The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (2021) catalogues the institutional abuse and cruelty meted out to pregnant, vulnerable women and their children between 1922 and 1998. The Mother and Baby homes are commonly associated with The Magdalene Asylums and Laundries which were run by Catholic orders. What is less well-known is that the original Magdalene Asylum had a Protestant foundation. The philanthropist, Lady Arabella Denny (1707–1792) worked closely with the Dublin Foundling Hospital to improve practice. As it became clear that unmarried mothers had little option but to place their children there, she decided to establish an institution to care for the mothers and it became known as the Dublin Magdalen Asylum. It was originally opened in 1765 in Lower Leeson Street and closed in Eglinton Road in 1994.
Chapter 23 of The Report catalogues the 230-year history of the Protestant Magdalene Asylum. Although the women were expected to carry out the domestic tasks in the house and participate in religious activity, by the 1960s, they were free to come and go from the home for such activities as shopping. Also, by that time, babies were born in hospital and mothers were encouraged to breastfeed them. Infant mortality was consistently lower than other mother-and-baby homes. The majority of women left the home following legal adoptions.
It was not the only Protestant Mother and Baby. Bethany House, opened in 1921 and closed in 1972, discussed in chapter 22 of the Report was found to be ‘….no exception to high rates of infant mortality …’. The management committee included members from several Protestant churches: Church of Ireland, Presbyterians, Methodists and Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical Christian movement. Miss Lily Pilgrim was the matron there for a considerable time. She had been a Bethany nurse between 1927–28. She spent four years in the Dublin Medical Mission before returning as Matron in 1932.
It was not until the 1960s that I was aware of the Magdalen Asylum, which came to be known as the Magdalen Home. I can still write the address: 83 Eglinton Road, Donnybrook, Dublin 4, Eire from memory as it was to this address that I wrote regularly from England to the Matron who was my aunt.
My aunt had taken the opportunity that World War 2 presented by going to England and securing a free training place at the Mildmay Mission Hospital in the East End of London . After the War she continued her training and became a qualified midwife.
Unlike many Irish women who had taken a similar path, she returned to Ireland in the late 1940s. Although, brought up in the Church of Ireland, her time in London had influenced her to take a more evangelical path and she took a post at the Dublin Medical Mission. Here she was offered accommodation and a small salary.
In 1965 changes took place at the Dublin Medical Mission and it amalgamated with other Missions to become the Dublin Christian Mission. At the age of 50, my aunt lost both her job and her home. It is probably that, through contacts of Miss Pilgrim, that she was offered the post of Matron at the Magdalene Asylum.
The home had moved to a large Victorian house in leafy Eglinton Road, Donnybrook, Dublin. My aunt took over as matron from 15th December 1965. Little did she know at the time that she was distantly related to Arabella Denny through her great-grandfather who had been a Protestant clergyman in Ardfert, Co Kerry. The home was relatively small compared to others taking at most, ten young women.
I am not sure what my aunt’s family thought about her taking the job there. I know there was relief about her getting a job with accommodation. However, there was concern about the beliefs of some of the friends that she had made during her time at the Medical Mission, one being those of Miss Pilgrim.
I visited my aunt at the home each time we came to Ireland. Although we met at other times, she was always keen for us to come to tea there as she seemed quite proud of her relatively palatial accommodation. On entering a large wide hall, there was a living room to the left with large windows overlooking the garden. The furniture was of a good quality and highly polished, the fragrance still remaining in the air. One of the women would bring in tea with cakes and biscuits served on good china. I must have been about 14 when I went there but my parents did not tell me anything about the nature of the Home. On each visit my aunt asked me to return the tea tray to the kitchen which, although on the same floor, reminded me of the scenes I saw of ‘below stairs’ from watching the television programme ‘The Forsyte Saga’, which followed the fortunes of a wealthy family in London, showing life upstairs as well as below stairs. The kitchen was a stark contrast to the rest of the downstairs rooms. The women seemed to be in the kitchen on each of these visits.
I cannot remember the conversations we had there in detail but there seemed an overriding concern about the number of girls in residence. From reading the records held in the Library of the Representative Body of the Church of Ireland, the number of young women coming to the home to have their babies rapidly decreased by the late 1960s. I doubt that this was because of changing attitudes to illegitimacy but more to do with the decrease in the number of Protestants in Ireland. My aunt talked to us about the women of whom she always referred to as girls. Those that came from England to have their babies arrived as they as they started ‘to show’ which would indicate they spent at least six months at the home. It would explain why I never saw anyone visibly pregnant. Once, she told us of being contacted by a vicar in the vicinity of where we lived in West London as he wanted to secure a place for girl in his parish. This seemed to be the way most contact was made outside Ireland, not through the women or their families.
Over the years I became aware of what the home was and feeling quite shocked to learn that the girls were expected to stay at the home six weeks after the birth to nurse their babies before they left them for adoption. It just felt so cruel. However, it was something I felt I could not discuss with my parents, particularly my mother. They must have presumed I knew what was going on in the home but never came to openly acknowledge it to me in terms of discussing the home and my aunt’s work there. I think my cousins had similar experiences. I suppose my parents’ attitude reflects the attitude of many in society at the time. It could be said that there did not know the true horrors many girls were subjected to but they must have been aware to some extent what was happening, yet they implicitly accepted it by taking no action. Caution must always be taken judging historic acts of others under the lens of current mores of society which has changed so rapidly over my lifetime, in terms of the relationship of the church to its people and to the state. Nevertheless, lessons need to be learnt in terms of the abuse of power and treatment of fellow members of society if the victims of such abuse can be meaningfully honoured.
As for my aunt, she continued to be Matron at the home until February 1985. The home changed its name to Denny House, after its founder in 1980 but closed in 1994. I think she saw her job as Matron as fulfilling her Christian duty by caring for ‘her girls’ and their babies both by her actions and through prayer.
Sylvia Turner 22nd January 2021