CITY archivist Jacqui Hayes says that to this day she receives inquiries from people born in the former City Home looking for information on their birth mothers.
Campaigners have criticised an indication from Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan that the former city and county homes will not form part of the commission of inquiry into mother and baby homes and forced adoptions.
While Limerick did not have a religious-run mother and baby home on the scale of St Mary’s in Tuam, revelations around which have resulted in the inquiry, unmarried mothers were sent by their families to local authority run institutions in the early days of independence.
There is also evidence that unmarried mothers in Limerick were hidden away from view behind the walls of Mount St Vincent, run by the Sisters of Mercy on O’Connell Avenue, and that after they had their children, women were sent to the Good Shepherd Laundry on Clare Street.
Records in the Ryan report show it was not until 1946 that the number of children in county homes were exceeded by the numbers in mother and baby homes.
In Limerick, the City Home was at St Camillus’ Hospital, while the County Home is now St Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West. Run by the county boards of health, these were multi-purpose health and welfare institutions and it was here where unmarried mothers were often confined.
“We have people coming to us to this day saying they were born in the City Home and do we have any information on when their mother was admitted and where she may have gone afterwards,” said Ms Hayes.
“And up to 1921 and independence, for which we have the records of monthly meetings, there might be some small chance of it being mentioned in the minutes but it is very rare. Governors sitting down once a month tended to decide on the big macro issues and they were not interested in individuals. All those records, admission registers and so on, were there once but where are they now is the question,” said Ms Hayes.
And the council has no records whatsoever for the city and county homes after independence, she added.
Tusla, the newly former child and family agency, told the Leader that records in relation to the City Home and “subsequent baby wards for children are held in St Camillus Hospital” and that these were held by the HSE.
In relation to St Ita’s, Tusla said the records had been “donated to Limerick Heritage Trust for archiving and preservation”.
“There is a huge chasm there after 1921,” said Ms Hayes, “and for all the women who had babies in the city home and those trying to trace their roots, it is very difficult without those records. They don’t know what happened afterwards. Were they fostered out? It is very difficult because the records don’t seem to have survived. The HSE is such a big organisation that it is possible they are on a shelf somewhere but they could also have just been dumped.”
How the city and county homes and religious institutions were part of a nexus that kept unmarried mothers out of the public gaze is evident from a Limerick Leader report from 1930 unearthed in recent days by historian Liam Hogan. Mr Hogan’s research on mother and baby homes has been published on the Limerick 1914 Twitter account and much of the material has been widely used by media around the world in recent weeks.
In the 1930 news report, Cllr EJ Mitchell proposes that people in prison and other institutions such as the county home be put to work to earn their keep. He is told by the chairman of the Board of Health, there are no able-bodied people in the county home save for 20 unmarried mothers who “will be got rid of as soon as possible”.
Cllr EL Lloyd says the women in question are “provided with work in the Home and in the laundry”, something which will no doubt have appealed to Cllr Mitchell, who had earlier praised the “noble work” being done to improve the lot of the “poor creatures” in the Good Shepherd laundry.
The role of the Good Shepherd in taking in unmarried mothers is evident from an oral history project on the Limerick institution conducted by Evelyn Glynn two years ago.
John Kennedy, who managed the laundry himself, recalled to Ms Glynn that: “It was my understanding that the unmarried mothers had their babies in the Mount and they were then sent down to the Laundry. Their babies were not brought down to St. George’s (school at the Good Shepherd) until they were around four years of age.
“Some of the women who worked in the laundry then would have had children in St George’s school. The only time they could catch a glimpse of their children was at morning mass as they were not allowed any contact. Standing in the nave facing the altar the church was in the shape of a cross and the left hand arm of the cross contained the women...and the right hand side of the church contained the children from St George’s and their mothers would have a crick in their necks...to watch the children going up to the rails to see which one of them was their child,” Mr Kennedy said.
Another newspaper report discovered by Mr Hogan - this one from the Nenagh Guardian in 1946 - shows the Clare County Board of Health debating whether or not unmarried mothers in the county home should be sent to the Good Shepherd or to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea.
It is at Sean Ross Abbey that much of the story of Newcastle West woman Philomena Lee, recently turned into a Hollywood movie, takes place.
Minister Flanagan disappointed campaigners last week when he appeared to rule county homes out of the inquiry. To include so many institutions with such long histories ran the risk of the inquiry getting bogged down in “ a bottomless quagmire”, the minister said.
One matter that is to be investigated is the burial practices for children who died in such institutions.
Ms Hayes, who has conducted much research into Mount St Lawrence’s cemetery, said it was possible that the deceased children of some unmarried mothers were interred in a mass grave known as the Angels Plot to the left of the main entrance to the graveyard - but much more research was needed before she could be conclusive about that.
It was more likely that the plot contains the remains of children who died before they were baptised - or limbo babies as they were more commonly known.
“There were legitimate and illegitimate children buried there. They are just all there and no mother can trace exactly where because it was never properly plotted out. Then as the graveyard was filling up in the 1970s, they sold off all those plots.
“The gravediggers, when they do bury somebody there, usually do find the bones of babies and little white coffins unfortunately. It is just awful and we are just grateful that we didn’t take over the cemetery until 1979.”
Until then, Mount St Lawrence had been run by the Church and custom at the time was not to inter stillborn or “limbo” babies in the graveyard proper.
People from institutional settings were buried in Mount St Lawrence, including Magdalene women, but as far as the former Angels Plot goes, Ms Hayes suspects the bodies there are much more likely to have come from families rather than institutions.