The spotlight has fallen on Castlepollard this week, as public anger grows over the existence of mass graves containing the bodies of babies and children who died in ‘Magdalen laundries’ type institutions run by religious orders.
Following revelations that an estimated 796 children were buried in a mass grave in Tuam in Co Galway, the Irish Daily Mail has brought to light the fact that there is a similar grave at what was known as the Castlepollard Mother and Child Home (later St Peter’s).
According to the organisation Adoption Rights Now (ARN), there may be as many as 500 babies buried in the “little angels” plot at Castlepollard.
ARN claims that 2800 to 3000 babies were born in Castlepollard. Of these, “2,500 were adopted out and between 300 to 500 died although this figure could be higher (no one knows the actual numbers)”.
On the site, there is a plaque, erected in the 1990s, that reads: “In memory of God’s special angels interred in this cemetary (sic)”.
As many as 278 children born to mothers in the Castlepollard Mother and Child Home are believed to have been adopted by American couples, and brought up in the US before the home closed in 1971.
The home was one of three run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, whose other homes were at Bessborough in Co Cork, and Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea.
They arrived in Castlepollard in 1934, after purchasing Manor House, the estate of the Pollard-Urquhart family, founders of the town of Castlepollard, and with a grant from the Irish Sweepstake, built St Peter’s, which, after the nuns’ departure became a Midland Health Board hospital for people with disabilities.
The home could accommodate around 120 girls at a time. When they arrived, girls were given an assumed name to use, and they were expected to work to effectively “repay” the cost of their stay, which in some cases, lasted years, even though the state gave a per capita allowance to the sisters for the care of the young women.
Several accounts have been given of the harshness of the regime, and as far back as the 1940s, concerns were raised with Meath County Council by Cllr Sean Doyle of Athboy, and with Westmeath County Council by Cllr James Fagan, that St Peter’s was far from being the strict but fair institution where girls were given a “fresh start” after their “first offence” (girls who became pregnant outside of marriage on more than one occasion were sent to different institutions).
In January 1945, Cllr Fagan claimed at a meeting of Westmeath County Council that “inmates” at the institution were being compelled “to do manual work and take the place of men”. He said the girls “had to cut timber and wield heavy sledges in all kinds of weather and clad in overalls”. Describing the conditions as “uncivilised”, he said it was like the days of slavery, and he said he had witnesses to prove his claims.
The council agreed to inspect Manor House, and the committee appointed to go there reported that it was run “in an exemplary manner”. Cllr Fagan complained, however, that the sisters had forewarning of the council’s visit, and he claimed that contrary to the written report prepared after the meeting, the delegation had not spoken to any of the girls staying there.
Historian Ruth Illingworth confirmed this week that the regime at Castlepollard was harsh, and that to a large extent, this would have been known.
“It would have had a bad image at the time – a seriously bad image.
“I was told that people saw girls who were nearly nine months pregnant out in the fields digging potates, and man in his 70s told me that as a boy, he climbed over a wall there, and he saw a nun hitting a girl with something like a belt,” she says.
However, things improved somewhat in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I think that there was an unannounced visit by an inspector, and after that, things did improve.”
She believes that most of the girls who went in to St Peter’s would have been from around the midlands.