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Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home, Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath, Republic of Ireland

Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, the boards of guardians that had previously administered the country's poor relief system were quickly abolished and replaced in each county by a Board of Health and Public Assistance. In the majority of cases, one of the former workhouses in the county was redesignated as a County Home, providing accommodation for a mixed range of people in need, which frequently included the aged and infirm, chronic invalids, those with intellectual impairment, and unmarried mothers and their children. In 1924, the Meath Board reported that unmarried mothers and their children were accumulating in its County Home at Trim and was considering setting up a separate ward for them. Similar problems were being experienced at Westmeath's County Home at Mullingar, from where children were being sent, inappropriately, to St Joseph's Industrial School, at Artane, Dublin. There was a growing belief among the two Boards that unmarried mothers should be housed in a central institution to undertake laundry and other work. Eventually, in May 1933, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who already ran mother and baby homes at Bessborough and Sean Ross, agreed to open a third establishment in the diocese of Meath.

In 1935, the Congregation paid £5,000 for Kinturk House, a large old manor house to the south of Castlepollard. After £1,000 was spent on renovations, the home had accommodation for 37 women and 20 children. The institution was intended as a home for unmarried mothers who were 'first offenders', with a maternity home attached to cater for single expectant women and their babies.

The Kinturk House site is shown on the map below.

Kinturk House site, Castlepollard, c.1910.

In March 1941, Miss Alice Litster, an inspector the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) reported that there were 109 women living at Castlepollard at the time of her inspection. A total of 104 were public patients —18 expectant and 86 post-natal patients. The five private patients were expectant women. There were 86 children living in the home. These numbers suggest that the institution housed three times more women and more than four times more children than it was supposed to accommodate. Based on the available floor area, she calculated that the maximum occupancy should be 40 women and their babies. The main building was severely overcrowded, with, 70 women living there. A further 44 were sleeping in a loft over stables some distance away from the main house. As a result, Miss Litster ordered that the home be closed to new admissions and that local authorities be directed to send women to Bessborough and Sean Ross, until the overcrowding at Castlepollard had improved.

Miss Lister's 1941 report also described the the buildings in more detail.

  • The maternity ward was a large and bright room, with three beds and four cots, heated by a log fire and radiator. The attached dormitories were clean but grossly overcrowded. Each bed has two blankets and a good mattress. There was no provision for storing clothes at night and work clothes were just thrown on the beds. There were no lockers or chairs and the overcrowding would prevent such items being provided.
  • The large living space above the stables was occupied by women and older children. It was unheated and contained 27 beds, with three blankets for each bed. A second, smaller loft space had no heating. It lacked a ceiling and the exposed roof was damaged. This room had 17 beds with three blankets for each bed. There was one clean WC available for the 44 women living there.
  • The main nursery, having 34 cots, was airy and bright, with two large wards heated by fireplaces and radiators. A second nursery, for 15 infants, had just 9 cots, some having three occupants. A toddlers' nursery, with 28 cots, was also overcrowded.
  • A day nursery, heated by a log fire and radiators, was occupied by 40 toddlers during the day. It was so overcrowded that there was no room for play materials.
  • Miss Litster reported that Castlepollard had no recreational areas. There was one room with a large table, three sewing machines and an apparatus for winding wool. The dining room, located in a basement, was 'dark and gloomy'. There were 95 women crammed in and eating dinner. The meal that day consisted of peppered herring, potatoes and rice pudding.

    In June 1942, a large new maternity hospital, known as St Peter's Hospital, was opened at the site, providing accommodation for 109 women and their children. The following year, it was visited by another DLGPH inspector, Dr Florence Dillon. The matron, Sister Marie Celine Murphy, was a registered nurse and midwife. Two nurses and two midwives were employed there and they were assisted by women living in the home. The hospital had two eight-bed wards, two one-bed wards for private patients and an observation room with one bed. There were two bathrooms and three WCs. The hospital was clean, well-kept and adequately staffed and the accommodation and sanitary facilities were acceptable. However, Dr Dillon regarded the diet as insufficient for nursing mothers as no porridge or gruel was provided.

