In 1925, Galway County Council appealed to the Bon Secours sisters to open a nursing home for mothers and babies. Fifty years later two boys stumbled upon a mass grave.
Between 1925 and 1961 St.Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, Tuam, operated under the care of the congregation of Bon Secours. Reports now emerging about the ‘Home’ are what we have come to expect when dealing with institutions of the Catholic Church.
This institution provided space mainly for ‘illegitimate’ children and some mothers. Motherhood outside wedlock was regarded as shameful and the church preyed on the victims of this attitude, as we have discovered through the Magdalene Laundries revelations.
The children attending local schools the primary schools which were just up the street on Dublin Road in Tuam. One local man recalls:
‘I remember some of them in class in the Mercy Convent – they were treated marginally better than the traveller children. They were known locally as the ‘Home Babies’. For the most part the children were usually gone by school age – either adopted or dead.’
The women, or girls, sometimes found work with the nuns in the Grove Hospital.
Their children were fostered out – around the district or further. Some people believe their siblings or other relatives were fostered out and disappeared or died in the ‘Home’ without notice to the families.
An Irish Mail on Sunday front page article on 25th May 2014, recounted a local health board inspection report from April 16/17th 1944 which recorded 271 children and 61 single mothers for a total of 333. The ‘Home’ had capacity for 243.
The report continues listing children as ’emaciated’, ‘pot-bellied’, ‘fragile’ with ‘flesh hanging loosely on limbs’. 31 children recorded in the ‘Sun room and balcony’ were ‘poor, emaciated and not thriving’. The oldest child to die, according to the MoS, was Sheila Tuohy, aged 9 in 1934. The youngest was Thomas Duffy, aged two days.
The two boys playing on a concrete slab near their homes in 1970, Barry Sweeney and Francis Hopkins, decided to crack the slab to see why it sounded hollow. To their distress they saw it was ‘full to the brim of skeletons’. The priest was called, Barry Sweeney remembers but he doesn’t know what happened after the spot was blessed.
Now locals in the Childrens’ Home Graveyard Committee who are archiving the evidence wish to collect monies to erect a memorial to the dead. 796 dead, and that’s only the children that local historian, Catherine Corless, has accounted for.
Oral history from ex-residents, who remember being left filthy for weeks, as well as health board reports damn the Sisters. While reports of systematic abuse haven’t emerged, there are initial reports from the Mail of poor conditions and harsh punishment.
In later years the Bon Secours was funded by the VHI (formed in February, 1957), the ‘Home’ didn’t close until 1961 and while the sisters moved into caring for private patients the children were shipped off to Letterfrack where a fate worse than any other awaited many.
The children died at the rate of one a fortnight for almost 40 years. The figures are still confused. Another report seems to claim that 300 children died between 1943 and 1946, which would change the statistic to almost two deaths a week in a relatively small institution.
Mortality at that rate countered trends in Ireland of the 1940’s which saw infant mortality drop from the regions of 80 per 1,000 live births to almost 40 per 1,000.
Newspaper reports from the period are few but they give some insight. From the outset the ‘Home’ is subject to economic review. Clippings from the Connacht Tribune (see below) show that ‘inmates’, as the infants were called, had an upkeep of 10 shillings per week which was judged excessive especially when they were fed by nursing mothers.
In a second clipping it is noted that it is expected that half of children ‘in all countries’ die before reaching the age of 15 but it was not expected that half of the children in this ‘home’ would die. Different times indeed. We don’t believe these figures are correct however, (see graph below) as infant mortality rates never get above 100 per 1,000 live births and accessible life expectancy figures climb steadily to almost 69yrs of age during this period.
As extraordinary as it may seem now, the reality of the period and of these women and children’s situation meant that burial in family plots was not possible. Shame meant the children weren’t welcome in the mothers’ home community whether alive or dead.
Historical or cultural relativism would have us accept what happened in this institution without much question; some will dismiss reaction to the story – they were tough times and the nuns were doing their best on limited budgets. But at the end of every argument we return to a field beside a modern housing estate and a septic tank full of secrets.
Local media seems to have ignored the situation on it’s doorstep. Local councils and health boards accepted or ignored the high mortality rates and their own reports. The Church’s long shadow of infamy covers every body.
There needs to be a full investigation by the Gardaí. Let those responsible for dumping hundreds upon hundreds of dead children in a septic tank be called to account.[edit: Sat, 7th June 2014. As the story has unfolded in the last ten days there has yet to be a physical, forensic or archaeological investigation made at the site. We note that our presumption at the time of writing of hundreds of dead interred in the septic tank was based on the report from Barry Sweeney and Francis Hopkins – it is yet to be seen the number that may be found there – however, the story of what happened to these hundreds of children, thousands across the country and the mothers they left behind should not be forgotten as the real violence here.]
Below clippings from the Connacht Tribune of 1928 and 1961 with thanks to Aaron Schwartz. Last clipping via Justice for the Magdalenes