History of the House / 1927 to 1930 - Dr Ella Webb / Dr Ella Webb and the Magdalen Asylums

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Dr Ella Webb and the Magdalen Laundries or Asylums

From the actions that Dr Ella Webb performed throughout her career, she was, in no doubt, a women who cared for children, devoting her whole life to this activity.

However, she lived and worshipped in a country that was deeply religious with strong views on so called 'illegitimate' children. Webb's views back in 1924 on the way society looked at these children, and the care provided to them by institutes such as Magdalen Laundries or Asylums has been causing some debate recently.

Ireland and the care of so called 'illegitimate' children

At the time when Webb was caring for children, setting up infant clinics and creating the Sunshine Home, there was a strong belief amongst the political, religious and medical establishment that women who had children born outside of marriage were sinful and the children themselves were often subject to particularly harsh treatment and discrimination.

This attitude towards so called 'illegitimate' children was very strong and widespread. [1]

Mother and Baby homes - Magdalen Laundries or Asylums

Because of the general 'condemnation' at the time of the alleged 'sinfulness' of having children outside of marriage, and regardless of how the situation arose, one of the proposed 'solutions' was the use of mother and baby homes or institutes. These homes were meant to be a refuge for these women and their children and were often supported by the institutions of the state and the churches. [1]

These homes are often referred to as Magdalen laundries or asylums. The name is generally understood to refer to Mary Magdalene who Pope Gregory in 591 identified as a prostitute. This led to Mary Magdalene becoming:

"the patroness of rescue homes or Magdalen Asylums ... which were originally established to ‘rescue’ women and girls in danger of becoming prostitutes, and to rehabilitate those who had already ‘fallen’ into prostitution”.

-Maria Luddy, Magdalen Asylums in Ireland 1765-1922, as quoted in the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, 12th January 2021 [1]

The Magdalen asylums were initially Protestant but later were mostly Catholic institutions. They operated from the 18th to late 20th centuries seemingly to house and support 'fallen women' (which in the18th century primarily referred to prostitutes). [2] However, by the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, this 'brief' seemed to be broadened out to include any women who appeared to challenge traditional notions of Irish morality, including unmarried mothers, who were often forced to give up their children for adoption or place them into care. [3]

There were a number of these homes throughout Ireland. Similar homes operated in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, the United States, and Australia. [2]

Research into the homes and the setting up of the commission of investigation

Between 2010 and 2014, amateur historian Catherine Corless conducted research into babies born at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in her hometown of Tuam, Galway. Her research suggested that the bodies of 796 babies and children may have been interred in an unrecorded mass grave at the Tuam Baby Home.

The outcry from this research resulted in the Irish government setting up a commission of investigation into Mother and Baby homes which commenced in 2015 and finished in 2021. [1]

During the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, one journalist [2] discovered an article in the Irish Times from 1924, that started a debate.

Fund-raising meeting for the Magdalen Asylum on Lower Leeson Street in 1924

At the 1924 fund-raising meeting for the Magdalen Asylum on Lower Leeson Street in Dublin, Dr Ella Webb spoke about the work that was performed in the institute. In an article in the Irish Times on this event [5] Webb said that the Asylum was being run on such admirable lines and was worthy of the support of those in attendance at the meeting.

Dr Ella Webb said that one of the best things the Asylum had done was to allow children to stay with their mothers for a certain number of months rather then sending the children out to 'nurse' (for example, where a family is paid a sum of money to care for a child, which sometimes led to the child being neglected badly).

The article went on as follows:

A great many people are always asking: What is the good of keeping these children alive? I quite agree that it would be a great deal kinder to strangle these children at birth than to put them out to nurse.'

-Dr Ella Webb, as reported in the Irish Times, "Deserving Dublin Charity", 18th June 1924

Reaction to this comment

At the time of this article in 1924 there seemed to be no comment (positive or negative) about this statement in the newspaper.

However, at the time of the Commission of Investigation when the quote was discovered by the Sunday Business Post and later reprinted in 2017 by the Irish Central, the sub headline printed with it was:

How do you like euthanasia Irish Catholic style?

-Niall O'Dowd, Irish Central, 22nd Aug 2017 [4]

Knowing what we do about Dr Ella Webb, we know that this sub headline from 2017 has nothing to do with what Webb was talking about at the time.

A later article in 2020 entitled "Illegitimate History" by Simon Hall looked to give the quote from Ella Webb some context. [6]

Illegitimate History - Simon Hall

In the article in Broadsheet.ie, Simon Hall states that illegitimacy was a concept found in canon and common law and said that such women and children were profoundly stigmatised. This often resulted in families forcing their unmarried daughters into the Mother and baby homes or Magdalen laundries.

Hall then states that Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, had previously noted that it in the summer of 1922, only a few months after the establishment of the Free State, the religious orders in Ireland proposed segregating unmarried mothers away from other residents of the state’s workhouses. Hall said that this began the state's complicity with the operation of these homes. [6]

However, Hall said that alarms were raised by some about the conditions in these institutions, such as the high mortality rate for illegitimate infants, which, in 1924, was around 315 per 1,000 births. Compare this with the rate for so called 'legitimate' births that year of 65 per 1,000.

Also, life for those children that survived was not easy. Hall then gave the quote above from Webb in 1924 and responded to it by saying:

Dr. Webb was being deliberately provocative. This was stinging criticism of how these children — the lucky ones who survived infancy — were being treated in broader society.

-Simon Hall, Broadhseet.ie, 27th Oct 2020 [6]

Dermot Roantree, content editor with Irish Jesuit Communications, also responded to the original article from 2017 with its provocative sub headline by saying that:

[Webb] was doing anything but advocating the strangling of children! She was lamenting the horrors of the tradition of 'putting out to nurse', where a family was paid a sum of money to care for a child. It often happened – not by any means only in Ireland – that the families which took in the babies neglected them badly. It even happened – and remember, we're talking Britain, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, etc. as much as Ireland (i.e., it has nothing to do with religion) – that those families would starve the child to death, maybe even kill it directly, as the stipend for looking after it would not last long. Dr Webb's comment was a hyperbolic way of saying "Putting children out to nurse is a form of such long, drawn-out cruelty that it would even be kinder simply to strangle them at birth."

-Dermot Roantree, Broadsheet.ie comments, March 9th 2017 [4]

Roantree went on to praise the pioneering work that Webb had performed throughout her life, and then dismissed the 2017 article with its provocative sub headline by saying:

...you could not be more wrong. There are plenty of reasons to see red when it comes to the way children were treated in Ireland's past. Lousy reporting doesn't help at all.

-Dermot Roantree, Broadsheet.ie comments, March 9th 2017 [4]

Further Information

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Dr. Ella Webb's 1916 Easter Rising Diary
Dr. Ella Webb and the Magdalen Asylums 

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This page was last updated on 05-Nov-2021 .