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.

  • MadeleineBH

    A powerful article, Donal. This is one that the apologists for the Catholic Church would do well to read and take note.

    • You can see one such apologist above! @disqus_cFmIywVVT2:disqus

      • Mary Allen

        One would have to question the real reason for his ‘protection’ of the congregation.

  • Chris_Michaels

    There is some weird interpretation going on here. The fact that there are people buried in one place from 90 years ago is not scandalous. Its not even a mass grave grave according to the UN definition. What might be scandalous is the home conditions, lets look at the evidence.

    “Between 1925 and 1937, 204 children died at the Home — an average of 17 per year. 17 out of 200 children equals a mortality rate of 8.5%. It is interesting to compare that with the rest of the country at the time. In 1933, the infant mortality rate in Dublin was 8.3%, in Cork it was 8.9%, in Waterford it was 10.2% and in Limerick it was 13.2%.” (Source: Irish Press, 12th April, 1935; below)

    The author would want to gain a sense of perspective.

    • I think the outrage is not that it’s a mass grave, but more the fact that it was presided over by people who had anointed themselves as the guardians of morality and decency in this country.
      Unless I’m mistaken, mass graves are normally associated with warlords, despots and times of strife, and are normally used when individual burial is impractical (e.g. war and famine).
      But the fact that these children were entrusted to a body that was paid well and had the resources to keep most of them alive, yet were dumped into a communal grave without dignity when they so obviously failed (and without remorse too), is just one part of this author’s indignation.
      I’m not sure how anyone can get any other ‘perspective’ when the religious community were so callous and cruel during those times.

      • Chris_Michaels

        I dont remember Bon Secours sisters appointing themselves as ‘guardians of morality and decency’. That is revisionist codswallop. As far as I can see they kept a low profile setting up hospitals, homes and other institutions, and still do today.

        As I said earlier, this is not a mass grave in the UN definition. Its presumably a collective burial, as you would find in most old Irish hospitals, and institutions. In Spain most people end up in such graves today after a number of years in a nicho, unless the family ask otherwise.

        Of course people want to know relatives’ final resting places. Thats the most natural thing in the world. But to imply this is scandal is nonsense.

        • OK, we could pick apart the semantics and definition of a ‘mass grave’, but how is this not a scandal? And given the other immoral things the nuns did – selling babies to foreigners, using unmarried women for slave labour – why shouldn’t we be outraged in general about all they did then?

          • Chris_Michaels

            By drawing attention to baby adoption youre moving the goal posts. Thats a separate matter which is entirely separate. the reason this sory went viral is the babies in sewerage story. A 21st Maria Monk story.

            Personally I think the idea that babies were sold is questionable. Remember there was no legal mechanism of adoption in the era. I suspect many kids got an excellent start by being adopted by Americans etc. The problem we dont have much data so the jury is out on this one.

          • We don’t have much data because the nuns refused to keep it or deliberately hid it?

          • Chris_Michaels

            Hid it from who? If there was no formal process of adoption why would they keep standardised data for? Hind sight its 20:20.if the sisters were raking in cash where did it go? Why were the laundries barely making any profit?

          • There was no formal process of adoption because the church didn’t want it. As they saw it, births outside of marriage were a sin. Therefore the children were personae non grata and the mothers were sinners that needed to be punished, in Ireland’s case effectively sold into slavery.
            Ireland was the willing puppet of the Catholic Church since the State was founded (thankfully we came to our senses in 1972, though the effects are still felt today) and so if “illegitimate children” were deemed best forgotten, then the State was only too willing to do the Church’s bidding

          • Chris_Michaels

            Thats a strong claim that the RCC clerics blocked adoption regulation. can you provide some evidence? Some Dail debates or civil servant note show this? Ireland is just a another European country. UK, Germany, etc all had comparable social institutions.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            Yes, actually, Richard is quite correct. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was adamantly against it early on. This is well-documented in ‘Documents on Irish Foreign Policy IX (1948-51).’ It’s an eye-opening read. I highly recommend acquiring a copy:

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            The nuns kept excellent records from the opening of every one of these homes. Ask anyone who works for the HSE/TUSLA units who have inherited the files. They’re quite robust going back to as early as 1926, when Bessboro opened its doors. While you’re at it, ask them why they were forced to negotiate such complex indemnity deals with the orders to absolve themselves of legal liability over any fraudulent that may be uncovered in what they inherited.

            The problem is the HSE wasn’t handed all files. For example, HSE Cork is missing death books from 1953 forward, as is the case for Sean Ross Abbey. Private fee-paying patient entries/pages are also missing from the admittance records. It doesn’t require an advanced degree in rocket science to work out why.

