Several women told the commission of investigation into a mother-and-baby home in the midlands that they witnessed nuns leaving the hospital with up to ten dead babies in shoe boxes and bringing them for burial on the grounds nearby.

The burial sites were later marked by the presence of nails in the wall of a cemetery nearby - the women claim.

It has been revealed there was a demand for a public inquiry and the closure of the mother-and-baby home at Castlepollard in Co Westmeath - within the first ten years of its operations - after soaring levels of baby deaths were recorded and allegations of the cruelty and abuse of women were made.

After complaints were made, an inspection by a county manager, a local TD and five councillors from Co Meath was carried out, with advance notice given to the hospital, and the claims against the centre management were dropped.

The Castlepollard centre was run by the Congregations of the Sacred Heart and opened in 1935 but, without a purpose-built maternity unit initially and with widespread overcrowding, it recorded an alarming rate of baby mortality in its first five years with 60.2% of all infants dying - the most infant and child deaths recorded in the 36 years it was open for.

4,559 babies were born in Castlepollard but 247 of the infants died. Most of the babies died due to congenital debility and prematurity. Respiratory issues and cerebral haemorrhaging were also noted as the main causes of death.

Burial sites were marked by nails in the wall of a nearby cemetery 


Read more: Mother-and-baby homes


The centre was initially designed for just 37 mothers and their babies but the Department of Health moved in in March 1941 after an inspector discovered acute overcrowding - with 109 women and 86 babies on the site - and some of them living in a loft over horse stables without heat or any medical support.

Just ten staff worked initially in the centre and none of them worked at night as other residents were expected to sit with pregnant women and call for help if required.

Eye witnesses told the commission that no pain killers were available and the nuns running the centre were repeatedly warned that overcrowding and hygiene issues were a constant danger to the health and safety of the women and their babies.

Overcrowding continued to be a problem until a new maternity unit was built but there were significant structural defects and flaws in the new building with plaster falling off the walls, the rain coming in, and other issues. 

A department inspector said there was a constant problem with large numbers of older infants and children in the centre and nearby county councils were failing in their duties to try and find adoption parents for some of the toddlers living in the centre.

At one point the Department of Health noted after an inspection that the nun in charge of the home "needed watching" although it was noted that after repeated warnings the centre stopped taking in any further residents and the mortality rate fell from 30% back to 10% and then lower.

By the end of the 1940s the overcrowding issue was easing and living conditions improved. There was a proposal to close the centre in 1969 and it closed the following year. 

Many of the women who had their babies delivered in Castlepollard spoke to the commission and said it was like "living in a jail".

They were told by the senior nun when they arrived that "they had been a really bad person" even though many of the women told the commission they had become pregnant after being "raped". Some also said they had signed adoption papers under duress.

Most of the women who went to have their babies in Castlepollard were between 16 and 24 years of age. They came from almost every county in the country.