Bethany Home, Dublin, Republic of Ireland

In 1921, two Dublin charities were forced to close to due a lack of funds. They were the Dublin Midnight Mission and Female Refuge, founded in 1862 and based at 31 Marlborough Street, Dublin, and the Dublin Prison Gate Mission, established in 1876, at 40 Blackhall Place. Both charities aimed to provide a safe shelter for women, predominately from the poorest classes, who had nowhere else to turn and who had entered, or may have been tempted to enter, a life of prostitution. In addition, the Prison Gate Mission sought to rehabilitate former female prisoners and, by training them in domestic service, to integrate the women back into mainstream society.2 Their mission of rescue and rehabilitation was typical of the Magdalen Homes that were established in Ireland and elsewhere. Both charities were associated with the Church of Ireland, but their services were open to women of any religion.

The two charities merged their resources to form a new institution, the Bethany Home, to provide shelter and support for unmarried mothers and their babies. The Marlborough Street premises were sold off and the new home opened on 4 May 1922 at 23 Blackhall Place, Dublin — the former Prison Gate Mission premises, the properties on the street having been renumbered. Maps of the period identify the site as a laundry, something which had been a feature of the Prison Gate Mission's activities. In the 1911 census, the buildings were recorded as having stone/brick/concrete walls, a slate/iron/tiled roof and consisted of twenty rooms. The eight outbuildings consisted of two stables, two coach houses, a harness room, a boiling room, a shed and a laundry. The front of the building had fifteen windows and was classed as a 'first class of house'.

Prison Gate Mission site, Blackhall Place, Dublin, c.1907.

At the opening of the new home, the Irish Times reported that the main building, facing Blackhall Place, would accommodate 25 girls. The centre building had been set apart for such cases as were formerly dealt with by the Dublin Midnight Mission and would hold from 20-25 girls, while the building known as the Crawford Memorial would be specially used for maternity cases.

When the Bethany Home opened, it was staffed by one qualified nurse and the matron. In March 1926, with a high level of sickness among children, the management committee recommended appointing an assistant to the matron. This assistant (qualifications unstated) was dismissed within months because her work was deemed unsatisfactory. The number of children had increased from 14 in the previous year to 23 and staff found it difficult to provide adequate care. In 1928 the visiting committee noted that the 'girls' in the nursery — presumably these were either expectant mothers or mothers of children who were in Bethany — were 'not doing what they could for the comfort of the babies'. A fourth member of staff was taken on to work in the kitchen and so enable the new matron's assistant to help in the nursery as required. In 1929, a nurse who was due to take up appointment failed her examinations and the committee agreed to appoint a woman who was known to the matron, though presumably unqualified, as a 'suitable assistant to the staff'. An 'inmate... who had proved to be of great assistance in the Nursery' was also taken on as a servant.

Within three years of its opening, the home's management committee wanted to move as the building and and its street-side inner city location were proving unsuitable. However, it was not until 1934 that the site was sold to Dublin Corporation, for conversion to flats. In October of that year, the home moved to Rathgar House, on Orwell Road, Rathgar, which was owned by a member of the Bethany Board of Management. Previously occupied as a boarding school, the large three-storey building had twenty rooms and was set in an acre of grounds. The former stables of the house were converted for temporary use as children's home, known as Emmanuel House, which would accommodate babies whose mothers had left the Bethany Home.

Rathgar House site Orwell Road, Dublin, c.1908.

In 1938, it was decided to move Emmanuel House to Portland Park House, Lorrha, Birr, Co. Offaly. The owner, Major C.K. Butler-Stoney, had offered the use of the house as a home for Protestant children. There was apparently some bad feeling in the district as it was suspected that the home might be used to proselytise Catholic children. In May 1938, prior to the move, a group of armed raiders broke into the house and ordered the occupants to leave, as they were about to set it on fire. This they proceeded to do and the house was gutted by the fire. Emmanuel House subsequently moved to the Manor House at Avoca, Co Wicklow, a property owned by a member of the Bethany Board of Management.

In 1936, with a significant increase in infant numbers following the move to Orwell Road, approval was given to hire an 'honorary helper', In September of that year, when 25 women were in the home, an inspection found that the bedrooms were overcrowded. The management committee decided to recruit a qualified nurse to replace an unqualified member of staff and to hire another person as a night worker. They also agreed that the number of 'girls' in the home should not exceed 20 except in urgent cases.

At an inspection in 1937, under the Registration of Maternity Homes Act, the Bethany Home had two baths and three toilets, which was significantly better than any other mother and baby home at that time. There were four wards and a total of 25 beds. An inspection in 1950 noted that the mothers' dormitory was 'in a building apart from the Home proper', while the infants slept in a nursery in the main home. In 1951 it was proposed to install washing facilities in this annexe which would appear to have been devoid of any, however it was then decided to supply a basin, jug and stand instead of washbasins.

In January 1939, an inspection by Dr Sterling Berry, from the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH), reported that conditions had much improved since his previous inspection. He described it as ' kept very well…clean & comfortable. The mothers and infants are well looked after & appear happy & contented'. There were 22 expectant or nursing mothers in the home (two more than the permitted number) and 42 children.

Medical care at Bethany was provided free of charge by a visiting doctor, who was voted an annual honorarium of &10 but it is unclear how often he visited the home. An inspection in 1945 reported that 'most of the girls appear to be sent to city hospitals for confinement'.

