One in every three illegitimate children died within one year of birth in 1924. The mortality rate was said to be five times higher than that for parented children.
The death rate of infant illegitimate children in the institutions was high as they were undernourished.
The high level of infant mortality seemed to cause surprise when research on Tuam workhouse and infant mortality in the 1920s was published in 2014 (Sunday Independent, 15 June 2014). However, as long ago as 1941 in an article by M.P.R.H. on ‘Illegitimate’ in The Bell, vol. 2, no. 3 (June, 1941), pp 78-87 it was stated that in 1924 one in every three illegitimate children died within one year of birth. The mortality rate was said to be five times higher than that for parented children.
Now the Mother and Child report (free to download) in chapter four documents what was stated 80 years ago in that pioneering Bell article. The new report at Chapter 4 cites some statistics known in the 1920s:
The 1923 report of the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths – the first relating to the area of the Irish Free State, recorded an infant mortality rate of 66 per 1,000. Infant mortality in urban areas was 99 per 1,000; almost double the rate in rural areas. The death rate for ‘illegitimate’ children was 344 per 1,000 births, about six times’ the mortality of the children of married couples. At this time the death rate among ‘illegitimate’ children was significantly higher in every country, and that remained the case throughout most of the 20th century, but the adverse impact of ‘illegitimate’ birth was much greater in Ireland than elsewhere.
One entry in the Report noted of Tullamore touching on the all important subject of economies (at a time when the support base was mostly local and on the rates) in 1931:
In May 1931 the DLGPH wrote to the Offaly Board of Health suggesting that the 26
unmarried mothers living in Tullamore county home should be transferred to Sean
Ross. In support of the suggestion, the chairman of the board said that the 26
women in question were ‘mere girls’ and first time mothers and that every effort
should be made to teach them how to become ‘self-supporting’. While the Offaly
councillors did not oppose the suggestion in principle, some raised concerns
regarding the cost of hiring staff to take on the work performed by these women in
the county home.
Institutions preferred to boarding out in Offaly
Offaly was regularly noted as having few boarded-out children. The number fell
from 40 in 1950, to 24 by 1955, by which time the department’s inspector believed
that ‘the scheme is threatened with collapse’. Only three children were boarded
out in 1954 and 1955. Despite repeated pleas from the inspector, Offaly failed to
advertise for foster parents, leaving it to the assistance officers to identify suitable
homes. Having failed to convince Offaly that boarding out was in the best interests
of the child, the department inspector suggested that they consider the financial
benefits of fostering: it cost substantially less than the cost of keeping a child in an
approved school. Nevertheless Offaly persisted in keeping the children of
unmarried mothers in the county home for several years, and then transferring
them to industrial schools. Girls were generally sent to Lenaboy; boys went to St
Joseph’s, Salthill. The department reminded Offaly, in vain, that children should
only be sent to institutions when efforts to place them with a foster family had
failed. Many of the children who were placed in foster homes in Offaly were
removed; the department’s inspectors interpreted this as evidence that foster
homes were not chosen with sufficient care.
In 1965 there were 146 children from Laois and Offaly in institutions, ‘the vast majority of whom appear to have been sent automatically’; having spent their early years in the county home or a
mother and baby home, these children were then dispatched to industrial
The report will stimulate research into the Irish health system from the 1920s and social conditions in the period from 1922 to the 1960s. The year 2021 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the dispensary system and the beginning of the choice of doctor scheme. We would welcome for a blog a review of the Mother and Child Report or your own reflections on it.
For listings of health records and those of the boards of guardians up to 1921 go online to Offaly Archives.
The Mother and Child Report and the work of Catherine Corless, local historian, will encourage us to research and do the work needed to better understand our social history and family history. As she said nobody wanted to know. It was the same when the pioneering Bell article was published 80 years ago.