Councillor stood alone in calling for Commission of Inquiry in 1945
‘A Voice in the Wilderness’ is how the Drogheda Independent newspaper described Meath County Councillor, Sean Doyle, in 1947. A motion he had proposed regarding salaries of council officers had failed to get a seconder, and fell. It was not the first time the Athboy representative was a lone voice in the council chamber.
Two years earlier, he had been drawing attention to conditions and treatment of women who were “inmates” at the Institution of Unmarried Mothers in the Manor House in Castlepollard, which serviced counties Meath and Westmeath.
His contribution to the Meath County Council meeting was raised at the January 1945 meeting of Westmeath County Council, who decided to send a delegation to visit the home and report back to the next council meeting.
Writing to the Westmeath Examiner, Sean Doyle said that the recent discussion by Westmeath County Council "concerning statements of mine at a recent meeting of Meath County Council relative to alleged unsuitable treatment of inmates of the Manor House, Castlepollard, an institution subsidised by public monies from ratepayers of both counties, I have merely performed what I consider to be my duty as a public representative, in bringing the matter to the notice of the appropriate authorities with a view to having the position fully investigated."
Ahead of his time, Cllr Doyle called for Commission of Inquiry to be established to look at the goings-on in Castlepollard.
"For some considerable time past, complaints have been made to me of the conditions said to prevail there and if such be true …. This institution could not serve the high purpose for which it was intended – that of remodelling the lives of those who are "more sinned against than sinning."
He said that he was satisfied having being furnished information from variety of sources that he had no reason to doubt, "that the matter is one that needs further examination. Accordingly, I have submitted all the available information at my disposal to the appropriate minister, with the request that a Commission of Inquiry, consisting of five persons experienced in social welfare activities, and to include at least two married mothers, be set up, to hear evidence, both pro and con, on oath, so that there may be an impartial report and suitable recommendations made to remedy the matters complained of, if such conditions really exist."
He said that such a course of action "would have a more beneficial effect than that adopted by some public men in both counties, who hold up their hands in horror, shirk discussion, and their responsibilities, then bury their heads in the sand in the same true ostrich-like fashion, and then by contemptuous distortion and innuendo, try to besmirch those who have the courage to face facts, and conscientiously perform their duties, for the time being entrusted to their charge."
That was, no doubt, a reference to his fellow county councillors in Meath. On the front page of the Meath Chronicle of 6th January 1945, the headline ran ‘Grave Charges Resented’ with ‘Meath Councillor Challenged and ‘Meath Secretary’s Tribute’ as subheadlines.
Mr Doyle was criticised for casting such aspersions on such an institution by his colleague, Mr Condon.
To Mr Condon’s knowledge, "girls had spoke on the highest terms of the treatment they had received in the homes".
Mr Bourke, the County Secretary, was "flabbergasted" at Mr Doyle’s statements, as he knew the institution perfectly.
"No man here could afford to tend his wife and children as they are afforded at Manor House," he stated.
Sean Doyle’s complaints, which were also taken up by James Fagan at the Westmeath local authority, "alleged that inmates were compelled to do manual work and take the place of men; that girls had to cut timber and wield heavy sledges in all kinds of weather, clad in overalls. Cllr Fagan described conditions as "uncivilised" and said it was like days of slavery.
He handed in a copy of the Meath Chronicle report of the council meeting and Mr Doyle’s remarks. There were objections to discussing it in Westmeath as well. MJ Kennedy TD, from Castlepollard, chairing the council meeting, said "it would serve no useful purpose in opening it up here."
Cllr WJ Finerty said it shouldn’t have been discussed in Meath either "as it is a matter for this county" and his information was that the institution is well run and a credit to the Nuns."
In a letter to the Department of Local Government and Public Health, Sean Doyle outlined the complaints told to him by a former resident, including claims that the infant mortality rates were unduly high; that women were cutting up timber in adjoining woods, until the onset of their labour and again after their confinements and they were also carrying out other seasonal forms of farm work unsuited to their physique; that the "girls" were undernourished and overworked; that in order to avoid soiling the floors, children, when suffering from diarrhoea, had been kept on nursery chairs for so long that their intestines were known to have on occasion protruded, and that for most of the year the nurseries were unheated with open windows and the children were lightly clothed.
The councillor also claimed in the letter that discipline was harsh and that mothers were beaten and otherwise ill-treated. In February 1945, an inspector, Miss Litster, met Cllr Doyle and the former resident who made the complaints and discussed the allegations with the Mother Superior, Sister Leontia. She concluded that the claims would not hold up to scrutiny in an inquiry. However, she acknowledged that conditions at the institution were not "wholly satisfactory". She also noted that Sister Leontia was "somewhat hard" and "did not err on the side of generosity". A department memorandum on the inspector’s inquiries noted that "the lady [Sister Leontia] requires watching". In March 1945 a local delegation including Westmeath county councillors, the county manager and a TD visited the home. In its report to the council the delegation found that home was a "well-run and up-to-date institution "was a credit to the Sisters" and "‘there were no grounds whatsoever for complaint".
According to last week’s Commission Report, after his meeting with Miss Litster, Sean Doyle wrote to Dr Ward, the Parliamentary Secretary at the DLGPH, to thank him for the “prompt and diligent attention” given to his complaint and that he was ‘fully confident’ to leave the whole matter in Miss Litster’s “very capable hands”. He withdrew his request for an inquiry and said that he was satisfied that the issues raised could be addressed without a public inquiry and could be remedied under Miss Litster’s direction.
Sean Doyle died suddenly in 1954, while still a member of Meath County Council, and was the subject of glowing tributes from his council colleagues on his passing.