The Bethany Home was permanently short of money and the making of any improvements relied on gifts and other donations. A legacy of £1,500 in 1946 was used to rewire the house, install a children's toilet and replace linoleum. This money also funded the purchase of new blankets. When blankets or other household goods were purchased the committee used their connections with the major Dublin stores to secure 'seconds' at special prices. In a letter to the Irish Times in February 1938, the rector of the Zion Church, Rathgar, appealed to the public for 'beds, bedding, furniture, delph, clothing or anything that may prove of use in the works of Bethany Home'. In 1954 it was estimated that 24 mattresses needed repair, but the Matron, Miss Walker, and the secretary reduced this number to 12 and decided that this could be done using cheaper materials than originally specified. Voluntary labour was also relied upon. An inspection in 1938 noted that, in addition to the matron, there were four other staff plus a voluntary worker.

From the mid-1940s, the home began to receive weekly maintenance payments for women and children placed in the home by local authorities. In 1949, the home received a grant from the Department of Health (successor to the DLGPH) for the first time, under the national Maternity and Child Welfare scheme.

A decline in the number of women admitted during the 1950s meant that they could all be accommodated in the main house, with some rearrangement of the rooms being carried out. The front nursery was turned into a prayer room. A room next to the kitchen was converted into a sitting room for the women - apparently the first evert provision made for any form of leisure or relaxation. The matron was asked to seek public donations of chairs, cushions and other suitable articles.

In 1956, it was decided to sell the annexe. However, later that year there were proposals that it should be used to house Protestant refugees fleeing the Hungarian uprising. The Irish Red Cross assumed responsibility for its heating and furniture. In 1957 Bethany agreed to a request to house a Catholic Hungarian family in the annexe. When the refugees had moved to alternative accommodation, the Red Cross agreed to buy the annexe at a price of £1,200. The sale was completed in September 1958.

The home sought financial support from the parents of Bethany mothers, and from clergy that referred them. The women were expected to perform domestic work and chores in exchange for their care, and the home regarded such work as training for jobs in domestic service. However, those admitted to the home could not usually pay anything towards their maintenance and securing financial assistance from parents and clergy proved difficult. By the 1950s a growing number of unmarried mothers were in insured employment and from 1953 onwards they qualified for maternity benefit. The matron reported that women were handing over their social insurance payments to support their residency.

In 1955, a welcome gift came in the form a $3,000 gift an American gentleman who had adopted two children from the home. However, the home's overdraft continued to rise and economies were introduced. Bethany asked clergymen to make an announcement to their congregations about the annual Bethany Gift Day and the need for increased financial support, a campaign which achieved some success. In the 1960s, however, a continuing decline in numbers of admissions, coupled with a shortening of the average length of stay, continued to put strain on the home's finances.

The Bethany Home continued to function as a mother and baby home until 1972 when a decision was taken to close the home because of falling admissions. The property was sold for £38,000, with 85% of the proceeds going to the Dublin Magdalen Asylum (later Denny House) on Eglinton Road, and the remainder to and Miss Carr's Children's Home on Northbrook Road.

In January 2021, Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation made its final report, which included an examination of the operation of the Bethany Home.

The Commission found that three-quarters of the women at the home were admitted when pregnant and remained until after they had given birth; 17% arrived with their child having given birth. A small number (8%) left the home before the birth and others gave birth in hospital and did not return. Just over half, 54%, of the births took place at the home. Unlike some other homes, which would only admit first-time mothers, the Bethany often admitted women to have their second or third, or even fourth babies: but having been once in the home they were not allowed back. The average age of mothers fell from 25 in the 1920s to 23 in the 1950s and 1960s.

Despite being a Protestant institution, Bethany received women of all creeds. In some years, over 50% of its intake were Catholic. Although it claimed to not be a proselytising institution, the home's ethos was strongly evangelical and the staff and management were determined to 'save' all the women that it received. Bethany offered some attractions for Catholic women in that it was unlikely that their presence in the home, and their pregnancy itself, would become known to their family or neighbours. Women remained in Bethany for a shorter time than in the Sacred Heart homes, or a county home, and Bethany facilitated the placement or adoption of children, provided that the mothers consented to their being raised as Protestants.

A total of 113 women who were admitted to the home were not pregnant and had not recently given birth. While mainly functioning as a mother and baby home, Bethany was also a place of detention for women accused of infanticide, 'concealment of birth' and petty crimes. Catholic women in such circumstances would have commonly been sent to a Magdalen Laundry Home. If they were under the age of 16 (or 17 from 1941), they would have been sent to a reformatory school. In 1940, a barrister representing the Bethany Home told a court that the Gardaí 'were in the habit of sending any homeless Protestant girl to Bethany.

The average length of stay for children in the home was 222 days. This ranged from 990 days on average for children admitted in 19223 to 48 days on average for children admitted in 1969. Analysis by decade shows that average length of stay rose from 194 days for children admitted in the 1920s to 303 days for those admitted in the 1940s. By the 1960s, the average length of stay had decreased to 72 days.

There were 262 deaths among children associated with the Bethany home. These include children who died in Bethany, children who were in Bethany and died elsewhere, and children who were never admitted to Bethany but whose mothers had been living there prior to their birth. The worst period for child deaths in the home was 1935-47; 61% of all child deaths occurred in those years and this coincides with the high numbers of unaccompanied children living in the home at that time. Child deaths peaked in 1936, with 25 deaths notified that year. Over 95% of all child deaths occurred before 1950. Most child deaths (40%) were notified in the 1930s, followed by the 1940s (31%) and the 1920s (25%). The remaining 4% of deaths were notified between 1950 and 1960.

Records

Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • Pact, Arabella House, 18D Nutgrove Office Park, Rathfarnham, Dublin 14 D14 FC03.

Bibliography