Guest Post | by Owen Felix O'Neill

Between 5,000 and 7,000 healthy single mothers died in Irish unwed mothers institutions and we need an honest public discussion of that appalling toll.

I was born in such an institution: St. Patrick’s on the Navan Road Dublin, the biggest in the country. I spent my first 4 years there. My mother, Norah, was 38 when she had me in 1954. It obviously wasn’t easy for her or the other women of these homes and although I never knew her, the following is based on my conversations over the years with other women who survived the homes.


In some London hospitals in the early 1940s, 50s and 60s, many of the midwives in training were Irish nuns. But once their training was completed and they returned home to Ireland and started to work at the nine main unmarried mothers homes they altered some of the surgical procedures they learnt in London to lethal effect. 

An episiotomy, although no longer routine, is a fairly standard surgical procedure to widen the opening of the vagina thus allowing the baby to come through it more easily. During childbirth, the vagina has to stretch to accommodate a head the size of a grapefruit. (The episiotomy procedure was commonly used in all cases of a breech birth.) As the baby’s head enters the birth canal, It can split open the skin, fat, muscle, and dense connective tissue next to the vagina, leaving a perineal tear. Rather than allow this perineal tear to take place, the option of cutting the perineum (episiotomy) is used. In either case, stitches are required to repair the perineum. 

The episiotomy procedure involves an incision being made in the perineum downward from the vulva towards the anus.  The nefarious nuns, however, would deliberately cut upwards through the clitoris, because to the Irish nuns' way of thinking, sex itself was a mortal sin and  especially so for single women. By this unnecessary procedure, the single woman’s sexual  pleasure was destroyed forever.  That’s how hateful and lethal the Irish Nuns were to the mothers who had children out of wedlock.  Many of these new mothers were teenagers.

The wicked midwife nuns knew that the potential consequences of an episiotomy were dire and so the procedure was very often used - but without the necessary stitching. No anesthetic, painkillers or antibiotics were administered and, with many unwashed hands and unsterilised scissors performing the birthing procedure, a life-threatening infection and a very painful slow death sentence was often the result. In fact the women who had the episiotomy surgical procedures with dirty scissors were, in effect, murdered by their barbarous religious midwives.


In most cases, the use of medical drugs and stitches that could have saved the women’s lives were refused. Instead, women dying in great pain were told by the Nuns to pray and beg for forgiveness for their mortal sin of having sex outside marriage

The nuns (and priests who were sometimes in attendance) insinuated that the terrible pain the single women suffered in childbirth was the result of God's curse having been placed on them for their ‘wilful carnal knowledge’ -a euphemism for sin. Many Catholic priests echoed the view of women expressed by Protestant, Martin Luther:
“If women become tired, even die, it does not matter.
Let them die in childbirth. That's what they are there for.”
Furthermore, the raw fear incited by the religious in these institutions was the enemy of a successful birth, as fear tends to freeze labour -leading to a plethora of interventions and additional pain. What the cruel nuns didn’t know (or ignored) is that when a woman is in fear, the muscles of her uterus work against each other instead of in unison, resulting in excruciating pain for the frightened woman.  

The nuns -acting as midwives or nurses, didn’t care about the mother’s survival because if the mother died during childbirth, they knew they could sell the child more quickly and easily. The nuns were in many cases criminally careless in their treatment of and contempt for the single mothers. 

Other common causes for the mother’s death in all these institutions included excessive bleeding during cesarean delivery and umbilical cord difficulties.  If the cord  is wrapped around the baby’s neck, it can compress the throat and cause death or it can emerge before the baby does. 

If a uterine rupture happens, the baby has a risk of oxygen deprivation and a caesarean delivery may be necessary. And if a midwife-nun suggested a cesarean, the mother knew she was likely on the way to the grave. In all these cases, medical help - not prayers - were needed.

