Mirror Investigates: Doc who lifted lid on mum and child horrors in home 65 years ago
He took on clergy over deaths at the home while survivors hope to see a public enquiry
Irish adoptees are desperate to find out about a doctor who closed a mother-and-baby home in the 1940s due to its high mortality rates.
The late Dr James Deeny, a former chief medical officer for the Department of Health, was so shocked by the high mortality rates of babies born at Bessborough, Co Cork, that he temporarily shut the place down.
In his memoirs, Dr Deeny estimated that more than 100 out of 180 babies born at the Church-run institution for single mothers died in one year.
Members of Adoption Rights Now (ARN) are seeking a “full public enquiry into the vicious treatment of mothers and babies, and the consequent high mortality rates, in Government and Catholic run institutions in Ireland”.
They hope to find the full report that Dr Deeny made on the Bessborough mother and baby home, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
ARN chairperson Paul Redmond told the Irish Sunday Mirror: “The horrible conditions at the mother and baby homes were kept under wraps for decades, but there were rumours that a doctor had tried to shed light on them in the late 1940s, early 1950s.
“After months of research into the mortality rates in these institutions, we have found in Dr Deeny’s memoirs confirmation that he tried to close at least one of these cruel institutions.
“We are now appealing to Dr Deeny’s family, or people who worked with them, for any information they may have on the whereabouts of the full report he compiled on Bessborough.
“This would be of huge significance to us and would help us in seeking the truth about the thousands of babies mistreated and shamelessly sold off by nuns when they didn’t die.”
In his book To Cure And To Care, Dr Deeny wrote of his outrage at the low level of care he witnessed at Bessborough convent, one of three Sacred Heart mother and baby homes in Ireland.
It is understood that he made these findings between 1945 and 1948, but Bessborough was only fully closed in the early 1980s.
Dr Deeny recalled in his 1989 memoir: “Going through returns for infant deaths in Cork, I noticed that there was something unusual and traced the matter to a home for unmarried mothers at Bessborough outside the city.
“I found that in the previous year some 180 babies had been born there and that considerably more than 100 had died.
“Shortly afterwards, when in Cork, I went to Bessborough.
“It was a beautiful institution, built on to a lovely old house just before the war, and seemed to be well-run and spotlessly clean. I marched up and down and around about and could not make out what was wrong; at last I took a notion and stripped all the babies and, unusually for a Chief Medical Adviser, examined them.
“Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up.
“There was obviously a staphylococcus infection about.
“Without any legal authority I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer.
“The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing.
“A couple of days later I had a visit in Dublin from the nuns’ ‘man of affairs’ and he was followed by the Dean of of Cork, Monsignor Sexton, and finally the Bishop of Cork complained to the Papal Nuncio, who went to see De Valera.
“The Nuncio, Archbishop Robinson, saw my report and said we were quite right in our action.
“For once the Bishop, Dr Lucey, a formidable fighting man, was silent.”
Bessborough was disinfected.
Dr Deeny wrote: “During the succeeding years, while many hundreds of babies were born each year, the number of deaths never exceeded single figures.”
According to research carried out for ARN, mortality rates at Bessborough by the late 1940s, were over 55%.
Between August 1951 and June 1952, after Doctor Deeny’s intervention, less than 2% of infants died at the home.
Mr Redmond said: “We need a public enquiry into this.”