Babies, Beggars and Belligerents: A Case Study of Unidentified Death Records in Co. Donegal, 1870-1950. By Megan McAuley, the Offaly History/P. and H. Egan scholarship winner for 2021-2023 at Maynooth University

William Dudley Wordsworth accurately noted in his 1876 study of the Dublin Foundling Hospital that: ‘dead children, like drowned sailors, tell no tales’. The same can be said in the context of this analysis of Civil Death Records in County Donegal where unidentified (those registered as deceased without a known forename or surname) infant deaths occurred in their hundreds. This study was inspired by an article in Irish Historical Studies called ‘Registered ‘Unknown’ Infant Fatalities in Ireland, 1916-32: Gender and Power’ by O’Halpin and Breathnach, where the evidence suggests that many unidentified infant fatalities were homicides that occurred as a result of deliberate action, or inaction, i.e., infanticide. This is also true in the case of Donegal from 1870-1950, as the vast majority of unidentified death records belonged to infants, many of whom unfortunately died in suspicious circumstances. Wordsworth’s ‘drowned sailors’ too make an appearance in this set of records and can illuminate local communities’ experiences of Irish neutrality during the Emergency. Unidentified death records also shed light on another marginal group of society: mendicants. This cohort would have been familiar faces to many on the streets of Donegal, but utterly nameless to most, especially when they died. Similar studies could, and should, be undertaken in other counties, such as County Offaly, to further illuminate the ‘unknown’, marginalised or the forgotten in Irish society.

In January 1864 it became obligatory to register all births, marriages, and deaths with the local authorities. Not all deaths, natural and unnatural, however, came to official notice, as popular understanding of the law pertaining to Civil Registration was poor. It can be assumed that the deaths of many people of all ages remained unregistered, particularly in rural areas, for some time after the law was passed. Registrations were collated according to Superintendent Registrar’s Districts. 350 unidentified deaths were recorded in total in the districts of Ballyshannon, Donegal, Dunfanaghy, Glenties, Inishowen, Letterkenny, Londonderry, Milford, Strabane, Stranorlar and Castlederg. Of the death records, 196 were infants and 104 were adults. The remaining 84 death records could not be identified by age. Of the 196 infants, 162 were regarded as suspicious, such that an inquest was held by the local Coroner.

The illegitimate status of a child was a common motivation for infanticide in nineteenth and twentieth Ireland, due to the societal stigma associated with pregnancy and childbirth out of wedlock (for further reading, see Rattigan and Farrell). Pursual of this crime through the courts could only occur, however, if the infant was identified and a suspect detained through police enquiry. This leads the historian to probe a number of questions regarding the Donegal case: How many infant bodies were never recovered, particularly due to quick decomposition, from the rural landscape? Of those that were, how many new-borns were never identified and thus the perpetrator escaped a court trial? It is important, however, not to lay all of the blame on women who committed infant murder. They too were victims of a patriarchal society which valued familial landholding over the life of an apparently illegitimate child.

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            This exploration of Civil Death Records also illuminates County Donegal’s experience of the Emergency (1939-1945) at the level of the local community. During the war years, several wartime fatalities washed up on coastal beaches and waterways, and local people had to establish the best ways of dealing with these unidentified individuals. In the district of Glenties, at least 17 ‘unknown’ individuals washed up on local shores in the year 1940 alone. In Dunfanaghy, 12 individuals were found, while in Inishowen there were 5, and in Milford there were 6, between 1940 and 1941. Some bodies which were located on Donegal’s coasts during the Emergency were identifiable and were thus named on their death certificates, registered in the districts in which they were recovered. In some cases, locals were able to identify to which group the individual belonged, presumably by uniform, with occupations cited as ‘British soldier’, ‘sergeant’ ‘lieutenant’ ‘British Navy’, ‘Royal Air Force’, among others. The age may have been estimated by appearance or simply described as ‘unknown’.

Text Box: Death records for two individuals recovered at sea off the west coast of Donegal in 1940, both having died from ‘asphyxia due to drowning caused by war at sea’. The two male individuals were registered in Glenties district in August 1940 after having been examined by the local coroner, J. P. McGinley. The only difference in these two individuals is that one was identifiable, as W. H Cookwell, a Lieutenant in the British Navy, and the other male ‘British Sailor’ was to be buried without a name.

