Like many, I bought into the notion that public opinion in Tuam is divided about the Tuam Babies. I was very wrong, says Donal O’Keeffe.
Little kids were digging in the dirt with plastic shovels and buckets outside the Ard Rí Hotel in Tuam Monday evening last week. Behind the children was a wall of toys, a makeshift shrine, 796 teddies donated by local residents. The centrepiece of the shrine was a sign which read ‘Bury our babies with dignity’.
The children were carefree and, as is the way of really small children, utterly focused on the serious business of playing. Their parents watched over them, chatting among themselves. It made for a heartbreaking juxtaposition. I couldn’t help but think that these little kids have love, kindness and security. They live in an Ireland which – for all its many faults – is a modern utopia compared to the Ireland of the last century.
Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone was in Tuam for a meeting to gauge public opinion on what to do with the human remains discovered on the site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. I was nervous going into the hotel, not because the Minister’s department had decreed that media would be excluded. I was fully prepared to make a scene if challenged – although the three uniformed Gardaí drinking coffee in the foyer gave me pause for thought – but that wasn’t what worried me.
I’ve been writing about the Tuam Babies since Alison O’Reilly first broke the story in the Irish Mail on Sunday in 2014. Not a month ago, I wrote an opinion column here in which I said “I wasn’t surprised that so many who live on top of Tuam’s mass grave want it covered up and quietly forgotten.”
About two hundred people were in the Ard Rí when Minister Zappone began a meandering, Proust-quoting address about balancing the rights of the Tuam Home survivors and families with the rights of residents who oppose anything more than a plaque on the site. In essence, Zappone’s speech boiled down to “on the one hand, on the other hand”. I think she may even have gestured with both hands.
From the floor, Anna Corrigan asked why this matter is being dealt with by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and not the Department of Justice. She pointed out that the site of the Tuam Home is a crime scene in two open missing person cases, namely those of her brothers John Desmond Dolan and William Joseph Dolan. If Minister Zappone gave her a coherent answer, I didn’t catch it.
It is thanks to Anna Corrigan that the world knows of the Tuam Babies. She spent years searching for her brothers, both of whom were born in the Tuam Home. Anna Corrigan’s mother, Bridget Dolan, then unmarried, gave birth to John Desmond, a healthy baby, in the Tuam Home on February 22, 1946. John died on June 11, 1947, one year and three months old. 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”, and on his death certificate as “a congenital idiot.”
John’s younger brother, William Joseph, was born healthy on May 21, 1950. The record of William Joseph’s date of birth was altered to April 20, 1950. He is registered as having died in the Tuam Home on February 3, 1951, but no cause of death is given and he is not recorded on the national death register. If you’ve seen the film Philomena, alarm bells are probably ringing for you.
A Garda put Anna Corrigan in touch with Tuam-based historian Catherine Corless. Then, at her own expense, Catherine Corless sourced the death certificates of 796 babies who had died in the Tuam home between 1925 and 1960. There are no records of their burials.
In 2013, Sister Marie Ryan of the Bon Secours order told Corrigan: “As I understand it, there would … be a very good possibility (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.”
Catherine Corless noticed that the 1890 map (revised circa 1930) of the site clearly stated that there was a ‘septic tank’ in the same corner where two schoolboys – Franny Hopkins and Barry Sweeney – had in 1975 prised open a concrete lid, uncovering a man-made chamber filled with human remains. This was something she says spurred her to further research.
Independent researcher Izzy Kamikaze, subsequently established that the plans of the Tuam Home also indicate that the location of Sister Marie Ryan’s “general grave” matches that of a large, decommissioned underground Victorian sewage treatment system, a series of vaulted cesspits. In March 2017, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes confirmed the presence in those chambers of “significant” amounts of human remains.
In the Turlough Mór Suite of Tuam’s Ard Rí Hotel, Anna Corrigan made it clear she believes the Tuam Babies story is not just a scandal of child neglect by Church and State, or of illegal burials only yards from a consecrated graveyard.