    An architectural inspection of the maternity hospital in January 1944 found serious defects in the building. A crack across the front of the building wad severe enough to let rain in, making the walls of the building were very damp. The heating in the building was inadequate and some radiators got hot while others remained ice-cold. It transpired the circulating pumps were never turned on because they used too much electricity. Since 1941, when the Castlepollard's main power station was destroyed in a fire, the home had been supplying the town with electricity from its own generator as a temporary measure, a situation which ultimately continued until 1948. In February 1944, an inspection by Dr Dillon revealed continuing problems with the building. The electric lift was out of order, hot water was not always available, heating pipes were not working at one end of the hospital and plaster was falling off walls throughout the building. In addition, the one nurse now employed in the maternity hospital was discovered to not be qualified as she had not revealed that she had failed her final exams.

    In 1945, a Westmeath councillor made a number of complaints about the home, based on statements from a former resident. Amongst these were:

    • The 'girls' in the home were cutting up timber in adjoining woods until the onset of their labour and again after their confinements.
    • The 'girls' were undernourished and heavily overworked and they started at 5.30 am.
    • For most of the year the nurseries were unheated with open windows and the children were lightly clothed.
    • The infants were changed to spoon-feeding at two months and then to a diet potatoes and soup at six months, which he believed to be contrary to all recognised methods of child dietetics.
    • The infants were put in their cots at 6 p.m. and there was no further feeding until the following morning.
    • The death rate for infants was unduly high, and on occasion there were four or five deaths on one day.
    • Discipline generally was unduly harsh and mothers have been beaten, or otherwise ill-treated.

    After an extensive investigation by Miss Litster, she concluded that none of the complaints would hold up to the scrutiny of a public inquiry. She described the former resident as 'a big robust girl, plump, rosy-cheeked, healthy in appearance and full of animal spirits, well over 10 stone in weight'. Miss Litster observed that, if she had been given insufficient food during her twelve months stay in Castlepollard, she would not be in the physical condition in which she found her. She did accept, however, that infant mortality rates in Castlepollard were high (seventeen during the year in question) but not as high as those in other similar institutions. She also agreed that Sister Leontia, Castlepollard's Mother Superior, was 'somewhat hard'. A subsequent to Castlepollard by a delegation from Westmeath Council found that the establishment was 'a well-run and up-to-date institution in the County and was a credit to the Sisters'

    Miss Litster's inspection in 1949 recorded 131 women in the institution along with 160 children aged from new-born to three and a half years. The problem of older children remaining in the institution was again raised, a quarter of the children being over two years old. Miss Litster again urged that the local authorities make better efforts to find foster homes. She also noted that the four deaths during the previous year represented an infant mortality rate of just 3 per cent, the lowest in the three Sacred Heart mother and baby homes.

    In 1950, Miss Litster reported that 28 children aged between two and four years were living at the home. She commented that Meath County Council was especially slow in finding foster homes. It appeared that it was more difficult to procure foster homes for boys than for girls. At Castlepollard, 20 of the 28 older children were boys.

    Between 1955 and 1958, 332 women were admitted to Castlepollard: four were private patients and the remaining 328 were maintained by local authorities. Almost all the local authorities had residents there. The discharge details of 241 children in this period as follows: home with mother/relative (124); USA adoption (13); Irish adoption (seven); Scottish adoption (two); other adoption societies (72); boarded out (three); various children's homes (eight); hospital (seven); industrial schools (five); death (nine).

    In 1958, the Department of Health (successor to the DLGPH) was reviewing the occupancy rates in the three Sacred Heart Homes and proposed that two, rather than three, institutions would be sufficient to meet demand. As Castlepollard was the smallest of the three and had the highest cost per patient, the Department initially proposed that its residents be transferred to the other two homes, at Sean Ross and Bessborough, and then using Castlepollard for 'mentally defective children'. The following year, it was considering using Castlepollard as a home for women on their second or subsequent pregnancies. At this stage, all three homes were accepting some women on their second or subsequent pregnancies but would not accept the woman's other older child or children. However, the congregation did not favour establishing a home exclusively for these women. Neither of these schemes put into practice and in the 1960s the home continued operating on its existing lines. During this period, the number of admissions to the home steadily declined.