The causes of death were most commonly ‘asphyxia’, ‘drowning’, ‘exposure’ and often followed by ‘caused by war at sea’, but not all were confirmed by a coroner. The person who found the body/bodies, or a police officer, was sometimes cited as the informant on the death record. The place of death was most often given as ‘North Atlantic’. Although to a lesser extent, similar trends emerged between 1914 and 1918, during World War I. On the 26th of January 1917, all on the same day, four unidentified ‘sailors’ washed up in Inishowen. Their cause of death was given as ‘shock and exposure’ and the place of death was simply ‘High Seas’. This record also highlights an important aspect of the local community during the Emergency: the burial of ‘unknown’ individuals. From the death records, it seems that the individual who came upon the body/bodies, or the local police, were most often responsible for burial, and this is stated on the above record as: ‘Frank F. […] who caused the body to be buried’.

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            Finally, unidentified death records shed light on a lesser studied group in the modern period: mendicants (McCabe’s Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland is a notable exception). These individuals would have been well known faces on the streets of urban towns and rural villages, but also to an extent unidentifiable, at least by name. This was likely due to the fact that many were homeless and would travel from place to place. They are described on death records as ‘beggars’ ‘travelling mendicants’ and ‘tramps’, and their ages are usually estimated, with most in this set of records being c. 60 years old. Among the causes of death are ‘drowning’, ‘exposure’ and ‘heart disease’. Some unidentified individuals ended up in the workhouse, with one example of a ‘deaf mute’ male in his mid-60’s dying in the Inishowen Workhouse in 1893. A female ‘tramp’ whose cause of death was described as ‘unknown’ in Donegal district in 1904 was certified by the ‘relieving officer who caused body to be buried’. This further highlights that the local community were indeed responsible for the burial of unidentifiable individuals, raising, as yet, unanswered, questions as to how such burials were funded by the townspeople.

Death record of an ‘unknown’ male ‘tramp’ of c. 50 years old, registered in Inishowen District in June 1916. The cause of death was determined to be drowning, as the body was found on the twenty-second of May  opposite Moville wharf. The relieving officer P. Doherty was the informant on the death certificate and was also responsible for the burial of this unidentified individual.

‘Drowning’ as a cause of death could be accidental, or intentional, and it is possible that suicide was prevalent among this cohort. A c. 35-year-old female ‘mendicant’ died after falling from a mountain in Ballyshannon. While not described as ‘suicide’, it is possible that this individual died intentionally, given the range of death records in which mendicants died in unusual circumstances. Other ‘unknown’ unidentified individuals, who may or may not have been mendicants, also died by means which appear to be suicide, although never described using this term. A male individual registered in Castlederg in 1883 had the following cause of death: ‘Caused by a wound in his throat inflicted by himself when in an inconsistent state of mind’. If this individual was unidentifiable, who could attest to his state of mind? It is possible that this person was known to the community, although unknown by name. In Inishowen in 1872 an unknown female’s cause of death was: ‘falling down a cliff, death immediate, not known whether accidental or otherwise’.

            O’Brien argues that the study of death is a ‘personal odyssey into the dark heart of Ireland: its past, its present, and its psyche’, which can tell us much about ‘who we were, who we are, and who we could be’. Ireland’s Civil Death Records, are as yet, a mostly untapped source for the study of the ‘unknown’, marginalised or the forgotten dead in Irish society. Similar studies could be adopted in other townlands, counties, or even on a provincial scale, to reveal more about unidentified individuals who died without so much as a name. As is ever the case with historical research, you never know what darkness you might uncover.

Megan McAuley is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History, Maynooth University, researching localised childhood experience in Co. Donegal, 1850-1950, under the supervision of Dr Jennifer Redmond. She wishes to graciously thank her research funders: Offaly History and Archaeological Society/P&H Egan, National University of Ireland (Denis Phelan Scholarship) and Maynooth University John and Pat Hume Postgraduate Awards.

Thanks Megan McAuley for your fine piece. We hope all is going well with you and your studies. Offaly History/ P & H Egan are delighted to be able to support your research, and an excellent candidate for the first such scholarship. Maynooth History Department has a great reputation, and we are pleased to be associated with you and the university in furthering the pursuit of knowledge. Ed.