“This is about forced adoption,” she said. “This is a spider’s web that spreads out all over Ireland, and you, Minister, are terrified of it, because you don’t know how far it will go. Tuam is only a microcosm.”
The horrible truth is that without a full excavation, we cannot know for certain if all 796 children are really buried in the ground beneath Tuam’s Dublin Road Estate. Even now, relatives like Anna wonder if some of the Tuam Babies survived and were sold illegally to wealthy Americans.
The idea of a “consultative process”, where matters of criminal justice are put to public opinion, upset me, so I asked Minister Zappone a hypothetical question. I asked if a body was found buried in my garden, would the Gardaí ask whether I would mind if they investigated it, or whether I’d prefer it was covered over again. How about ten bodies, I asked. How about potentially 796 bodies?
I was half-expecting to be booed. Instead, I received a round of applause. And that was the pattern for the evening. By the end, Minister Zappone looked deeply unhappy. From a meeting of about 200 people, only two people disagreed with the prevailing opinion that the site should be excavated fully, that all human remains be submitted for DNA analysis and – where possible – be then reunited with their relatives. The first was an elderly man who didn’t seem to understand DNA. The other was a Tuam resident who feels exhumation would “violate those children all over again”.
It became very clear, very quickly, that the Government agenda seems to be to perpetuate the image of Tuam as a town divided. I think this is part of a desperate campaign to derail demands that the State order a full exhumation at Tuam. I would imagine the State is terrified of the precedent that would set. After all, there are unmarked graves at Bessboro, at Sean Ross, at Castlepollard, and at all the other monuments to Holy Catholic Ireland’s incarceration and forced adoption industry.
Ms Zappone told me Gardaí have no reason to suspect there was anything ‘unnatural’ about 796 children dying in the Tuam Home. I pointed out that, in 1949, when the Bon Secours nuns were paid by the State the equivalent of over €110 per child per week to care for those children, the infant mortality rate in the Tuam Home was five times that of the rest of the country.
In 1975, around the time Barry Sweeney and Franny Hopkins found that chamber of human remains, resident Mary Moriarty was investigating in another part of the estate the discovery by a small child of a baby’s skull. Suddenly, the ground beneath her gave way and she found herself in an underground passage. As Mary’s friends pulled her out of the hole, she saw shelving on the opposite wall.
“The babies were placed on that, you could see they were swaddled up, rolled up in cloth and placed one after another on each raise and there was quite a lot of them there.
“I didn’t see the whole of the place, I only saw what was in front of me. There was quite a lot, three, four, or five levels from the ground up to the roof that was filled with those parcels. They were like little parcels set on shelves.”
Mary Moriarty is still a resident. In the Ard Rí, she said she believes the Tuam Babies should be reunited with their families. She received thunderous applause.
‘HEARTBROKEN AND DISGUSTED’
Tom Ward, a Tuam Home survivor in his 70s, made a powerful plea: “We are the people who were born in that bloody goddamn home. We want every one of them babies taken out of there and buried daycent.”
Like a lot of people, I had bought into the narrative that Tuam was a town divided, that it was – to use Katherine Zappone’s language – “on the one hand, on the other hand”. I was very wrong, and for that I apologise. It turns out most people in Tuam are as heartbroken and disgusted as the rest of us. That’s not to say there are no residents who would rather there was no further investigation, but – as I asked Minister Zappone – since when does the Irish State outsource to public opinion decisions regarding criminal justice?
After the meeting, one Tuam Home survivor had tears in his eyes when he spoke to me. “It was supposed to be 50/50. They said it was 50/50. By Christ they got their answer”.
It wasn’t dark yet, as Bob Dylan might say, but it was getting there, as I left the Ard Rí. Parents were packing up their shrine, loading the teddies and toys into bags, and taking down the sign that said “Bury our babies with dignity”. The little kids were long gone home, tucked up safe in their beds.
I’m told Katherine Zappone didn’t stop at the shrine when she arrived, or when she left.