    In August 1969, the Congregation informed the Department of Health that they would be discontinuing services for unmarried mothers at Castlepollard and that they planned to dispose of the property. At a meeting with the Department of Health in that November, they gave a number of reasons for their decision. The establishment was proving too big and too expensive to run and that the capitation rate paid by health authorities inadequate, leading to the home incurring a substantial loss. The congregation had insufficient staff to run the home and found it impossible to employ nurses because of its remote location. As there was no major hospital close to Castlepollard, emergency cases were taken 60 miles to Dublin by road. Their transport had been been undertaken by a local man who was no longer available. The Department requested that, as the Congregation's mother and baby home at Sean Ross had been closed only the previous month, their closure be postponed for at least six months.

    In January 1971, the Department of Health was told by Sacred Hearts' Superior General that she had decided to close Castlepollard and that the Congregation would no longer admit maternity patients to the home. It was intended to have all the resident children placed and all the resident women discharged before the end of that month. The Longford, Meath &Westmeath Mental Hospital Board bought the site for £100,000, of which £80,000 was spent the provision of a new 50-bed unit for 'mentally handicapped' girls at Sean Ross. The purchasers were required to care for the 'nun's cemetery' at Castlepollard. Discussions did not cover the matter of the 'children's cemetery'.

    In more recent times, the site adopted the name St Peter's Centre. The children's cemetery, popularly referred to as the angels' plot, is thought to contain the bodies of as many as 500 infants, who were buried in unmarked graves using shoeboxes as coffins.

    In January 2021, Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation made its final report, which examined the conditions and treatment experienced by the women and children at Castlepollard.

    A former resident, who was there in the 1940s, entered the home at the age of 14. She was given a 'house name', which she refused to use. If she did not respond to it, she got her ear pulled or a thump on the back or her hair pulled by the nuns, who she described as unkind, hostile, spiteful and mean. She said that the nuns severely beat her with a stick all over her body. She said that the nuns made her unblock toilets with her bare hands. This used to make her physically sick and she could not get rid of the putrid smell. Sometimes, a nun was kind and gave her a bar of scented soap after unblocking the toilets. The women were given sanitary towels made from towelling — six to last for their entire period. The towels were hard and smelly and they had to had to wash them by hand before they were taken away and boil-washed in the laundry. She dreaded her periods and and thought that all of them did. She said that the 'older girls' in Castlepollard were 'malicious and nasty' and physically assaulted and threatened her, but that the nuns did nothing about it. Some of the girls would take her clothes and underwear and if she complained to the nuns, they would physically assault her. She had a difficult pregnancy and was put on bed rest for six months. She was transferred to a hospital in Dublin to give birth and then returned to Castlepollard with her baby. She said that she was not allowed enough time to recover and was made to go back to work in the home even though she could not walk on her own. She said that the nuns were unsympathetic to women if they were sick or ill. The nuns did nothing and they were left to deal with pain. If someone got hurt by doing their job, such as by machinery in the laundry room or down on the farm, the nuns would bandage them, but no-one was sent to the hospital or seen by doctors. She said that she was put in charge of one of the dormitories, which was a better job than most. There were 12 beds and one chest of drawers for all of them in the room. Their clothes had their names on and were laid out every two days or so. Their underwear had to last two to three days before they were changed. When important people visited the home, she had to change the beds and put new bedspreads on them. Once the visitors were gone, the old bedspreads came out. Each bed had a pillow, blanket and sheets. The bedspreads were taken off the beds at night and women were not allowed to use them to stay warm. The dormitories had radiators but that they were not left on long enough to heat the rooms. They went to bed cold, stayed cold all night and woke up cold. The daily routine began at 5 a.m. when women went to mass and then had breakfast. They then went to work in the laundry, ironing, cleaning, tending to the dormitories and working on the farm. The women did all the work while the nuns supervised. If the nuns thought that they didn't work hard enough or did things wrong, they would be beaten. Breakfast at 7am was porridge with milk and sugar on top. Lunch was 1-2 p.m. and consisted of bread with jam or cheese, with ham every so often. Dinner was at 5 p.m. and was 'a proper dinner' with meat and vegetables. They had to line up and our food was served by other girls. We would have a pudding, normally rice or semolina and every so often apple pie and custard. There were never second helpings and they were always hungry. The women were allowed to watch television in the evenings and they were in bed by 9 p.m.. The women washed every day in a sink and had toothbrushes and toothpaste. She said that she hid her toiletries because other women would try to steal them. She said that the nurseries in Castlepollard were well-run and the children were treated well. Sister Angelina was in charge of the babies and she was a lovely woman. The children had plenty of clothes, nappies and plenty of food. The children were immaculate. You could pick out outfits for your child to wear. The children had plenty of food. Not many babies were breast-fed, most were bottle-fed. There were children there as old as 5-6 who were never adopted. She was upset when her baby was taken for adoption and the nuns showed her no sympathy. She said that at some stage she had signed her name on a document but she did not know what it was. She believes that these were documents relating to the adoption. She remained in Castlepollard for six weeks after the adoption and was then taken to a hospital in Dublin where she worked in the kitchen and lived on site

