As archaeologists excavate the Tuam Mother and Baby Home site where 796 children are believed to be buried, questions remain unanswered, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Last Monday was the first day of the test excavation of the former site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, where it is believed that at least some of the 796 children who died in the care of the Bons Secours nuns were buried in a former sewage system.

Tuam’s Mother and Baby Home operated from 1926 to 1961 and, over those years, it housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their ‘illegitimate’ children. The Bon Secours nuns received from the State a generous headage payment for each child and yet the Home had a terrifyingly high infant mortality rate – five times that of the rest of the population – with many of the children dying from malnutrition, neglect and infectious diseases.

The site of the excavation work at Tuam mother and baby home site.

(In 1938, the headage payment was £1.62 per child per week. I calculate that in today’s money as roughly €110 per child per week. The children’s allowance is currently €32.30 per week. It’s worth noting too that the Bon Secours nuns benefitted from what was slave labour from the mothers they incarcerated in the Tuam Home.)

This excavation has been ordered by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. You probably remember the Tuam Babies story. It was broken nationally on the 25th of May, 2014 by Alison O’Reilly in the Irish Mail on Sunday and made headlines all over the world.

The historian Catherine Corless had 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 exist, but local knowledge suggests the bodies are in a mass grave in what is now a green area at the centre of Tuam’s Dublin Road estate.

In 1975, two schoolboys – Franny Hopkins and Barry Sweeney – were playing in what is now that green area and prised open a concrete lid, uncovering a man-made chamber filled with human remains. ‘Filled to the brim’, as Catherine Corless put it, ‘with tiny bones and skulls’.

Around the same time in the 1970s but in another part of the site, Mary Moriarty was investigating the discovery by a small child of a baby’s skull when the ground beneath her gave way and she found herself in what locals believed was a tunnel used by the nuns as an air raid shelter during World War II.

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 estimates she saw perhaps a hundred babies in that small section of the tunnel.

The Tuam Babies story goes global

The Wednesday after Alison O’Reilly’s story broke in the Irish Mail on Sunday, Philip Boucher-Hayes – covering for Joe Duffy on Livelinespoke on-air with Catherine Corless. The following day he returned to the story. This played a huge part in furthering the story on the national and later, the international, agenda.

By the following Tuesday, the story was on the Washington Post and suddenly the whole world knew about the Tuam Babies. President Higgins told RTÉ News that he was appalled and saddened by the story. He looked devastated.

“My first reaction was one of enormous sadness,” he said. “These are children who while they were alive had rights, the rights to protection, and who, if dead, had the right to be looked after with dignity.”

The President’s mention of dignity in death chimes with the very reason the Tuam story went around the world: the sheer numbers were appalling in themselves but that the babies had been dumped in septic tanks gave it a truly horrifying twist.

Some apologists for the Bon Secours nuns said that there was no septic tank on the site but – thanks to the detective work of Izzy Kamikaze – we now know, according to the original plans, there was actually a series of cesspits on the grounds – a Victorian system of up to nine interlinked and vaulted chambers, some of them up to seven feet in height. That would explain the tunnel into which Mary Moriarty fell.

There’s another aspect to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home which cannot be overlooked. In the four decades of the Home’s operation, the HSE estimated – in a secret 2012 internal memo which shows the State knew about the Tuam Babies at least two years before Alison O’Reilly’s story, that up to 1,000 children may have been trafficked from Tuam to the United States.

If you believe in evil, then it turns out that Saint Timothy was right and money really is at the root of it all. The Bon Secours nuns in Tuam imprisoned girls and women, enslaved them, sold their healthy babies to wealthy American donors and, if the other children had an infant mortality rate five times that of the rest of the population, you would have to wonder if crude financial considerations outweighed basic human compassion.

A photo of some of the children at ‘the home’ in 1924. (Connaught Tribune, 21st June, 1924)

A personal journey to Tuam

I was off last Monday and took a spin up to Tuam. It’s a three-hour drive from my house but I felt a strong personal reason for making the trip. I hadn’t been there since I was small. It’s a nice town and the people I met seemed lovely.

There was no great sense of drama in the Dublin Road estate as the excavation commenced, with plywood hoarding masking off the site of the dig. A Garda stood sentry as a team of archaeologists, led by a forensic archaeologist, began their work.

I went to Tuam for what was, I suppose, a sentimental reason. An opinion piece I wrote two years ago for played, thanks to a Tweet  from Graham Linehan, a small part of the media storm around the Tuam story, so I felt a certain duty to call and pay my respects as the excavation began.

It is estimated the test excavation will last five weeks. Philip Boucher-Hayes understands

that the Commission of Investigation has been advised that the dig may find no bones as ‘the rate of decomposition for infant remains is significantly faster than for adults who would have much denser bones’.

Catherine Corless remains certain the excavation will yield a result. “We know the burials are there from what the boys found. They have to find something. I mean, bones don’t disappear in the space of fifty years or so.” She expresses deep frustration that the veil of secrecy surrounding the investigation means we will likely know nothing until the Commission reports in 2018, calling it ‘an impossible situation’.

If the excavation turns up no bodies, the people who condemned the Tuam Babies story as anti-Church sensationalism will no doubt be beside themselves. They’ll claim vindication. They’ll screech that the poor Bon Secours nuns were villified when they did their best for the children in their care and knew nothing about claims of a mass grave.

They’ll be lying.

If the 796 children for whom Catherine Corless found death certificates were not dumped in the disused sewage system out the back of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, then where are they buried? Why did so many children die when the nuns were well paid to care for them?

