A presentation by a Tuam Babies denier – hosted by a contributor to the sensationalist Catholic paper ‘Alive!’ – didn’t go to plan, when historian Catherine Corless and others challenged his conspiracy theories. Donal O’Keeffe was one of those people.
If you were eejit enough to believe the guff spouted in the Corralea Court Hotel in Tuam last weekend, the entire Tuam Babies scandal was actually a hoax perpetrated by Galway County Council in the 1970s or 1980s, when the council supposedly built in the middle of a busy housing estate, a concrete structure into which it then placed bones.
The Tuam story only became international news in 2014, apparently, because of an anti-Catholic RTÉ conspiracy to remove the Eighth Amendment, bring in abortion, replace us all with Muslims, and force men to marry men, to the extent that men don’t know anymore if they’re men or women.
Oh, and the poor old nuns were only lovely, and sure they hadn’t a washer between them, God love us, and it was actually the unmarried mothers who were cruel to the babies, and the infant mortality rate in the Tuam Home was five times that of the rest of the country because babies were born there.
All of these things were said last Saturday evening, upstairs in the Corralea Court Hotel in Tuam.
I had picked up a copy of ‘Alive!’ – a Catholic freesheet named, presumably, after the status barely enjoyed by much of its readership – at the back of SS Peter and Paul’s Church in Cork, last Friday, nipping in and out before the holy water could boil in the font.
I read a news report by Brian Ó Caithnia of a talk in Tuam by Brian Nugent, author of a pamphlet entitled “@tuambabies: A critical look at the Tuam Children’s Home Scandal” and decided to take a spin to Tuam, and I promised myself I would sit quietly and observe.
Brian Ó Caithnia of ‘Alive!’ was the alleged moderator to a crowd of about 50 people, there to hear self-styled historian Brian Nugent, drone on at length. “Sorry if I’m going through this too quickly,” he said at one point, without irony.
Later, it became obvious that less than half of the people in the room agreed with Nugent’s theories, but those who did were noisy and aggressive.
We heard enough spurious claims and logical fallacies to stun a colony of Vulcans. For instance, Brian Nugent’s explanation for the Tuam Home having an infant mortality rate five times that of the rest of the populace was that more people die in the Mater Hospital than in the Shelbourne Hotel.
Mr Nugent’s contention seemed to be that so many babies died in the Tuam Home because so many babies were born there. No, really.
I shouldn’t have to, but to explain infant mortality statistics to the wilfully stupid: infant mortality is calculated on the number of deaths of children under the age of one year per 1,000 live births.
Simply put, more babies died in the Tuam Home not because more babies were born there, but because a baby born in the Tuam Home was five times more likely to die than a baby born in the general population. I cannot say whether Mr Nugent was, in this instance, being deliberately disingenuous or simply doesn’t understand how infant mortality rates are measured. Either way, it hardly inspires confidence in his expert standing.
Proving once again that there is nothing the “pro-life” won’t say about people who have Down Syndrome, he also claimed the Tuam Home’s high mortality levels were explained because “They were attracting in people with Down Syndrome”.
He made a convoluted effort to say that although many of the children who died in Tuam were certified as having died of marasmus (malnutrition) it didn’t mean they actually died of malnutrition: “Generally speaking (the nuns) fed them well.”
Then he moved on to the disused Victorian sewerage treatment system in which the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation found: “significant quantities of human remains have been discovered in at least 17 of the 20 underground chambers which were examined. These remains involved a number of individuals with age-at-death ranges from approximately 35 foetal weeks to two to three years.”
Of the sewerage system, Nugent said “Along comes our controversy. Along comes Catherine Corless. I don’t know if she’s here tonight, heh heh.”
Maybe he didn’t know, but he was looking directly at Catherine as he said that. He then launched into a description of one section of the sewerage system excavated by the Commission and said “It looks to me like mass concrete dating to the 1970s or 1980’s.” He then posited the idea that Galway County Council must have built this structure and filled it with bones. “But that’s just my opinion.”
I couldn’t take any more of this hogwash, and I found myself asking loudly: “Excuse me, where are you getting this from? The Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation has already confirmed the purpose of the structure.”
I was immediately shouted down by some in the crowd, and told to have some manners. I said that if Galway County Council had carried out this building in the 1970s or 1980s, surely someone would have seen them. “They did”, said one woman, and another agreed with her. I asked who, and I was told by the man from ‘Alive!’ that Nugent would answer questions at the end of his talk.
Later, Catherine Corless stood up and looked around the room, asking quietly and authoritatively of all of the people cheering on Nugent if they had seen Galway County Council build his preposterous fake tomb (or “ossuary” as he insisted on calling it).
“You must have seen it,” she said. “You couldn’t miss it, buckets, plaster.”
Unsurprisingly, not one of them could look her in the eye.
Catherine told Nugent she objected to his ‘twisting’ her research, and repeatedly asked if he had taken his conspiracy theory to the Commission of Investigation. Eventually Nugent conceded that he hadn’t.