    Another mother, at Castlepollard in the mid-1960s, recalled that when any post came in for her it was opened before she got it, and when she was sending out letters they were read before she could seal the envelope. She was given the job of sluicing the nappies — she had to take them down to the laundry and to collect the bread down there for to bring up for the supper. Some of the days when went down, the nuns were carrying the little shoeboxes down, to bury the babies. She saw 'about ten' deceased babies being sent for burial in what appeared to be shoe boxes. The deceased infants were buried on site at Castlepollard.

    A woman who was resident in the late 1960s recalled that on her arrival, the Mother Superior told her that she had been a really bad person, that she was there to make amends, that she was lucky that they were taking her in, and that the only way she could get God to forgive her was by giving a good Christian family the child that she couldn't rear herself. Because she did not yet have 'a huge bump', she was put on night duty and allowed to go into the local town on Sundays to attend mass. Her work duties included feeding babies, making bottles and cleaning. When she became obviously pregnant she worked in the home in the daytime. She had a bed in a dormitory and the women did not have much privacy. She wore her own clothes and a house coat. She remembered that women brought their clothes to the laundry and washed them themselves. They could watch television and she remembered watching 'Top of the Pops'. She said that she learned a lot chatting to women who came from various parts of the country. She remembered that quite a few of the women were civil servants. They were not encouraged to talk to each other while working but that they had leisure time in the evening and the nuns operated a small shop on the premises which sold things such as cigarettes and matches, biscuits, toiletries and baby clothes. There was a lot of sort of almost competition about who would have the nicest clothes for their babies. She said that life were very regimented and, while the food was not ample, they were adequately fed and she was never hungry. She remembered eating things she had never tasted before such as potato salad, beetroot and tinned corned beef. Her son was born prematurely and she had a difficult labour. He had to be put into a children's hospital for two months but she was not allowed to visit him there or even get news on his progress. She told the Commission that women stayed with their babies in Castlepollard until they were adopted — if it took a year, they stayed a year. For some, it took longer. Some of the women in the home were there on their second pregnancies and that they 'got a terrible hard time'. She told the Commission that babies in Castlepollard were 'stuffed with porridge and thick rice and rusks so that they would fatten up' and look healthy for prospective foster parents. She remembered well-dressed couples visiting Castlepollard and presumed that they were prospective adoptive parents. One day she was told that she was going to Dublin the next day, and that her baby was being adopted. She was hazy about whether she had ever signed adoption papers, but assumed she must have, though not realising the full implication. She was driven by car to the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society with her baby and a nun from Castlepollard. She had all her belongings with her in the car. She was put with her baby in a room at the top of the house with him and then a nun brought in a hot bottle and told her to feed him for the last time. Then they just came in and took him. The next time she was her son was 30 years later in the same room in which she had given him up for adoption. She said she would never condemn Castlepollard. At the time, when she was what was considered 'in trouble', that was what was on offer. It was a penance. They weren't enlightened about people's feelings then. For all of them at the home, their biggest fear was that somebody would find out about them.


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