Baby deaths were no secret to earlier governments

In light of the Tuam babies issue, Peter Costello consults the public record

The high death rate among ‘illegitimate’ infants in their first year of life in Ireland was well known to officials from the earliest days of the Irish State, records show.

“One of every three illegitimate infants born alive in 1923 died before the completion of their first year of life,” according to the annual report of the Registrar-General for Births, Deaths and Marriages for that year.

This was “about six times the mortality rate among legitimate infants”.

“These rates must be regarded as excessive,” the official stated.

These historical figures place current concerns about baby home death rates from the past in a new perspective. 

They reveal a far more complex situation in which the whole of Irish society was aware of these figures, but accepted them.

Gap in statistics

Ireland in the 1920s, the Ireland of the Troubles and the Civil War, was a violent place where murder was common. In 1921 there were some 1,096 male homicides from gunshot wounds. In addition 37 women died of gunshot wounds.

In this context, the statistics reported by the Registrar-General record the deaths under one year of age of 7,005 infants. That is 77 per 1,000 births, down from an average of 88 for the years 1911-20. More boys died than girls. This was at a time when for mothers deaths from perinatal events were actually falling. 

In 1922 deaths of infants under one year of age numbered 4,054, or 69 per 1,000 births. This was a decline on the average for the previous decade.

However, the report for this year introduced a section under the heading of Infant Mortality, specifically dealing with the deaths of ‘illegitimate’ infants.

This was a recognition that there was a gap in the earlier statistics. 

In 1923 the death rate for ‘illegitimate’ infants was 375 per 1,000 births for males, 311 for females.

The annual report not only noted that these rates were excessive, and that they were higher than those in England and Wales. They suggest there was a problem specific to Ireland.

The reporting of the figures for ‘illegitimate’ infants continued in the report for 1924. Again the death rates for such infants were high.

The infant mortality for ‘illegitimate’ infants in 1924 was five times the mortality for legitimate infants, at 315 per 1,000 births. Once more the report states “these rates must be regarded as excessive”.

Figures for 1925 for the whole of Saorstát Éireann showed “that at every period of life, the mortality among illegitimate infants is much in excess of that for all infants”.

The present controversy is focused on mother and baby homes in rural Ireland. Many deaths certainly took place in institutions, but the figures show that those running the homes were not the only people involved.  

City deaths

The 1925 report states that “nearly 43% of the total number of deaths of illegitimate infants took place in Dublin county and city. Of the 61 deaths in the country, 49 took place in institutions, and 12 elsewhere, and that of the 142 city deaths, the corresponding numbers were 102 and 40.

“Thus 52 of the 203 deaths in Dublin county and city did not occur in institutions. Of the latter, 21 were described in the registers of deaths as ‘nurse children’, 17 of these occurring in the city, and four in the country.” These children would have been fostered out for early care, but not adopted.

These official figures deal only with formally registered births and deaths.  Officials at the General Registry Office have suggested to researchers in the past that a significant number of births and deaths were never registered.

The actual numbers of concealed births and deaths in Ireland is unknown, but not insignificant, anecdotal evidence would suggest.

But the heavy mortality rates registered for ‘illegitimate’ children were officially published and formally known to the local authorities and the government.

They show that post-revolutionary Irish society as a whole knew, and accepted, that ‘illegitimate’ children, whether in institutions, with their mothers, or boarded out with others, were in greater danger of early death than legitimate children.

Peter Costello is the author of The Heart Grown Brutal, a study of the Irish Revolution.