By David Hennessy
More than 1,000 children died over a 37-year period in the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in Roscrea. This is an even higher number than the children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home. There was international outrage in 2014 when it was revealed that 796 children had died in the Tuam home and been buried in an unmarked grave near an underground septic tank.
Sean Ross Abbey featured in the Oscar-winning film Philomena. The home was run by the Congregation of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary from 1932 to around 1970.
The official death figures, published on Monday by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes ahead of them publishing their full findings in October, show that 1,024 “illegitimate children” died there. A large number of these, 455, are officially listed as dying of heart failure. 128 are said to have died from severe malnutrition while other reasons included exhaustion and convulsions. Two babies died from sun and heat stroke.
Another child died from acute heart failure as a result of choking on porridge.
The children ranged from newborns to 17 years old.
It is also not clear where the children are buried. The order provided the commission with an affidavit about child burials. The report said: “There is no certainty about where they are buried. The affidavit was, in many respects, speculative, inaccurate and misleading.”
Twenty-nine mothers died, mostly related to childbirth or pregnancy.
Historican Catherine Corless, whose research uncovered the Tuam scandal, told The Irish Star: “This is horrifying. Those poor children, you wonder were they just putting down anything for causes of deaths or did the children actually die this way?
“It seems that when a large group of children died, they said ‘we’ll put down cardiac arrest for those 15’.
“This information needs to come out and all of the children who died in these places need to be named and honoured and given some form of dignity. As for the children who died of sun stroke, they just clearly left them out in the sun all day and they died. It’s appalling.”
In 2015, after the Tuam revelations and outcry, the Irish government announced it was setting up an official Commission of Investigation. The commission was established to inquire into the treatment of, and dealings with, women and children in 14 mother and baby homes as well as four county homes between 1922 and 1998. It was first expected to report by 2018. This June, partially in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the report was again delayed until October 2020.
Sinn Fein councillor Michael Donovan worked at Sean Ross Abbey as a gardener in the 80s. He has given a statement to the Commission of Inquiry and gardai that he saw ‘tiny bones’.
Michael told the Irish Star: “I was operating a tractor and levelling out the ground and up turned many bones, really small bones and the job was called off. I can’t say whose bones they were, I don’t know but I remember seeing them and that was it, the job was stopped.”
Reacting to the news that 1.024 children are recorded as having died in the home, Michael said: “I am sick to my stomach. I am absolutely sickened to the core to even hear this news. I am tearful, sad and shocked.
427 babies are recorded as dying between 1931 and 1939, mostly from cardiac failure.
412 babies died in the 1940s.
The Adoption Act coming in the 1950s saw child deaths drop to 128.
In a statement the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary told The Irish Star: “We will continue to deal directly with the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes on all related matters.
“The Commission has had and will continue to have our fullest co-operation.”
In reaction to Michael Donovan’s statements, the order said: “We have no information to support the assertions being made in your query. We ask that persons with any information pass it to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.”