Children's Home, Tuam, Co. Galway, Republic of Ireland
In 1925, the Galway county council's 'Children's Home', previously at Glenamaddy, was transferred to new premises at Tuam. As at Glenamaddy, the Home occupied a former workhouse building, continued to be run by the Bon Secours Sisters. It admitted unmarried mothers and children, expectant unmarried mothers, destitute married women with their children and the children of married or widowed parents who were unable to care for them perhaps because of a mother's long-term physical or mental illness, or because the child had a disability. The home was owned and maintained by Galway County Council and administered by the council's Board of Health and its County Homes and Home Assistance Committee (CHHAC). The council paid the Sisters a weekly capitation fee for each woman and child in the home plus the cost of repairs to the building, rates, water, insurance, and the salaries of the chaplain, the medical officer, and the maternity nurse. From 1931, the home also received a few children from County Mayo, for whom the Mayo County Council paid the capitation fee. The Sisters received no salary, their income deriving purely from the captation fees.
The workhouse had been in the hands of the Irish Ministry of Defence until 1924. Before the Children's Home opened, some repairs and redecoration were carried out but conditions were still very basic. There was no central heating and the building was heated by turf fires. The only running water was in the surgery and kitchenette situated near the nursery. Lighting was by oil lamps until electric lighting was installed in 1927. There were problems with the water supply as the home was outside the town and on higher ground than other properties in the area.
The home's site is shown on the 1918 map below.
Miss Alice Litster, an inspector from the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH), visited the home in 1947. At that date there were 271 children and 61 mothers in the home — a total of 333 residents, over a third more than the limit of 243 that had been proposed three years earlier. She reported that the infants in one day nursery were mostly healthy in appearance but included 'a baby with mis-shapen head and wizened limbs' and 'a premature infant'. The eighteen toddlers in another day nursery were 'mainly healthy and normal' but included children variously described as 'epileptic and partially paralysed', 'mental defective', 'a miserable emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions probably mental defective', 'child of itinerants, delicate', and a boy aged five years with 'atrophied areas, hands growing near shoulders. Arrangements have been made for admission to Orthopaedic Hospital'. In a third nursery, twelve of the thirty-one infants here were described as 'poor babies, emaciated, not thriving'. The babies here included: a three-month-old girl with wizened limbs, a three-week-old girl who was 'emaciated and delicate', a seven-month-old girl who was 'delicate and wasted', and a boy of about nine months who was 'emaciated, flesh hanging loosely on limbs. Mother not normal'. In two large playrooms, one with 59 children and another with 92, the children were described as being mainly healthy and normal.
Miss Litster described the infant death-rate as high. Between 1943 and 1946, the annual number of births and admission at the the home had averaged 156. Over the same period, the annual death rate had been 42.75 (27.4%). She recommended that it was time to enquire into possible causes of death before the rate became higher. She noted that there was a constant risk of infection because of admissions of entire families, 'itinerants, destitutes, evicted persons etc. into the Children's Home'. There was no isolation unit, which meant that children newly-admitted were mingling with others in the home and there was no routine examination and testing for venereal diseases. Overall, however, her report concluded that the infants 'received good care in the Children's Home. The Bon Secours Sisters being careful and attentive and excellent diets were available'. 'It is not here that we must look for the cause of the death rate'.
An inspection by the CHHAC's Visiting Committee in 1950 recommended repairs to the floor in the nursery and the provision of sanitary accommodation and central heating. They described the home as 'very clean and well-kept and in first class order considering the conditions that the nuns labour under'. The dormitories were large workhouse wards. No effort had been made to divide them. There were no floor coverings and the only furniture consisted of beds and cots; some rooms had no heating. Other inspections by the Department of Health (successor to the DLGPH) suggested that one of the worst aspects of the home was the lack of washing and toilet facilities on the second floor of the building. The kitchen equipment was supplemented with redundant equipment from the Central Hospital. The general layout of the building left a lot to be desired and the 'minor kitchens throughout the building are in a poor state of decoration while the milk kitchen in the nurseries would have to be replaced'. Hot water was available in only three locations apart from the laundry.
Plans being made in 1952 for major improvements at the home, but there were endless delays, particularly relating to the cost and where the money would come from. The death-knell for the scheme came withe the discovery of extensive dry-rot in the building in 1959. In that year, a report on conditions in the building concluded that the home was operating in a 'poorly maintained, uncomfortable, badly heated and totally unsuitable building in which upwards of 140 children ranging from infancy to six years are accommodated'. The heating and the washing and toilet facilities were inadequate, some of the old stone staircases were dangerous, and the dormitories were a major fire hazard.
