The Irish State knew at least four years ago of a historic child-trafficking scheme. In August, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald referred the matter to the Gardai. The woman who alerted her has heard nothing since, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

I wrote here recently about the Tuam Babies. At the heart of that story is a vast child-trafficking scheme whereby ‘illegitimate’ babies were taken from their mothers (girls and women who were enslaved) and – those children who survived – were sold for adoption.

In Tuam, 796 of those babies not healthy enough for the Bon Secours nuns to sell are believed to have been disposed of in a disused sewage system beneath what is now Tuam’s Dublin Road Estate. The Tuam Home had an infant mortality rate five times that of the rest of the country while the nuns were paid the equivalent of €110 per week to care for each child.

Two years ago, historian Catherine Corless accessed the death certificates of those 796 children and Alison O’Reilly broke the story nationally and internationally in The Irish Mail on Sunday.

A forensic archaeological excavation of the Tuam Home burial ground (or at least a small part thereof), ordered by the Government’s Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, is ongoing. It seems unlikely we will know its findings before the Commission reports in 2018.

A vital aspect of this story is the remembrance of the Dolan brothers, two healthy babies born in Tuam and who, seemingly, died in infancy. More than half a century later, the younger sister they never knew has made it her life’s work to find them.

John Desmond Dolan was born, a healthy baby, to his mother Bridget on Tuesday, 22nd of February, 1946 in the Tuam Home. He died, one year and three months old, on Wednesday, 11th of June, 1947.

He was described in the April 1947 inspection report as ‘a miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions, probably mentally defective’. His death certificate, two months later, calls him ‘a congenital idiot’.

John’s younger brother, William Joseph, was born healthy on Sunday, 21st of May, 1950. William is registered as having died in the Tuam Home on Saturday, 3rd of February, 1951 but, crucially, no cause of death is given and he is not recorded on the national death register.

The record of William’s date of birth was altered (to Saturday, 20th of April, 1950). As the film ‘Philomena‘ showed, this was commonly done with babies trafficked abroad for adoption.

John is probably dead (although his sister can’t even be certain of that). John died – officially, at least – of measles. Three months earlier, John was described as ‘emaciated, with a voracious appetite’. I think the Bon Secours nuns allowed John to starve to death.

The boys’ sister believes in her heart that William is alive in the US or Canada. She has reported her brother to the Gardaí as a missing person. He is, she says, Ireland’s oldest – and youngest – missing person.

The Dolan brothers are just two of the 796 lost children missing and presumed long dead. We would never have heard of John and William if not for the younger sister they never knew, the younger sister who for most of her own life, never knew about them. We might never have heard of any of the Tuam Babies at all if not for her, if not for Catherine Corless and if not for Alison O’Reilly.

I was in Dublin last weekend and Alison O’Reilly introduced me to the woman who wishes to be known as ‘the Dolan brothers’ sister’.

Sitting in her warm, suburban kitchen, the Dolan brothers’ sister produces from a big box-file, literally thousands of carefully-sorted documents and letters. They are arranged into individual files and each one bears the name of a correspondent. They are a who’s who of recent Irish life.

Enda Kenny. Alan Shatter. James Reilly. Nóirín O’Sullivan. Máire Whelan. Frances Fitzgerald. Katherine Zappone.

Each trail of letters follows a familiar pattern as she is sent from Billy to Jack and back again and Official Ireland does everything in its power to frustrate her and deter her from finding the truth about her brothers. Most of the correspondents take cover behind the Commission of Investigation.

Over cups of tea of a Sunday evening, it becomes quite clear that she has no intention of ever giving up. Her doggedness – and what she calls her ‘OCD about paper’ – has helped expose more than one lie about the Tuam story.

For instance, in 2014, when the French film-maker Saskia Weber asked the Bon Secours Sisters about the Tuam story, she received a reply from the nuns’ PR consultant, Terry Prone:

“When the ‘O My God – mass grave in West of Ireland’ broke in an English-owned paper (the Mail), it surprised the hell out of everybody, not least the Sisters of Bon Secours in Ireland, none of whom had ever worked in Tuam and most of whom had never heard of it. If you come here, you’ll find no mass grave, no evidence that children were ever so buried…”

Which is really interesting, given that in 2013, Sister Marie Ryan, Country Leader of the Sisters of Bon Secours Ireland, told John and William’s sister: “As I understand it there would… be a strong possibility that (John’s) remains are buried at the small cemetery at the Home itself. This is located at the back of the Home and was operated as a general grave.”

The Dolan brothers’ sister also exposed a deception intrinsic to this entire story: the Irish State knew – at least two years before Alison O’Reilly’s exclusive broke – that Tuam was a powderkeg. As reported by Conall Ó Fátharta in The Irish Examiner, a secret 2012 HSE internal memo warns that up to 1,000 children may have been trafficked from Tuam to the United States.

And yet when the Tuam story broke, not a hint was given that we already knew. Nothing ever changes in Ireland.

The Dolan brothers’ sister contacted the author of this memo and he confirmed its veracity. This August, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald wrote to the Dolan brothers’ sister saying the matter has been referred to the Gardaí.

“I haven’t heard anything since,” she tells me three months later. “Which Gardaí? Nóirín O’Sullivan? The Assistant Commissioner? The Super in Tuam?”

(I asked the Department of Justice this week: “Would the Minister comment on whether she has referred to the Gardaí the matter of the HSE internal memo, which clearly shows the State – and the Government – knew about Tuam at least two years before the story broke?” At the time of going to press on Tuesday lunchtime, I had not received an answer.)

In Tuam on the day the excavation began, I chatted with RTÉ’s Philip Boucher-Hayes. After Alison O’Reilly, nobody has done more in the media on this story than Boucher-Hayes.

As we discussed worries that little bones may have decayed beyond recovery, Boucher-Hayes said something I thought wise.

“I suppose,” he said, “in a sense the story isn’t even really here anymore. I suppose the story is really in England, or in Canada or the US or wherever the surviving kids were sent for adoption.”

Forensic archaeologists are combing through the soil in Tuam. Perhaps justice might be better served if forensic accountants were combing through the accounts of the Bon Secours Sisters. They sold healthy babies and let the rest to die.

Perhaps Saint Timothy was right. Perhaps money really is at the root of all evil.

Perhaps Bob Dylan was right. “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.”

In Dublin, it’s dark outside and the Dolan brothers’ sister offers me another cup of tea before I head home to Cork. She tells me she has no faith in the Government’s Commission of Investigation, fearing ‘another whitewash’. I ask if she ever feels weary in her fight to find her brothers.

“I’m sixty now,” she smiles, turning over in her hands the file marked ‘Frances Fitzgerald’. “I’m surely good for another twenty years or so.”

A candle-lit vigil will take place at the Tuam Babies burial ground at 7pm on Wednesday, the 2nd of November. There will follow a procession to Tuam Town Hall, which will be followed by the launch of the ‘Tuam Spirit Babies’ exhibition and the premiere of the documentary, ‘Children of Shame’.