What is the real story behind Ireland's mass grave?

Michael Cook
6 June 2014
Reproduced with Permission

The Catholic Church in Ireland and its ferocious nuns are being pilloried over yet another tranche of decades-old crimes. "Galway Historian Finds 800 Babies in Septic Tank Grave" is the headline in the Boston Globe . As the story snowballs don't be surprised if you read about "the killing fields of Ireland".

The remains were found on the site of a home for unmarried mothers and their children run by the Bon Secours Sisters between 1925 and 1961 in Tuam, County Galway. Sketchy accounts which are appearing in the media evoke images of murdered children and secret burials. Guardian columnist Emer O'Toole wrote in an incandescent fury: "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." A Government Senator from Galway, Fine Gael's Hildegarde Naughton , has called what happened "manslaughter".

But the fires of indignation burn hottest and highest when they are uncontaminated by facts. Before politicians and columnists launch into their well-rehearsed litanies denouncing sadistic nuns and misogynist clerics, it might be wise to scout whether there are enough facts to justify the scaremongering.

1. Most of the horrifying facts reported in the media have come from a single investigator and a sketchy summary of her research in a Facebook post . Local historian Catherine Corless heard about the unmarked grave from locals and pieced together the history of the Mother and Baby Home. Her work is diligent, but provides no historical context. Few Facebook posts do that.

2. The headlines suggest that nuns threw corpses into a sewer. This is not what Corless has claimed. The remains were found in a septic tank built when the buildings were being used as a workhouse for the destitute. When the home was bulldozed in 1972 to make way for a housing estate, the tank remained in a small park. "I thought why would there be a crypt in the middle of nowhere. I went looking at old maps and found there was a septic tank marked on a 1891 map belonging to the home," Corless told the Connacht Tribune . "The tank became defunct in 1938 when a new drainage scheme came into Tuam. It appears they [the nuns] made a crypt out of the old septic tank. I'd hope they'd have at least cleaned it out. It's not nice to think about it."

No, it's not. But perhaps they did clean it out; perhaps they were too naïve to realise that it had been a septic tank. Perhaps the government instructed them to inter the bodies there. More information is needed.

3. The headlines evoke the drama of forensic scientists excavating grave pits after the Bosnian War. But the number 796 came not from an examination of the remains but from Corless's research at the Civil Registrations Office. Each death at the home had been carefully recorded, with an age (they ranged from 2 days to 9 years), date of death and cause of death. The killers in Bosnia were not interested in registering the deaths of their victims. So it is possible that some of these children are buried elsewhere. It is also possible that some of the bones belong to inmates of the old workhouse.

4. The gravesite was unmarked and was rediscovered in 1975 by two boys playing in the area. Without investigating further the locals made a small shrine which was blessed by a priest. Anonymous mass burial sounds appallingly callous. Corless has called for a marker memorialising each and every child. It's a good idea.

But this is not the only mass infant grave in Ireland. There are thousands of them -- almost 500 in Galway alone. The ancient custom was to bury unbaptised children, strangers, suicides and criminals in mass graves. Here is a map of all of the "children's burial grounds" in Galway, taken from a National Monuments Service interactive map . Emer O'Toole should take a look. She has her work cut out for her.

5. In 2014, recycling a septic tank as a crypt sounds atavistic, but similar barbarities happen today. Last month Madrid's Compultense University found hundreds of cadavers piled higglety-pigglelty, together with body parts which had been used for anatomy class demonstration, in its basement. It may have taken the Home 36 years to fill a mass grave with 796 bodies, but in only two years, between 2011 and 2013, , incinerated the bodies of 797 babies below 13 weeks gestation as part of its "waste to energy" heating system. Emer O'Toole should have expended some of her incandescent fury on that degrading practice.

6. According to Corless the children at the home had a mortality rate four or five times higher than the national average. A 1944 report described the children as "emaciated," "pot-bellied," "fragile" with "flesh hanging loosely on limbs." Some children were "poor, emaciated and not thriving." She spoke with people who had spent time there as children who remembered bad food and harsh treatment.

But in 1935 a spokesman for the Mayo Board of Health said that "Tuam is one of the best managed institutions I have seen in the country". Corless also quotes a travel writer who wrote in the 1950s: "The grounds were well kept and had many flower beds. The Home is run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours of Paris and the Reverend Mother showed me around… The whole building was fresh and clean." Perhaps these visitors were just "useful fools" duped by cunning nuns. But clearly the conflicting accounts of conditions in the home need to be sifted before passing judgement.

7. The Home was funded by the Irish government and presumably supervised by the Irish government. If there was ill-treatment, a high child mortality rate, poor medical care, starvation rations, stigmatization of unwed mothers and harsh and high-handed abuse, the government must shoulder its share of the responsibility.

8. Before rushing to judgement on Tuam's Mother and Baby Home, visit the website of the Hart Island Project . Hart Island is a small island offshore from the Bronx in Long Island Sound. For more than 150 years immigrants, unidentified corpses, people whose relatives were unable to pay for a funeral, and stillborn babies have been interred in unmarked graves. There are nearly a million of them and they keep coming at a rate of 1500 a year, including about 600 infants and stillborn babies (their mothers are often unaware of what it means to give their child a "City funeral").

An unmarked mass grave with 796 bodies of small children is a disturbing incident which must be investigated. By all means break open the crypt. Count the bones. Bury them. Form a committee. Convoke an investigation. Build a memorial. Weep. Those innocent and forgotten children deserve it.

But don't frame it as the Catholic Church's Srebrenica. Frame it first as a story about mid-century poverty when the Irish government failed its unmarried mothers by entrusting them to pious incompetents. That may be closer to the truth.