A week later she got back to me and said do you really want all of these deaths? I said I do. She told me I would be charged for each record. Then she asked me did I realize the enormity of the numbers of deaths there?”
The registrar came back with a list of 796 children. “I could not believe it. I was dumbfounded and deeply upset,” says Corless. “There and then I said this isn’t right. There’s nothing on the ground there to mark the grave, there’s nothing to say it’s a massive children’s graveyard. It’s laid abandoned like that since it was closed in 1961.”
It had long been known children had died in the Mother and Baby home for “fallen women” in Tuam Galway, but it was not until local historian Catherine Corless started investigating that it became clear that between 1925 and 1961, 800 children were buried in a mass grave on the site, possibly inside a septic tank.
The Mother and Baby homes, mostly as here run by Catholic organisations, were infamous and feared, intended more to punish women who had babies born out of wedlock, as well as their children, than support them, as is clear in the story of one Irish woman at another such institute, whose baby died shortly after being born and who wasn’t allowed to even attend his burial:
It was through two nuns squabbling that Mary had learned that a dirty needle had been used on her during her labour at Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork.
It took another 31 years and a visit to Bessborough however before the Sacred Heart nuns admitted to Mary that her baby boy had died of septicaemia.
As Conall Ó Fátharta lays out in The Irish Examiner none of this is news, but neither the church nor the state wants to know about it:
The fact is that infants are buried on the grounds of mother-and-baby homes all around the country. Adopted people and natural parents gather for dignified memorial services at ‘angel plots’ in places such as Bessborough in Cork, Castlepollard in Westmeath, and Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary every year.
Nobody cared in government then.
Nobody in Government cared when 219 unmarked graves of children from the Bethany Homes in Mount Jerome were found.
Mother-and-baby homes were excluded from the Redress Scheme in 2005 as there was “no evidence of systematic or widespread abuse of children in those institutions”.
This is not a new attitude. When in 1946 Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan (who you may know from the Spencer Tracey movie about his life) toured Ireland, found out and spoke out against these abuses, he was attacked for it:
Speaking to a large audience at a public lecture in Cork’s Savoy Cinema he said, “You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go into these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it.” He called Ireland’s penal institutions “a disgrace to the nation,” and later said “I do not believe that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character.”
However, his words fell on stony ground. He wasn’t simply ignored. He was taken to pieces by the Irish establishment. The then-Minister for Justice Gerald Boland said in the Dáil that he was “not disposed to take any notice of what Monsignor Flanagan said while he was in this country, because his statements were so exaggerated that I did not think people would attach any importance to them.”
For an extensive historical overview of the Tuam children’s home, librarian and historian Liam Hogan has put together a timeline with historical documents.
In an initial reaction the Irish police, gardaí, has said that the Tuam burials are just remains of the Famine, nothing sinister.
Meanwhile Amnesty International has called for a full and urgent investigation:
“The Irish Government must not view this and other cases as merely historic and beyond its human rights obligations,” said John Dalhuisen.
The international human rights framework of law emerged during the period in which these children lived and died. If the home closed in 1961, it is possible that some of the deaths occurred at a time when the European Convention on Human Rights was in force. Even before then, Ireland was aware of the internationally agreed norms expected of it in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As Emer O’Toole’s editorial in the Guardian and the comments on it show, there’s a lot of anger and disbelief at these revelations, as well as a desire to know the truth:
Do not say Catholic prayers over these dead children. Don’t insult those who were in life despised and abused by you. Instead, tell us where the rest of the bodies are. There were homes throughout Ireland, outrageous child mortality rates in each. Were the Tuam Bon Secours sisters an anomalous, rebellious sect? Or were church practices much the same the country over? If so, how many died in each of these homes? What are their names? Where are their graves? We don’t need more platitudinous damage control, but the truth about our history.