To be poor and the child of a single mother were among the most dangerous things that could happen to you in the Ireland of the last century.

So dangerous, in fact, that now we have a Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, established in February 2015, to find out exactly what happened to the thousands of vulnerable women and children who lived and died in 14 homes between 1922 and 1998.

We need an investigation because we don't know what happened to so many of them, of course. Irish society fell silent and looked the other way over the seven decades when these mothers and children were disappeared without a word of protest from most of us.

1998 is only 18 years ago, so all of this unfolded within the lifetimes of most people reading these words right now. It's staggering too think the last Magdalene Laundry only closed its doors in 1996.

News of what happened to the inmates – that's what they were called – of the Catholic Mother and Baby homes has rightly made international headlines since the Tuam scandal, but the fate of Protestant mothers and babies has garnered fewer column inches, although the statistics are no less alarming.

It's estimated that more than 200 infants born at just one Protestant mother and baby home in Dublin were buried in unmarked graves. The children, born between 1922 and 1949, were born at Bethany Home, an evangelical institution for unmarried women and their children that fulfilled the same social role as its Catholic counterparts: stem the contamination, keep the women and their unwanted offspring away from prying eyes and public comment.

In 2010 at least 40 infants from the home were discovered to have been buried in unmarked graves in the nearby Mount Jerome cemetery. Researchers believe the actual figure is more than five times that because on average, one child died every three weeks at the Bethany Home.

It is hard to imagine another circumstance where that number of infant deaths would not have set off alarm bells and government enquiries, unless that child was born to a poor, vulnerable, unmarried woman – Ireland's unholy trinity, Catholic and Protestant alike.

The Bethany Home was located in the well-to-do suburb of Rathgar in South Dublin. It’s a leafy suburb filled, then and now, with tea shops and fine groceries. It's the last place you'd expect to hear alarming tales of neglect and cruelty.

Former residents of Bethany told researchers that they were victims of physical abuse and neglect while child residents of the home, and this atmosphere accounted for the high infant mortality rate in the institution.

Archived government reports into the condition of the place show us the most pressing concerns of the men who compiled them. After one visit in August 1939 the Irish government's deputy chief medical adviser, Winslow Sterling Berry, concluded, “It is well recognized that a large number of illegitimate children are delicate and marasmic from their birth.”

Read more: Open the grave at Tuam, let's establish the truth once and for all

Berry was more concerned with the admittance of Roman Catholics into a proselytizing Protestant institution than with the numbers of children dying there, the report shows, and by refusing to continue government funding, he forced this unwelcome practice to end. There was no concern for the dangerous condition of the children.

Believing that illegitimate children are inherently more delicate than those with the good fortune to be born under wedlock was a clever rationalization. If illegitimate children died in surprisingly high numbers it was their weak constitutions that were at fault, he concluded, not the society into which they were born. Case closed.

To this day there are thousands who would rather not pick over these old coals. They'd prefer to do what their parents did and just look the other way.

What good, they ask, will come of holding these sad days and ways up to the light again?

For years the Irish government agreed with them. It wasn't until 2014 that the government finally agreed to investigate the Bethany home.

Records show that most of the children were days, weeks or months old when they died. Others show clear evidence of neglect – one child reportedly died after crawling into a scalding pot of gruel. Many would later endure physical and sexual abuse after being illegally adopted.

Meanwhile, activist and former Bethany survivor Derek Leinster, now 74, has just won the right to take his case to the European Court at Strasbourg. “It is the biggest thing that we have ever done,” Leinster, a founder of the Bethany Survivors Group, told the press. Currently the group is battling for compensation from the Irish state, but Leinster wants the world to know that he has a bigger target.

“I want the few who are left to know they have justice,” he said.

It has taken him a lifetime and he still hasn't found it.