At least 10,640 women and girls entered 10 mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1990, according to a research report published today.

The youngest was a girl of just 12, and a third of all those admitted to the homes were aged under 19. The oldest woman was 44.

The researchers say there are question marks about the legality of the adoptions of hundreds of babies born in Northern Ireland and then sent across the border to the Republic.

The homes examined were run by both the Catholic and Protestant churches and other religious organisations.

At least 3,515 women also entered Magdalene laundries during the period examined by researchers from Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University.

Three of the laundries were run by the Catholic Church, and one by the Salvation Army.

But those figures are far from the full story.

The researchers say that because of the timescale for their work, it was not possible to examine records of Northern Ireland’s workhouses, "where many thousands of unmarried women gave birth between 1922 and 1948."

The majority of the women and girls who entered the mother and baby homes (86%) were from Northern Ireland.

A smaller number of birth mothers (11.5%) had home addresses in the Republic, 2% in Great Britain, or elsewhere.

The majority of admissions were of women aged between 20 and 29 (58%).

The researchers say the "overwhelming factor" for admissions to the homes was family pressure.

They note that "there existed in Northern Ireland a culture of stigma, shame and secrecy attached to unmarried mothers."

The report says some entered the homes "as the result of a sexual crime, including: incest, rape or unlawful carnal knowledge."

It says Catholic and Protestant voluntary organisations, and in particular members of the clergy, "were actively involved in the process."

The report adds: "Across the denominations there was a clear condemnation for unmarried mothers and support for the role of mother and baby homes, contributing to the stigma associated with pregnancy outside marriage."

State welfare authorities also played a significant role, referring 23% of those admitted to the homes, and being involved in financing them.

Northern Ireland’s Troubles were also a factor for a small number of women. The report notes that there were cases in Belfast, Derry and Newry "of teenage girls and women being sheltered from forms of community rough justice."

More on Mother-and-Baby homes

The report says examples included young women who had associated with British soldiers, and the Protestant girlfriend of a Catholic male being taken to a convent to protect her from retribution from the UDA.

The majority of oral testimonies given to the research team by women who spent time in the homes "provided vivid accounts of being made to feel ashamed about their pregnancy and suggested that the atmosphere was authoritarian and judgmental."

The report also says: "Numerous testimonies recounted experiences that involved cleaning, polishing floors and domestic laundering, with no concession for women who were often in their final trimester of pregnancy."

Noting that mortality rates in the homes were lower than in the Republic of Ireland, it says more detailed research is needed.

"Not all birth mothers returned with their child to the mother and baby home following birth," it says.

"In the cases of those who did, unlike the situation in the Republic of Ireland, mothers and babies did not remain in Northern Ireland's mother and baby homes for very long after they had given birth.

"This shorter period of residence is one factor that ensures that the mortality rates were much lower than those for mother and baby homes in the Republic."

However, it expresses alarm about the mortality rate at one home, St Joseph’s in Belfast, between the 1920s and 1950s.

The report states that "death rates may have been as high as 50% of those admitted at some points."

Hundreds of babies separated from their mothers were moved across the border.

The researchers say at least 551 babies born in mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland were moved to homes across the border.

The researchers say "a significant number" of those babies were later adopted by families in the Republic of Ireland, other parts of the UK, or the USA.

They say that without access to individual records held by adoption agencies, "at this point it cannot be confirmed that these adoptions were carried out following due legal process."

Babies from two homes run by the Good Shepard Sisters in Belfast and Newry, and the Legion of Mary in Belfast, were frequently sent to Nazareth House in Fahan in Co Donegal.

The next most regular cross-border destination was the Sisters of Clare Home in Stramullen in Co Meath. At least 165 babies born in Northern Ireland were sent there.

Smaller numbers of babies were sent to a number of homes and organisations in Dublin.

The researchers say that while the home in Fahan was the recognised baby home for the Catholic Diocese of Derry, and that some mothers may have originally been from Donegal, "it is more difficult to explain the placing of babies in Stamullen, Co Meath."

They say it is "unclear why they were placed there rather than in appropriate homes in Northern Ireland."

Their report adds: "There is no obvious logical reason for these cross border movements in terms of either Catholic diocesan administrative logistics or the home addresses of their birth mother."

Women also travelled from the Republic to homes in Northern Ireland. The researchers say the proximity of St Mary’s Good Shepard laundry in Derry resulted in around 30% of its residents being from south of the border, with the majority from Donegal.

While the majority of cross-border movement was related to Catholic run mother-and-baby homes, the report says 58 babies were also moved from the Salvation Army’s Thorndale House in north Belfast to the Republic of Ireland.

At least five babies were moved from Thorndale to the Bethany Home in Dublin, with links to the Church of Ireland, and at least 10 were sent to the Kimberly home in Greystones outside Dublin, which later became the Westbank Orphanage.