For every woman who died in childbirth, dozens more suffered injuries, infections or diseases. Lack of food, no medication, hourly prayers and slave-working conditions were the lot for even the very pregnant women. And last but not least, the spouting of daily hatred and ignorance by the religious contributed to the astonishing high rate of deaths in all unmarried mothers institutions.


The biggest danger to expectant and new mothers however was infection. The most common death for women in the homes was from Puerperal Fever - also called childbed fever, or postpartum sepsis. Hemorrhage, eclampsia  (dangerously high blood pressure) organ damage and obstructed labour were also major causes.  

Rickets, a condition whose symptoms are malformation of bones and a softening of the skull was present in many of the babies and was a common cause of obstructed labour.  The cause of the condition in newborn was the result of the poor diet of the mother while pregnant.

Even previously healthy, young single women could give birth on Monday, be happy and well with her newborn on Tuesday, be feverish and ill by Wednesday evening, delirious and in agony on Thursday and dead on Friday or Saturday. By the following Monday morning they had been dumped with hundreds of other women into a mass grave at the back of these institutions. We know that thousands (maybe 5,000 to 7,000) women died in these homes in Ireland.  Numbers are inaccurate because we also know that the nuns deliberately destroyed many of the records of the dead women. 

All diseases and infections spread more readily in the homes than in the general population. The Catholic Church, through the actions and attitude of the nuns instilled a culture of carelessness, impatience, and unnecessary interference or neglect.  For example the midwife-nuns refused to use sulfa antibiotics that were highly effective against the streptococcal bacteria responsible for most cases of puerperal fever. Instead, they told the mothers to pray. 

Pre and post-natal care weren’t part of the standard medical practice in any of the institutions. If a new mother had come from a Magdalene Laundry (as many did) she would be expected to return to the back-breaking work there as soon as possible, normally 48 hours after birth. 

In truth, because of their indifference, callousness and incompetence, the midwives-nuns allowed pregnant women, new mothers and newborns to die preventable deaths. I believe that in reality, the Nuns killed a lot of the women and children deliberately. 

  • 35,000 - 50,000 approximate number of women who went through Ireland's nine Mother and Baby Homes between 1904 and 1996. 
  • When you take into account the other local homes dotted around Ireland, the number is about 100,000 women.
  • 6,000 - the estimated number of babies and children who died across the nine Irish Mother and Baby Homes.


St. Patrick's Home - Navan Road, Dublin was considered by far the largest of Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes with between 9,000 and 12,000 women passing through. Between 1923 and 1930 inclusive, 662 children died at this home, an average of over 97 per year, or nearly two per week for seven years. However, these figures only began to be recorded 20 years ago, conditions prior were even worse.

Sisters of the Sacred Heart  - Bessborough, Co Cork. This home was opened in 1922. It became an unwed mothers institution in 1924. Approximately 8,000 to 10,000 women passed through its doors. The infant mortality rate in 1944 was 68%, when the national average was about 5%. One-hundred-and-twenty-one babies and children were buried in that year alone.

Kilrush Nursery - Kilrush, Co Clare, seems to have been in existence at the foundation of the state in 1922. Kilrush was designated a ‘Special Institution’ for the sole use of single mothers in 1922 . There seems to be confusion as to where the babies who died are buried with most adoption activists believing there is an Angel’s Plot near the former home. Approximately 800 to 1,200 women and girls entered the home and approximately 250 to 350 babies and children died.

The Home - Tuam, Co Galway;- The home opened in 1925. According to the interdepartmental report of 2014, there were 1,101 births included in the records from the general registrar's office during the home’s lifetime, but this seems extraordinarily low and may reflect the fact that Tuam did not have a maternity unit during its early years and births outside the home would not have been registered to the home. Some estimate put the number of women passing through the Home as 3,500 to under 5,000 women. 796 babies and children died and were buried in a Septic Tank at the back of the home, and their is credible talk that another 1,500 to 1,800 more women and children are in secret grave pits nearby. 

