Bridget Dolan was 26 years old when she entered the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. It was 1946, and Bridget was pregnant, alone, and terrified. She had no idea she would one day become a figure of considerable historical importance, and could not know this would be because of three remarkable women, one of them her own daughter.
Bridget Dolan’s fate was sealed from the moment she confessed to her family that she was 'in trouble'. The parish priest was sent for, and Bridget was read off the altar. The likeable young woman was driven – for the first time in her life – from the family home in Clonfert, Co Galway, the 74km to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Banished from respectable society, she would never return home.
Bridget’s son, John Desmond Dolan was born, a healthy baby, on Tuesday, 22 February, 1946. Bridget was discharged by the Bon Secours nuns a year later, on 28 February, 1947, but without her child.
John Desmond was described, in unspeakably cruel language, in the Tuam Home’s April 1947 inspection report as ‘a miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions, probably mentally defective’. He died, one year and three months old, on Wednesday, 11 June, 1947. John’s death certificate calls him ‘a congenital idiot’.
Bridget had secured a position as a domestic servant in Loughrea, Co Galway, but to her misfortune, in 1949 she again 'fell pregnant' and had no choice but return to the Tuam Home.
Bridget’s second baby, William Joseph, was born healthy on Sunday, 21 May, 1950. William is registered as having died in the Tuam Home on Saturday, 3 February, 1951. 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, 20 April, 1950). If you’ve seen the film 'Philomena', you will no doubt hear alarm bells ringing.
Bridget would in time, marry a kind man called Bill Corrigan, and they would have a daughter called Anna. Bridget never told Anna what had happened to her, and she passed away in 2001. It wasn’t until several years later that Anna’s thoughts turned to investigating her mother’s past, and in 2012 she was told by Barnardos Children’s Charity that she had two brothers. Getting in touch with the Gardaí, Anna was told there was local knowledge of an unmarked grave in Tuam.
In the sort of coincidence which can often make you suspect the presence of a guiding hand, at the same time in Tuam, local historian Catherine Corless was researching the Tuam Home and its mass grave.
Catherine Corless accessed, at her own expense, the death certificates of 796 children, ranging in age from infancy up to nine, who had died in the Tuam Home. No burial records existed, but local knowledge suggested the bodies are in a mass grave in what is now a green area at the centre of Tuam’s Dublin Road estate.
A member of the Gardaí put Anna in touch with Catherine.
Alison O’Reilly is the journalist who broke the Tuam Babies scandal in the Irish Mail on Sunday, on May 25, 2014. O’Reilly has written My Name Is Bridget, The Untold Story of Bridget Dolan and the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. It’s a fine book, and it interweaves deftly the story of Bridget’s life with that of her daughter, Anna Corrigan’s search for her brothers, while telling the history of the Tuam Home against the unforgiving backdrop of 20th Century Ireland, and recounting how the Tuam Babies story broke, and was disdained by many in Official Ireland.
There are, to this day, those who still deny the facts of Tuam, or claim those facts were in some way sensationalised.
It’s worth recalling those facts.
Thanks to the painstaking research of Catherine Corless, we have the death certificates of 796 babies who died in the Tuam home between 1925 and 1960, but we do not have records of their burials. In 2013, Sister Marie Ryan of the Bon Secours order told Anna Corrigan, searching for her brothers John and William Dolan: “As I understand it, there would… be a very good possibility that (John’s) remains were 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.”
Thanks to the dogged detective work of Izzy Kamikaze, we know that the original plans for the Tuam Home show the location of this 'general grave' to match that of a large, decommissioned underground Victorian sewage treatment system, a series of interlinked, vaulted chambers. Or, if you will, a septic tank or a series thereof.
In March 2017, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes confirmed the presence in those chambers of 'significant' amounts of human remains. The majority of those children were almost certainly baptised. The word 'dumped' is emotive, but these children were not buried according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Given that there was, and is, a consecrated, official graveyard adjacent to the Tuam home site, why were these children not given the burial that was their right as Catholics?
At a time when the Bon Secours nuns were paid £1.62 (approximately €110) per child per week, why was the infant mortality rate in the Tuam home almost five times that of the rest of the population? If all 796 babies are not in the mass grave, then where are they? Were some trafficked abroad, as many relatives believe?
While the work of forensic archaeologists has been, and will continue to be, invaluable in the investigation of the Tuam site, I would suggest that forensic accountants – perhaps in the employ of the Criminal Assets Bureau – should be tasked to trawl through the accounts of religious orders such as the Bon Secours Sisters. Were babies trafficked out of Ireland? Did money change hands? Were taxes paid on such transactions? Given that the nuns were well paid to care for the children, why did so many die? We know Irish women were falsely imprisoned and enslaved in Magdalene laundries. Those are serious crimes and some of those women are still alive. Why are the Garda Síochána not investigating the religious orders as a matter of national priority?
It sometimes feels strange to think about it, but history really does turn on the actions of ordinary – extraordinary – people. I have written here before about the Tuam Babies, and it is my honour to know the three ordinary and extraordinary women – Anna Corrigan, Catherine Corless and Alison O’Reilly – without whose determination and burning decency we would never have heard of the 796 babies who died or disappeared in Tuam.
On a personal note, I am honoured and touched to be mentioned by Alison O’Reilly in My Name Is Bridget.
The launch of My Name Is Bridget was a very emotional occasion, and those of us gathered in Temple Bar’s Gutter Bookshop last Tuesday night were moved several times to tears. Catherine Corless wasn’t there on the night, but she received glowing praise, which is only appropriate, given all she has done for the memory of Tuam’s lost babies.
Anna Corrigan gave a passionate speech, pleading for justice for survivors, and demanding a full excavation of the Tuam site and the DNA profiling of all the Tuam Babies. She railed against what she called Galway County Council’s 'x marks the spot' proposal to allow Tuam residents a say in how the Tuam Babies are remembered, comparing it to the way the site was dealt with back in the 1970s, when – as she put it – a Mass was said and everything was covered over again.
Seeing Tuam almost as a showcase for all of the horrors of Ireland’s living past, Ms Corrigan suggested we are at a watershed.
“If we get Tuam right,” she said, “everything else will follow.”
The irrepressible Christina Noble gave a tour-de-force performance, and her contribution was heart-breaking, inspiring, and often hilarious. The Irish people have been great to survivors, she told us, but the Irish Government has done nothing. “We need to get out and f*cking march,” she said.
Ms Noble spoke for the first time of her son Thomas, taken from her in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on Dublin’s Navan Road.
“I loved Thomas. He was gorgeous. I have never spoken publicly about Thomas because of the pain. The unbearable pain,” Ms Noble said. “I still never found Thomas. I was told that they had sent him to America and I don’t know if they have or they haven’t.
“I went up for his next feed and he was gone. I asked a nun there where Thomas was and she told me he has gone to a good Catholic home,” she said. “I lost my country that night.”
Christina Noble is a hard act to follow, or even to precede, but for me the emotional core of the evening was the author, Alison O’Reilly’s own quiet dignity as she dedicated My Name Is Bridget to the memory of the Tuam Babies and to all the children who died in the care of the State.
“Unfortunately,” Ms O’Reilly said, her voice breaking, “there are things that are happening in the child protection system today that are still not right, and I don’t believe the voice of the child is being heard.”
My Name Is Bridget: The Untold Story of Bridget Dolan and the Tuam Mother and Baby Home by Alison O’Reilly. Gill Books, €16.99.