The lost lives: The 43 children who died from malnutrition in one year

AT least 43 babies died from severe malnutrition at two Sisters of Nazareth children’s homes in Belfast in a single year.

That is the disturbing key finding from the examination of a year of burial records for Milltown Cemetery’s Public Ground site – otherwise known as the Bog Meadows. Thousands of stillborn and unbaptised babies are among those buried in unmarked mass graves on the west Belfast site.

We now know that they include 63 children - 21 girls and 42 boys - from Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge who were aged between two weeks and almost two-years-old when they died in 1942. See full details on each case in the table below.

One of the babies was six-week-old George who died from severe malnutrition (marasmus) and a “septic scalp” in October 1942.

Marie died aged two-months-old in January 1942 from “cardiac failure due to marasmus”. It appears to be her twin sister Jean who died two weeks later from “haemoptysis due to congenital heart disease”. The sisters were buried in separate mass graves.

Of the 56 children we found the death certificates for, 77% (43) died from marasmus.

The Collins English dictionary defines marasmus as: “General emaciation and wasting, especially of infants, thought to be associated with severe malnutrition or impaired utilisation of nutrients.”

The cause of the death for the other children included cardiac failure due to a range of issues (convulsions, influenza, congenital issues and broncho pneumonia), prematurity and convulsions.

An annual report of the Registrar General in Ireland, which drew on comparative figures from across the UK, states that the 'legitimate' infant mortality rate for Northern Ireland in 1942 was 72 per 1,000 births - it was 157 for 'illegitimate' children.

The Sisters of Nazareth said: “The information that you have shared is extremely concerning and sad. All children should be loved unconditionally and treated with equality and dignity. If the Government launches an investigation, we will fully cooperate.”

The Catholic Church's Down and Connor Diocese, which owns the burial records, said that the findings of Detail Data's investigation "add further to our shame".

In a statement, the diocese said: "These findings demonstrate how as a Church and as a society we have failed to protect the most vulnerable members of our community. In life and in death, children should be treated with the utmost care, dignity and respect.

"Lack of resources, restricted financial support, the historical context of war, the poor nutrition available at the time, disease and the societal destitution prevalent at that time will have all played a part. However no simple explanation can be provided to explain away the deaths of these children, nor should one be attempted."

The diocese's statement can be read in full here.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland director, described the babies' deaths as "heart-breaking".

He continued: “So many of these babies were branded as ‘illegitimate’ on birth, some wrenched from their mothers as new-borns, put into loveless institutions, starved to death, and finally disposed of in mass graves in bog land. To think of the brief lives of those babies would bring tears from a stone."

THE RECORDS

Handwritten burial records - owned by the Catholic Church’s Down and Connor Diocese - can be accessed by the public on microfilm at The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The pages list information including the date of interment (burial), the grave number, the name of the deceased, their age and residence.

Detail Data examined the records for Milltown’s public ground burial site for a single year to look for deaths connected to former mother and baby homes. We selected 1942 as these records could be clearly read. The pages for some other years were illegible.

Instead of finding deaths linked to mother and baby homes, we found 63 deaths of children and babies connected to Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge. We know that some babies born to women sent to mother and baby homes went home with their mothers and others were adopted – but many also went into baby or children’s homes and these will have included Nazareth House and Lodge. One mother and baby home run by the Good Shepherd Sisters was situated on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.

We found out the cause of death for 56 of the 63 children by searching for death certificates held by the General Register Office. As well as being unable to locate seven certificates, information in the burial records contradicted details recorded on the death certificates found by Detail Data.

For example, baby James was buried on June 4th 1942. He also died from malnutrition. However, his death certificate states that he died on June 14th – 10 days after his burial.

Children’s ages vary widely between the two sets of records, in some cases their gender is contradicted and the date of death comes after the burial date in at least nine cases involving the deaths of children from the homes. In other cases, the spelling of surnames varies.

In response to our findings, the General Register Officer told Detail Data that it will consider a correction to a death certificate entry if anyone with knowledge of a death comes forward with new information.

The Nazareth babies were among 388 children aged under 18 interred in Milltown Cemetery’s Public Ground site that year.

Forensic archaeologist Toni Maguire is currently working on compiling a full record of all available data on infant burials.