Sean Ross Abbey - Roscrea, Co Tipperary was opened in 1930 Approximately 6,000 to 8,000 girls and women passed through its doors. There is some anecdotal evidence that they also produced children’s coffins. There is a designated Angel’s Plot where the babies and children who died are buried. Approximately 800 children and babies died between 1930 and 1950 and it is not known how many died in its final 20 years, as the Nuns destroyed records.  Academic research revealed that, in its opening year, 60 of the 120 babies who were born died. A conservative figure would be approximately 1000 babies died but most experts put that figure much higher, because the known records were destroyed by the Nuns.

Saint Peter’s Hospital - Castlepollard, Co Westmeath, opened in 1935 with Saint Peter‘s Hospital completed in 1939. Approximately 4,000 to 6,000 women and girls passed through its doors. There is a walled Angel’s Plot. Research completed by the Castlepollard group of survivors has found 203 confirmed and registered deaths. Freedom of Information requests and appeals have revealed that during 24, of its 36-year operation, 77 stillbirths were recorded in the official ledgers.

Ard Mhurie - Dunboyne, Co Meath was opened in 1955 as the last of the nine Mother and Baby Homes. It was operated as an extern institution by the sisters of the Good Shepherds who also operated four of Irelands largest Magdalene Laundries. Numbers are difficult to estimate but it is likely that about 1,000 to 2,000 women passed through its doors, but many experts claim the figure is much higher.

Saint Gerard’s - Mountjoy Square, Dublin;- This home, Saint Gerard’s, was opened in 1933 by lay Catholics in a four-story over basement, terraced Georgian house. It was opened as what would be now called a “boutique” Mother and Baby Home to cater to fee-paying private cases and “select destitute cases." It was certified for 20 mothers and 12 babies.The home only had one recorded death during its years of operation. It appears to have been reasonably well run. The interdepartmental report 2014 records that 45 births were registered in Saint Gerard’s. Most of the births almost certainly took place in the nearby Rotunda Hospital. Girls stayed on average for about six months.

The Bethany Home - Rathgar, Co Dublin;- Opened in 1921 in Blackhall Place, in Dublin’s City Centre and moved to Rathgar 1934. Bethany was the sole mother and baby home for Protestant women who found themselves single and pregnant. It was the only such semi-secure institution for Protestants and it also doubled up as an orphanage, centre for Protestant women and girls on remand from the courts, or on probation. At least 227 babies died between 1921 and 1949 and it is likely the final figure will be approximately 300 or more. Thousands of women and girls gave birth at The Bethany Home. 

10 Further Unwed Mothers Institutions

Belmont (Flatlets), Belmont Ave, Dublin 4;
Denny House, Eglinton Rd, Dublin 4, 
(originally Magdalen Home, 8 Lower Leeson St, Dublin 2);
Ms. Carr’s (Flatlets), 16 Northbrook Rd, Dublin 6;
Regina Coeli Hostel, North Brunswick Street, Dublin 7;
St. Gerard’s, originally 39, Mountjoy Square, Dublin 1;
The Castle, Newtowncunningham, Co. Donegal.
St Kevin's Institution (Dublin Union)
Stranorlar County Home, Co Donegal (St Joseph's)
Cork City County Home (St Finbarr's)
Thomastown County Home, Co Kilkenny (St Columba's)

(There are additional institutions not addressed in this article)


  1. Very sad , the poor girls were put away by their parents ,
    as the parents didn’t want any scandal in the family, they never looked for their daughters again, so the cruelty
    these poor girls suffered at home by their parents was compounded by the sexual abuse of a man , who dumped
    them the minute they had impregnated them .
    Through a series of events were
    Put in a black hole with nuns , many who had mental health problems of their own, that their own parents had paid a some of money
    to get their problem off their hands , there wasn’t just religious who let these girls and there babies down , let’s not forget the babies fathers , or their horrible parents .

  2. They tied pregnant girls in stress positions in Magdalene programs in the USA as well... most of these places held Irish Catholic girls. I am surprised this article doesn't mention pelvic fracturing..


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