Posted on Nov 01, 2017
Tuam is, by any standards, a very small and quiet town, situated about 20 miles to north of Galway in the west of Ireland. Home to just under 9,000 people it boasts two cathedrals, and has strong sporting tradition, and is home to two Gaelic Football teams, two soccer teams, and a Rugby Club, as well as a golf course (legendary Irish golfer Christy O’Conner was once the club professional).
It is an old town, dating back to the 6th century. The name Tuam (pronounced ‘Chewm’) is also very old. The word means ‘burial mound’, and how ironic that is, because Tuam has for many decades held a secret, one which only now is coming out.
The story begins in 1846 when a workhouse in Tuam opened its doors to receive the poor and destitute. Few records remain of this time, and very soon after opening it was used to take in the victims of the famine that between 1845-52 was to claim one million lives, and drive one million more to flee Ireland. The country lost as much as a quarter of its total population during this time.
Later the building became a military barracks for the British Army, and was the scene of an execution of six Irish Republicans.
After Irish Independence for Great Britain in 1921 the new government designated it as an institution for the redemption of disgraced women; those who were about to give birth outside of wedlock.
In the deeply-Catholic Ireland of the day such a situation was considered unacceptable, and so many young women, or girls, who found themselves in this condition would leave the country, or, very often, would pretend that the child was born to their mother, or to a married sister. Many would take their own lives.
Possibly the least fortunate of all would find themselves at the door of the dreaded St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, as the former workhouse became known, under the care of the nuns of the Congregation of Sisters of Bon Secours.
The Home provided ‘redemption’ for up to 50 wayward mothers, and 125 infants.
Conditions were hard. Very hard.
Up every morning to attend Mass, meagre rations, hard work, and a regime that promised punishment for any transgression.
After a year or so the mothers would leave The Home, usually without their child, and with the threat of committal to a mental institution if they should fall pregnant outside marriage a second time.
The children who were left behind were condemned to miserable lives. Permitted to attend the local schools, they were sat at the back of the class, segregated, and little or no attempt was made to educate them. Subject to abuse from other children, neglected, separated from what family they had and at the mercy of the nuns, it is impossible to imagine their suffering.
During the final years of its existence, following a decision not to renovate the dilapidated building, it fell into ruin around the remaining children. The Home closed its doors in 1961.
The land was turned over to social housing, and life went on in Tuam - until one day in 1975 two 12-year old boys playing nearby the site lifted a concrete slab and discovered a “chamber” filled with human skeletons.
The find was explained away by the authorities as being the remains of famine victims - who were often buried in shallow graves where they fell - or those of stillborn babies from the home. A priest was called in to say prayers, the chamber was resealed, and for the next 35 years the find was allowed to fade from local memory.
Until, that is, a remarkable woman named Catherine Corless, a local amateur historian, began to delve deeper in to the mystery of the bones.
She spent many hours studying historic maps in the special collections department of the library at the national university in Galway City. One day she copied a modern map of Tuam on tracing paper and placed it over a town map from 1890.
And there it was, in the cartographic details from another time: A tank for The Home’s old septic system sat precisely where the two young boys had made their ghastly discovery.
It was part of the Victorian-era system’s warren of tunnels and chambers, all of which had been disconnected in the late 1930s.
Did this mean, then, that Home Babies were buried in an old sewage tank?
She then began to pore over the records of births and deaths for the town: she was to discover that only two children from The Home were buried in the town cemetery - both had been orphans, and could therefore therefore be considered “legitimate”.
But what of the other children who had died at The Home?
Neither the Nuns, whose order still exists today, or the local council could offer any explanation for the absence of burial records. It was speculated that relatives may have claimed the bodies and taken them elsewhere for burial.
In 2012 Catherine Corless published an essay on the matter in the town’s historical journal. Expecting controversy, even hostility, from the church and local authorities, she found that the essay was ignored. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to talk about it.
“Is it possible that a large number of those little children were buried in that little plot at the rear of the former Home?” she asked. “And if so, why is it not acknowledged as a proper cemetery?”
She kept searching, eventually obtaining a spreadsheet that reveals the names, ages, and death dates of all the “illegitimate” children who had died in the home between 1925-61.
All 796 of them.
Further research in an attempt to cross reference the names with burials in other parts of the country yield not one single match.
In 2014 Catherine’s research was to cause a storm in Ireland.
The Catholic Church had already been shaken by public reaction to its failure to properly address allegations of child abuse. Now it appeared evident that the church had acted in collusion with the state to rid society of the “spawn of sinners”.
In early March of this year, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission reported that “significant quantities of human remains” had been discovered on the grounds of the Tuam home.
Ground-penetrating radar and delicate excavation had revealed what appeared to be a decommissioned septic tank. And in 17 of that septic system’s 20 chambers, investigators found many human bones. A small sampling revealed that they were of children, ranging in age from 35 fetal weeks to three years, and all dating from the home’s 36 years of operation.
Expressing shock, the commission vowed to continue its investigation into “who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way.”
The only reaction from the Order of Bon Secours is an offer to co-operate with the commission, and Ireland's Catholic League has dismissed the revelations as "fake news".
Among the hundreds of children who stare up at us from their septic tank is James Muldoon, who died in 1927 at the age of four months. At least he would never be forced to thank the Lord for mercies large or small. That cry to high heaven must come from Brendan Muldoon, who died in 1943 at a mere five weeks. A teenage nun bows before an unleavened host held up by a priest like a moon held up by an ash tree. In 1947 the eleven month old Bridget Muldoon, a namesake of the mother who would shortly give birth to me, has already distinguished herself as being a bit of a bother while Dermott Muldoon, three months old in 1950, is about to join the ranks of my foster-sisters and foster-brothers in that unthinkable world where a wasp may recognise another wasp’s face and an elephant grieve for an elephant down at the watering place.
Catherine Corless grew up in Tuam and has memories of the children of The Home.
These memories, and an obvious sense of, and desire for, social justice have driven her search for the truth.
It was her research that prompted the launch of a statutory commission of investigation into the burial of infants at the site and brought news of the mass grave at the home to national and international attention.
Now she is to receive recognition for her work with a one-off award for investigative research at the NewsBrands Irish Journalism Awards.
“This special award is in recognition of Catherine’s vital part in unearthing both the tragedy and the extent of what had happened in the Tuam mother and baby home. Without her work, the press would not have been able to tell the story and it would have remained hidden with the hundreds of innocent souls away from public sight,” said NewsBrands Ireland Chairman Vincent Crowley.
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