There are larger questions to be answered too about the kind of country we were, and the kind of country we are. A twisted, sex-obsessed strain of Catholicism infected this country very early on and its apologists are to this day doing their best to ensure that it continues to rule the hearts, minds and laws of this land.

Who knew?

There is much to suggest that Tuam was only the tip of an iceberg of cruelty which is as old as the State. The Catholic Church, the Irish State and indeed Irish society all conspired to imprison young women, enslave them and sell their children. The Tuams, the Bessboroughs and the Magdalene Laundries all raise a question which may have a very uncomfortable answer: Who knew?

On Thursday, the 5th of June, 2014 as the Tuam story raged internationally, Michael Kitt, then TD for Galway East, read into the Dáil record an extract from my column and said “As someone who has represented east Galway and Tuam for over three decades, I am very saddened by and horrified at the information on the large number of deceased children involved…

“It is a terrible indictment of how we cherish children…

“When one thinks of children being discarded, it is time to find out exactly what records existed in the old health board, which preceded the Health Service Executive, HSE, and in Galway County Council…”

Michael Kitt, who is currently a Senator, has served in Leinster House since 1975, when he ‘inherited’ his Dáil seat upon the death of his father, Michael Kitt Snr, who was first elected in 1948. No shame in that. The Taoiseach came to his seat by the same route, that same year.

When Deputy Kitt mentioned the Tuam story in the Dáil, the Limerick historian and librarian Liam Hogan sent me a press clipping from the Tuam Herald dated Saturday, the 25th of June, 1949.

A paper cutting from the Tuam Herald from 25th June, 1949.

It reports an inspection of the Tuam Home by members of Galway County Council at a time when the infant mortality rate in the Home was running at five times that of the rest of the country.

“They found everything in the Home in very good order, and congratulated the Bon Secours Sisters on the excellent condition of their Institution… After the meeting, Rev Mother Hortense and the Sisters very kindly entertained the members of the Committee… to lunch.”

The Tuam Herald lists the great and the good who served on that inspection committee. Six councillors, two senators and one TD. That TD was Michael Kitt Snr.

Two small boys and the sister they never knew

I’ll leave you with the story of two small boys and the sister they never knew.

On Tuesday, 22 February, 1946 a little boy called John Desmond Dolan was born, a healthy baby, in the Tuam home. He died on Wednesday, 11 June, 1947 one year and three months old. He was described, in the cruel language of the day, on his death certificate as ‘a congenital idiot’ and in the April 1947 inspection report as ‘a miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions, probably mentally defective’.

John had a younger brother, William Joseph, and he was born a healthy baby on Sunday, 21 May, 1950. The record of William Joseph’s date of birth was altered – and if you’ve seen the film ‘Philomena’ you’ll know this was something commonly done with babies sent to the US for adoption – in William Joseph’s case to Saturday, 20 April, 1950.

William Joseph is registered as having died in the Tuam Home on Saturday, 3 February, 1951, but no cause of death is given and he is not recorded on the national death register.

The Dolan brothers would be just another two forgotten children – long dead (or at least presumed dead) and possibly dust now in the old Victorian vaults beneath the Dublin Road Estate – if not for the younger sister they never knew, the younger sister who for most of her own life never knew about either of them.

In 2012, Sister Marie Ryan, Country Leader of the Sisters of Bon Secours Ireland, told John’s sister: “As I understand it there would… be a strong possibility that his 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.”

This puts the lie to the spin from the Church’s apologists who claimed the poor nuns had no idea about any mass grave, especially not in a disused sewage system out the back of the Tuam Home.

John is (presumably) dead. He died – officially – of measles but three months earlier he was described ‘emaciated, with a voracious appetite’. A little baby, starved to death. He was likely too ill to traffic, too sickly to sell to wealthy American Catholics. Was he allowed by the nuns to starve to death? I believe so.

Little John Dolan was let to waste away by those who claimed to work for Jesus. His younger brother, William Joseph is a different proposition, though.

In Department of Health documents, the nuns changed William Joseph’s birth date and the Gardaí have told his sister that they cannot confirm that he ever died. His sister believes ‘100% that he is still alive’. She understands that her mother believed he was sent to the US. She wants to know. She needs to know.

If they are really dead, she wants her brother (or brothers) given a Christian burial and reunited with their mother Bridget, in Glasnevin Cemetery.

I’ve spoken with John and William Joseph’s sister. She’s a brilliant, formidable and unstoppable woman. She fights out of love for the brothers she never knew and love for her mother who suffered in a harsh and loveless Ireland. She won’t rest till they get justice.

796 lost children

Standing by the playground in the middle of Tuam’s Dublin Road estate on a bright, clear October Monday, as the archaeologists looked for the 796 lost children, I was conscious of how peaceful and ordinary the place seems, only a half a century since it witnessed calculated cruelty on an industrialised scale. The world keeps turning.

In the Home, newborn babies were passed along a battery of women, and any woman producing milk would have fed any number of infants. The Bon Secours nuns ordered this to prevent mothers from bonding with their babies. When the nuns sold those children that survived, they changed their birthdates to break the trail so that – decades later – the children would never find their mothers.

The Tuam Babies were real people and they live on in living memory. They are the real brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters of real Irish people.

The Tuam Babies and their short, brutal lives should be remembered by all who want a better Ireland, an Ireland free from the clammy grasp of prissy theocracy and curtain-twitching ‘respectability’, an Ireland where all the children are cherished equally.