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THE TWO HOMES

For most of their history the main distinction between the two homes – which were situated 200 yards apart - was that Nazareth House was for girls while Nazareth Lodge was for boys. Nazareth House was a children’s home from the start, whereas Nazareth Lodge was originally an industrial school.

The Historic Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry report states that the first baby was admitted to Nazareth Lodge on 16 October 1934, when the home took on the role of providing a diocesan service for babies.

The HIA Inquiry received evidence from 117 witnesses who had been in Nazareth House or Nazareth Lodge as children. The inquiry findings relating to the homes included poor childcare, corporal punishment and emotional abuse of children in Nazareth House. There was force-feeding, “cruel conduct” in dealing with bed-wetting, sexual abuse and poor out-of-date childcare practice in Nazareth Lodge. Nazareth House closed in 1984 and Nazareth Lodge in 1999.

The HIA Inquiry does not appear to have investigated how children living in the homes died except one reference to: “...anecdotal evidence more ex-residents appear to have died prematurely than one would expect in the population as a whole.”

The data we have shows that five girls and nine boys who died in 1942 and were buried in Milltown were living in Nazareth House, and 16 girls and 33 boys lived in Nazareth Lodge at the time of their death.

THE GRAVES

We looked for the death certificates for the 63 children using the online search facility of the General Register Office, which is part of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. It costs £2.50 to view the full certificate for each individual case. We found death certificates for 56 of the 63 children on our list. In some of the remaining cases, we could not be sure that the death certificate related to them as the dates or ages were widely different to the information contained in the burial records.

Down and Connor Diocese said that we could publish the information from the burial records on the condition that we did not publish the children’s surnames. The diocese said that this determination was in compliance with its responsibilities according to Data Protection legislation, due to the risk of living relatives being identified.

The children’s former addresses include different areas of Belfast, Glenavy, Rathmullan, Ballynahinch, Dungannon, Newry, Omagh, Donegal, Castlewellan, Dublin, Enniskillen, Portaferry, Newtownards, Portglenone, Maghera, Letterkenny, Dundalk, Whitehead, Kent, Tipperary, Armagh, Ballymoney and Holywood.

Of the 56 cases we could find death certificates for, the mothers of 53 of the children were a domestic servant or ‘servant’. In the three other cases, the certificate tells us their father was a labourer.

In almost all of the cases, the death certificate provides the mother or father’s name and their former address. We have also removed this information from our table to prevent the potential identification of living relatives.

“HEART-BREAKING”

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland director, said: “The death from severe malnutrition of so many babies, supposedly being cared for on behalf of the State, is heart-breaking.

“So many of these babies were branded as ‘illegitimate’ on birth, some wrenched from their mothers as new-borns, put into loveless institutions, starved to death, and finally disposed of in mass graves in bog land. To think of the brief lives of those babies would bring tears from a stone.

“These distressing revelations underline the serious concerns we have long held about how children and women were reportedly treated in these linked institutions, including apparently high child mortality rates, forced adoption practices, and the ill-treatment of women.

“Victims have a right to a proper investigation of these alleged human rights abuses to establish the truth of what happened to women and children in these institutions, rather than a piecemeal or partial response by government.”

We asked The Executive Office for a comment on the Nazareth children’s deaths. No specific comment was provided.

The Catholic Communications Office also chose not to comment on the children’s deaths.

CORRECTING ERRORS

It is possible for the death certificates to be corrected if new information is brought forward.

A spokesperson for the General Register Office Northern Ireland said: “Under Civil Registration Legislation at that time, the death of every person and the cause of death should be registered by the Registrar. The legislation states that the following persons (among others) shall be qualified to give information concerning a death including:

“Where the person dies in a place which is not a house:

  • It shall be the duty of every relative of such deceased
  • Any person present at the death
  • Any person taking charge of the body
  • The person causing the body to be buried

“It is the duty of this person to give to the Registrar, within five days, from the date of death, the particulars required to be registered concerning the death as the informant possesses and in the presence of the Registrar to sign the register.

“The Department cannot comment on any of the outlined discrepancies as this information was provided as being correct at the time of registration by the qualified informant. Should another person with knowledge of a death be able to provide new information, a correction to that entry may be considered.

“Any information held by Milltown Cemetery burial records is a matter for that authority.”

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