When the case of the 796 Tuam babies became global news in Summer 2014, locals there found the then little-known burial ground of the former Mother and Baby home in the glare of the public eye. Adrienne Corless writes about the need to face difficult truths.
A Commission of Investigation, headed by Judge Yvonne Murphy, aims to acknowledge and reveal what was once covered up in the entire country’s network of Mother and Baby Homes.
And slowly but surely, people affected by these institutions find strength and courage to speak up. All the while, Catherine Corless, my mother, continues to provide support and information (free of charge) to anyone who seeks it, whether because they were through the system itself or whether they have family who were.
This openness to face difficult truths is not evident amongst Church representatives. The clergy my mother meets still attempt to downplay or even dismiss the facts of what happened. It seems there is fear by them to openly criticise the role their own institution had to play.
Fears like this seem to play out throughout the town too. It’s as though some people still don’t like to openly criticise the church, or to face up to the dim realities of what was happening on their own doorstep.
A hostile letter to a recent edition of the Tuam Herald, by a local residents association, seeks to revise the harrowing legacy of the Home:
“Residents still residing in this town … were guests there every Sunday and enjoyed music and dance and saw the mothers taking part in the enjoyment.”
The same letter states to nobody in particular:
“You are not welcome here.”
Writing to the paper in response, Annette McKay reminds Tuam residents:
“These are not your angels, the children have family who wish them to be identified, removed from the site … and given burial in accordance with their families’ wishes.”
On the 9th of October, a non-invasive geophysical survey was carried out by archaeologists in order to detect anomalies in the ground: the first steps, perhaps, to forensic excavation at this site.
Reacting to proposals for excavation, a Tuam Herald article claims ludicrously:
“For an accurate dig now, all the houses in the estate would have to be demolished.”
This kind of misinformation is absurd.
The exact extent of the burial ground is indicated in 1975 aerial photography and contemporary Galway County Council documents. This shows the site as an oblong area, extending beyond the existing plot, but it does not extend under houses: indeed this section was clearly left undeveloped. It is apparent that Galway County Council designed the housing estate around the burial ground, but did not formally mark the site. This has since caused confusion as to its true extent.
It was thanks to locals that the site came to be known, and thus preserved, at all. It was locals fell through the unstable ground and discovered buried remains, in the late 1970s. Mary Moriarty saw little swaddled bundles laid in rows: “parcel-eens” she called them. Her neighbour, Julia Devaney, was not surprised.
Julia had been raised in the Home, and had been kept on there in adulthood as an unpaid servant. “Many a one I put in there,” she told Mary, remembering her trek – underground – to this spot.
Gardai and Church representatives came to visit the site, which was quietly covered over. Local children told not to play here again.
Nobody in either officialdom or the church championed the site since then the way that residents have: it has been they who have tended it, with a well-kept lawn and shrubs, and a little plaque on the wall, anonymously dedicated thus far.
But it is not enough for any of us to simply memorialise the site now. The story of the Tuam Babies burial ground is also the story of the people so profoundly affected by it today. Since Summer 2014, my mother has met a constant train of people who, slowly but surely, find courage to tell their experience.
There is raw emotion, and there is liberation from secrecy and shame.
Some of the people she speaks to have found courage for the first time to tell their own grown children that they had been born in a Mother and Baby Home.
Some found inspiration to trace family.
Some found strength to speak what they were taught all their lives not to speak – that they had a family member secretly cloistered at the Home, and they wanted to know what happened to him or her.
There is pain when they hear the child is listed as dead.
There is hope when they hear he or she is not named among the dead, and the question arises about where they are now.
There have been moving reunions.
Alarming evidence revealed this Summer in the Irish Examiner shows that death certificates were falsified to broker clandestine adoptions. Now, quite apart from establishing definitively the limits of the burial ground, families of those listed as dead need forensic investigation in order to find out for sure whether their relative is buried among them.
In their care for the burial ground itself, Tuam residents also have a symbolic role in championing the question of what happened to the children whose remains lie there, and the rights of the people who live its legacy now.