By Donal O’Keeffe
With over 800 babies missing in Bessborough, the journalist who broke the Tuam Babies story is appealing to Cork artists to join in a UCC art exhibition honouring all who suffered in Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, and industrial schools.
“We need to honour those children; they were treated like they were nothing. They were not nothing,” journalist Alison O’Reilly told me this week. “They did nothing wrong, yet they were treated like they were nothing. They were not nothing.”
O’Reilly’s exhibition ‘Stay With Me‘ originally appeared in Dublin’s In-spire Galerie earlier this year. Its Cork iteration will run from 19 to 23 August in UCC’s Aula Maxima. “Stay With Me” consists of paintings, sculptures, poems, music, spoken-word pieces and art installations.
‘Stay With Me’ was originally intended to honour the Tuam Babies, but O’Reilly says she is hopeful Cork artists will now add works which will commemorate the missing Bessborough Babies and their families, the women who worked in Cork’s Magdalene Laundries, the children imprisoned in industrial schools, and all those affected by Ireland’s illegal system of forced adoption.
In 2014, Alison O’Reilly broke in the Irish Daily Mail on Sunday the Tuam Babies story. Her report caused worldwide shock that 796 children were suspected to have been buried in a disused sewerage system on the grounds of the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. O’Reilly’s story brought the work of Tuam historian Catherine Corless to national and international prominence.
O’Reilly’s interest in the Tuam story was inspired by Anna Corrigan, a woman whose tireless search for her missing older brothers, John Desmond Dolan and William Joseph Dolan, two baby boys born in the Tuam Home in 1947 and 1950, led to Alison O’Reilly meeting with Catherine Corless.
There are those in Ireland, and further afield who, to this day, refuse to believe that 796 dead babies could have been disposed of in a sewerage treatment plant could be true. Those people prefer instead to imagine a media conspiracy against the Catholic Church.
In 2017, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes reported that its excavation of the Tuam site had found ‘significant quantities of human remains’ in at least 17 chambers of a 20-chamber underground structure, the purpose of which ‘appears to be related to the treatment/containment of sewage and/or waste water’. Analysis of some of those human remains revealed them to have ‘age-at-death ranges from approximately 35 foetal weeks to 2-3 years’.
In April of this year, the Commission’s fifth interim report revealed that thousands of children died in Irish mother and baby homes, and very few of them received proper burials. In Bessborough alone, over 800 children are missing. More than 900 babies died there, and the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was only able to find graves for 64 of them.
‘Stay With Me’ runs from Monday19 to Friday 23 August in UCC’s Aula Maxima, and is hosted by the UCC School of Languages Research Cluster on Gender and Violence.
Doctor Rachel MagShamhráin of UCC’s School of Languages Literatures and Cultures says she believes it is important that UCC hosts this exhibition.
“The university is there to create a better future. We cannot do right by the future unless we have done right by the past.
“This is why keeping the torch of Tuam lit is so important. The work done by Catherine Corless, Anna Corrigan and Alison O’Reilly needs to be kept in the public eye until right is done.”
Alison O’Reilly says it was the work of Alison Lowry, an artist who created glass sculptures depicting the Tuam home pinafores, and Belgian artist Martine Sterck’s ‘Chalice of the Defenceless Children’, a sculpture gifted to Catherine Corless, which first made her think about a display of artwork inspired by the Tuam Babies.
“I was then invited to a vigil last year, where Barbara O’Meara and Karen Ward carried out a healing ceremony on the grave in Tuam with the Stitched With Love group who, with the help of 300 men and women all over the world, had knitted 800 squares of a baby blanket.
“I knew then that these artworks should be exhibited under one roof. I contacted a number of galleries for help, but Dino Notaro from the In-Spire Gallerie on Gardiner Street was the only person who responded to me.
“As we put the word out, we realised a lot of other people had made installations, jewellery and paintings about Tuam. The project grew and grew. We have been so lucky to have artists from all over the world take part in this very important exhibition for the children who died in Tuam.”
O’Reilly feels it important that this exhibition honour too the children of Bessborough.
“The Commission of Inquiry has now revealed that there are more than 800 children missing from Bessborough alone. Those children in Cork who are missing and who did not receive a dignified burial deserve to be honoured. They are the children we know about – I’ve no doubt there are children unlisted too.
“These were children in the care of the state and religious orders, and there seems to be no accountability at all for what happened to them.
“We need to pay our respects and tributes to all those who died in the care of the State.”
O’Reilly says she hopes people will come to see ‘Stay With Me’ in UCC.
“You don’t need to share your story with us for this show, just come and see the work. It is a very powerful show.
“Art is about healing, and we hope that artists in Cork will loan us their work for what will be a truly beautiful and peaceful exhibition.”
Cork artists interested in contributing to ‘Stay With Me’ in UCC are invited to contact Alison O’Reilly at email@example.com.
‘Stay With Me’ runs from Monday 19 to Friday 23 August in UCC’s Aula Maxima.