reports and where noted. May be freely reused, reprinted, copied, etc. with credit to Paul Redmond.

Footnotes here.