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Barnardos – helping those who were farmed out and forgotten

Earlier this year, Barnardos launched a free national service for adults aimed at providing a range of supports to those who were ‘boarded out’ or ‘farmed out’ as children prior to the introduction of the Child Care Act 1991. Bernie Commins spoke to Natalie Johnson, a project coordinator at Barnardos, about this essential service and its relevance today

Ireland has a chequered history regarding the care of its children. The publication of reports into the Magdalene laundries and mother-and-baby homes, the many stories recounted by women who lost their children, and children who lost their identities, are sad testaments to this. These reports, these lived experiences, paint bleak pictures of a harsh place for young mothers and their children.

What does ‘boarded out’ mean?

‘Boarded out’, ‘fostered’, ‘farmed out’, ‘at nurse’, and ‘nursed out’ are terms used to describe both a formal and informal system of care for children that existed in Ireland from the early 1900s up until the introduction of the Child Care Act in 1991.

From the turn of the 20th century until the introduction of the Child Care Act in 1991, there were many reasons why children – formally and informally – became part of the childcare system in place during that period, explains Natalie: “For children born in mother-and-baby institutions, county homes, and private nursing homes to unmarried mothers, many were nursed out as infants by the authorities to families other than their own.
“In families where a parent died, or a parent was unable to care for the children due to poverty or illness, these children were boarded out by the authorities to families other than their own. Children in industrial schools were also boarded out to farms and homes around the country." Children were also boarded out among members of their extended families, Natalie says:

"Informal arrangements between families were common where children were sent to live with a relative to help ease the burden on a family with a lot of children, or a child could be sent to live with a relative to work on the farm or care for an ailing aunt or grandparent.”
Although the exact number of children boarded out in Ireland is unknown, Natalie says that information from the Adoption Authority of Ireland and the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes indicates that between 1920-1970, approximately 20,000-30,000 children were boarded out by the State.

A lasting impact

Barnardos' Boarded Out Practical Support Service for Adults was launched in July 2023 to offer help to today’s adults whose childhoods reflect these situations. Natalie explains: “From speaking with people who have been boarded out as children, it’s clear how this early experience can have a lasting impact throughout their lives. For some people the trauma of early separation from their mothers, and the subsequent experience of abuse, missed educational opportunities, forced labour, stigma and lack of information about their identity and reasons for being boarded out or fostered can have lifelong consequences because childhood lasts a lifetime.”
Natalie is keen to point out that being boarded out was not a negative experience for all who experienced it: “For some children, being boarded out was a positive experience, where they grew up feeling part of a family, where their needs were met, and they were looked after well.” But for others, she says, their experiences were traumatic. “Children were boarded out to families where they experienced maltreatment, were kept home from school to carry out unpaid farm and domestic work that was not appropriate for their age. Many of these children grew up without any information about their family of origin or the reason they were boarded out.”

The service, funded by Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Dormant
Accounts, is free, confidential, non-
judgemental, and can be accessed in a number of ways.

Send an email to:

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Visit Barnardos' centres:

Dublin: Christchurch Square, Dublin 8, D08 DT63; and 23/24 Buckingham Street Lower, Dublin 1. Tel: +353 1 813 4100.

Cork: Blackmore House,
Meade Street,Cork.
Tel: 353 21 203 8005.

Galway: The Sanctuary, 27 Chois Chlair, Claregalway.
Tel: +353 91 454489. 

Support available

Today, there are people living in our rural communities who were boarded out as children and who are still affected by their early experiences. Natalie explains: “Barnardos wants to raise awareness of our service among the farming and rural communities, so we can reach people who may need our support.” Barnardos has centres in Dublin, Cork and Galway, and its community support workers can meet people in these centres, or they can travel to people’s homes, or meet somewhere local to the person who requires help. “The service is open to anyone regardless of how long they were boarded out, fostered out, nursed out, whether the boarding out was a formal or informal arrangement or whether the experience was positive or negative,” says Natalie.

The supports available through Barnardos' Boarded Out Practical Support Service for Adults include:

  • Support to access early life records;
  • Support to access health, community and social services;
  • Support with isolation and loneliness;
  • Assistance in filling out forms and grant applications;
  • Advocacy, information and signposting; and
  • Referral to Barnardos therapeutic supports.

Sent to live on a farm – Noel's story

Barnardos provided Irish Farmers Monthly with a case study to highlight the ways in which the Boarded Out Practical Support Service for Adults can assist people. It tells the story of 82-year-old Noel* who was sent to live on a farm in rural Ireland when he was a child, having been born in a mother-and-baby home.
Noel never knew his birth family and although he was looked after by the family he was placed with, he was regularly kept home from school to work long hours on the farm. When Noel did go to school, he struggled to keep up and was often slapped by the class teacher for making mistakes. After years of struggling, Noel left school when he was just 13 with very poor literacy skills. He continued to work unpaid on the farm until he was 16 and then left for England to try to make a new life for himself. He never knew his family of origin or why he was boarded out as a child.
Over 60 years later, Noel contacted Barnardos Boarded Out Practical Support Service, as he needed help filling out forms to access his birth information. Carol, a community support worker from the service, visited Noel in his home and assisted him to complete the forms and understand the birth history information he received.
Noel confided in Carol that he struggled to cook his meals and complete other household chores due to mobility issues, and he told her that he felt isolated living alone. Carol contacted the local primary care team and advocated for a homecare package for Noel. She also arranged for Meals on Wheels to be delivered daily, so he did not have to worry about preparing meals.
Carol’s visits helped Noel to feel less alone, but she also put him in touch with the local Family Resource Centre so he can access local groups. Noel now has a social outlet where he is connected to his community.  *Not his real name.