Alison O’Reilly, the journalist who had worked with Anna Corrigan, whose brothers John and William Dolan are missing from the Tuam Home, and with Catherine Corless, to break the Tuam Babies story, questioned Nugent on what she and Catherine Corless called Nugent’s selective misquotation of Tuam Home resident Julia Devaney.
There was uproar when Alison described Julia Devaney as ‘institutionalised’, but it seems hard to imagine another word to describe a woman who spent much of her life in an institution and who – upon release from a lifetime of unpaid drudgery – had little understanding of the world in which she found herself, being unable to carry out simple daily activities like shopping.
Later, Catherine Corless located on the transcript of Julia Devaney’s interview, Julia saying: “Sure I was totally institutionalised”.
Alison O’Reilly noted that the Bon Secours Order – far from being penniless – in 2016 recorded pre-tax profits of €5.4 million on an income of €243 million, and re-interred all its Tuam nuns in Knock, leaving the Tuam Babies in an abandoned sewerage system.
By far the most passionate contribution of the night came from Sheila O’Byrne. Sheila is a survivor of – as she says – “the notorious St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on the Navan Road” in Dublin. Sheila’s baby was stolen from her in 1976.
I found out later that Sheila and Alison had called to the playground in the Dublin Road estate earlier that evening, because Sheila wanted to tell the 796 Tuam Babies that they are loved, and they will be defended.
“I am a living witness to those homes,” Sheila said. “I am one of the mothers. You pray at the altar, you praise God, and then you deny what happened to those babies. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Kids were raped in those homes. Kids were starved.”
At the front of the room, Brian Nugent smirked and laughed through Sheila’s words. I lost my temper, and roared at him to show some respect. The man from ‘Alive!’ asked me to calm down, and I think I told him rudely where he could put his misplaced exclamation point. Behind me, a man squared up to a silver-haired man who was defending Sheila.
An older man shouted at us that we were the reason “abortions and divorces and gay marriages are ruining the Catholic Church”.
A particularly crass suggestion was made that mothers in the Tuam Home were often violent, and were allowed to keep their babies after one year, but chose not to. This slur on all the mothers whose babies were stolen was welcomed warmly by some in the audience.
Sheila O’Byrne protested that her friend Rose had had her babies taken from her and was never given an opportunity to keep them. From the Tuam God-Squad came shushes and shouts.
(Later, on Twitter, Caelainn Hogan, author of the superb ‘Republic of Shame’, agreed with Sheila: “I spoke with a mother sent to Tuam twice. Rose was barely allowed hold her babies, let alone keep them. Her family were made to pay. The nuns sent her to the Magdalene Laundry. The cause, they wrote: ‘Penitent – twice’. She escaped. Others remained till they died.”)
From the back of the room, Adrienne Corless, archaeologist and daughter to Catherine, picked apart Nugent’s more esoteric arguments that the Tuam Babies may have been placed in his nonsense fake ‘ossuary’ by Galway County Council.
I pointed out that in 1938, at a time the infant mortality rate was running at five times that of the rest of the population, the Bon Secours nuns were getting from the State a headage payment of £1.62 per week per child in the Tuam Home.
£1.62 per week per child works out in today’s money as approximately €110 per week per child. Plus, of course, the slave labour the Bon Secours nuns were getting from the mothers of the Tuam Babies.
The Bon Secours nuns were awash with money, and yet somehow 796 children died in their care, and those poor children didn’t even merit a Christian burial. (“Those babies were buried respectfully!” one audience member claimed.)
Then, as now, there seems to have been very little Christianity on the furthest fringes of Irish Catholicism.
So, I suggested, let’s have no more special pleading for the poor auld nuns. I was – of course – shouted down.
I don’t know how he did it, but Peter Mulryan, a Tuam Home survivor and a man of towering grace and integrity, maintained a dignified silence throughout the evening, waiting until afterward to confront Nugent privately, quietly and politely calling Nugent an utter disgrace.
Peter told me afterward that he had said Nugent had no right to deny the truth of what happened at Tuam, and no right to smile – “And you’re still smiling” – in the face of survivors’ testimony.
Peter was born in the Tuam Home in 1944, and when he was a little boy he was sent to work on a farm. Peter was beaten brutally every day for imaginary sins; a tiny, malnourished boy, not toilet-trained, and forced to live in filth.
“It was so bad that if I took my pants off, it would stand up beside me, because it wasn’t cleaned,” he told TG4’s ‘Finné’ last year.
Peter recalled nights after he had been beaten, looking to the stars, and wondering where he came from. He was always drawn to the west, and he would discover years later that was where his mother was.
It is absolutely sickening that the lived experiences of Tuam Babies like Peter and his sister, ten years younger, Miriam Bridget, a healthy baby who died at nine months, and Tuam mothers like Rose, are questioned and denied by those seeking to defend the Catholic Church.
It is, in a horrible way, instructive to see just how easily good people can give themselves over to propaganda, to cruelty, and to a complete lack of empathy, all in the name of ‘respectability’ and an imagined picture of God.
Jesus Christ himself said it would be better for those who would hurt a child that they be cast to the deepest depths of the ocean with a millstone around their necks.
I wonder what Jesus might say to those who would deny the Tuam Babies and their mothers.