In 1959, the growing problems with the building, coupled with a surplus of places in the country's mother and baby homes, and a growing preference for children to be boarded-out (fostered), led to the Department of Health deciding to close the home. The closure took place in 1961 and the existing residents were transferred to a number of other institutions. Forty-two children were transferred to Sean Ross and 10 to Castlepollard; 27 were transferred to Industrial Schools — most of the girls and younger boys to St Francis Xavier's Industrial School in Ballaghdereen, County Mayo, or to St Joseph's industrial school in Ballinasloe, while some girls also went to Lenaboy, on the outskirts of Galway City. Two children were admitted to Stewart's Institute, one to the Loughrea county home, one to a psychiatric hospital and one to a Protestant children's home.
Between 1923 and 1961, a total of 2,219 women were admitted to the home. The largest number of admissions was in the 1940s. The highest number of births was in 1943 when 143 babies were born or admitted; the second highest was in 1945 when 135 were born. Not all of these babies were born in Tuam. Mothers were typically 20 or 21 years of age and their average stay at the home was around seven to nine months. A total of 3,349 children were resident at the home. Of these, 2,694 were the children of unmarried mothers, and 655 were the children of married or widowed parents.
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 Tuam.
One account of the establishment, recorded in 2013, from a woman there in the mid-1950s, described it as a big gloomy building surrounded by iron gates. She had been working in the home until shortly before she gave birth, to a baby girl. She was told it would have been better for the child if it had been born a boy as it would have a better life'. After ten days on the ward, she was sent back to work. She recalled being badly. The mothers were never allowed any kind of recreation, no talking was allowed during meal times or when attending their babies in the nursery. Any letters that were written were censored.
There was a long table where the children sat to eat their meals and no toys. There was a bucket with disinfectant to clean up any 'accident' a child may have had. The food consisted of porridge for breakfast, mashed potatoes for lunch and bread and milk mashed together for dinner and no solid foods.
The women were woken up at 6am. They only washed once a week and they were covered in a rash as were the children and a lotion was used to try to deal with it. At the end of the day they would be back in bed at 7.30pm with the baby sleeping beside the mothers 'and all night long the night shift would be shouting at us not to have our backs to babies'.
Her duties in the home were feeding and cleaning up after the children and covering for the other girl she worked with. Two girls were assigned to each room and at feeding time, they went around with a large pot of porridge or mashed potatoes to spoon feed the children who never had their own crockery or cutlery. One girl told the others about 'the lovely food' the Sisters of Bon Secours would get to eat while they 'were fed slops'. She said that the cook made a fruit cake once a week for the Sisters.
She said that Christmas was no different to any other day. There was never a Christmas dinner or a tree nor were any decorations put up. The children were never given any presents. They may have had presents sent in by their mothers but they never received them. Some mothers sent parcels in after they had left the home. They would have new clothes and some toys in them but the children never got them. The nuns would keep them in case the mothers came back to visit, then the child would be dressed up.
This woman said that the girls in the home were allowed visitors but no one ever came to visit. During her time there, only three girls ever had a visitor. She had none.
A former child resident in the 1950s, on being asked by the Commission if he had any good memories of the home said 'not a good memory in the world, no. Nothing whatsoever, nothing.'
Other witnesses reported that they had been well treated in the home. They recalled the kindness of the nuns and had never witnessed mistreatment or abuse.
An analysis of the institution's records indicated that most children were either boarded out (38.29%) or left the home with their mothers (36.99%). Over 20% transferred to a range of other institutions; 3.85% were legally adopted (from 1953); 0.26% were informally adopted (pre-1953) and 0.16% were nursed out from the home.
Most child deaths recorded at the home occurred before 1950, with 92.6% of deaths occurring between 1921-50. There were spikes in 1926 (41 deaths) and in 1936 (51 deaths). The worst period, however, was in the six years from 1942-47, when 305 child deaths, almost 1 in 3 of all child deaths at the home, took place.
The Commission established that the memorial garden on the site of the former Tuam home contains human remains which date from the period of the home's operation and considers it likely that a large number of the children who died in the home are buried there.
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.
- Galway local archives, Island House, Cathedral Square, Galway.
- Nicolson, Jill Mother and Baby Homes: a survey of homes for unmarried mothers (1968, Allen & Unwin)
- Redmond, Paul Jude he Adoption Machine: The Dark History of Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes and the Inside Story of How Tuam 800 Became a Global Scandal
Except where indicated, this page () © Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.