          • Paul J. Redmond

            Bessboro opened in 1922 not 1926.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            Apologies, yes, that should read 1922. I stand corrected. Thanks.

          • Paul J. Redmond

            No probs. Suspected it might be a typo. Everything else you’ve said is 100% accurate and provable. It’s time someone educated the Holocaust denier types on this thread excusing the deaths of over 6,000 Irish babies and children in Mother and Baby homes.

            Tuam 800
            Bessboro 1,200+
            Sean Ross 1,000+
            Castlepollard 400+
            Bethany 227+
            St. Patricks 2,500+

            Rest In Peace crib mates.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            Babies were indeed sold, and financial records exist to validate this (see Conall O’Fatharta’s ongoing work in the Irish Examiner). My American adopters paid over $1,000, not including minor fees for my escort’s flight, documents., etc, in 1960 for me and again in 1964 for a brother who followed. They continued to make annual Christmas donations to the Sacred Heart nuns until the early 80’s. I’m sure you can work out the maths on those numbers, accounting for valuation of currency. Multiply that by more than 2,000 children.

            Adoption in/from Ireland was made legal in 1952, so there most certainly was a mechanism for it. Prior to that there were established policies and legal steps under the State and local authorities for placement of children in boarding out/fostering arrangements.

            Again, better to bone up on the true history of child placement/care in and from Ireland before guessing or offering your own opinion of what you suspect happened. There is plenty of evidence and archival material available and no excuse for such shoddy conjecture.

          • Mark Hill

            Isnt it true the adoption helped many kids though? Its absurd to say it was money making venture. Adoption has costs. Its no different today

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            While some of us went to okay families, what you need to understand Mark, is there was very little vetting of adopters until the mid- to late-50’s, when US Catholic Charities branches (who were initially very reluctant to get involved in the Irish trafficking). A healthy bank account (proof of financial stability), a letter from your parish priests verifying you were “Catholics in good standing” and medical proof that you had “not shirked the natural responsibilities of marriage (i.e. proof you’d had sex, an infamous requirement established by Archbishop McQuaid). Money was very much a factor, and the memoranda flying back and forth between McQuaid and various Irish officials detailed in the volume I cited above make that evident. Plus they were making it on the back end from the women. My mother did fine embroidery work and other sewing which the nuns sold for profit. Some homes provided commercial laundry services. Most had healthy working farms, which women from farming backgrounds worked. The produce and livestock largely went to the marketplace, not to feed the residents of these homes. And the nuns received capitation grants for each mother and child in care from the State. In 1960, a child fetched £1.62 per week at a time when the average wage for a farmer feeding a family was £1 per week.

            I am aware of US families who “donated” as much as $10,000 in late 1950’s dollars for a child. Mine paid $1,000 for me and the same for my brother several years later. I seriously doubt routine administrative fees ran as high as either of those amounts. And every year the begging letters would come from the good sisters – new bedding needed, shoes for the children, a new roof – we have copies of them. And good Catholics that our adopters were, they’d send the checks every year. Mine sent $100 every Christmas until the early 80’s.

            It costs nothing to adopt a child from state care – in fact, in the US, you receive a tax credit and stipend for providing a home to a child who needs one. Private and intercountry adoption is a whole different, profit-driven ballgame, rife with corruption, questionable parental consents and often not in the best interest of the child involved.

            I know numerous Irish-US adoptees who went into miserable circumstances: alcoholic or mentally ill parents; sexual, mental and physical abuse; were brought in to be “playmates” for older natural children and then became surplus to requirements. Too many for my comfort, sadly.

            And you must understand: adoption is not a guarantee of a better life, only a different one. Moreover, the vast majority of our mothers were perfectly fit to parent, but because they were not married, it was not an option. My mother was 27, smart and a talented seamstress – she could have found work anywhere with the proper guidance and resources (and today she would have had access to that). But she was convinced by the nuns that if she didn’t relinquish me, I’d end up suffering the same fate as she did having been born out of wedlock: life in an industrial school followed by Magdalene Laundry.

            So it’s not the black and white altruistic process you may think. And it’s unwise for those who are not adopted or lost a child to assume such.

          • Chris_Michaels

            can you provide hard evidence that some couples paid 10,000 dollars? Where is the proof the nun were paid £1.62 a head? Anyway, £1.62 in 1960 was worth about €42.42 in 2015. Its absolutely a nothing. I checked historic wage data and I am sure farmers were earning far more then £1 in 1960.

            BTW I am sure many women were fit to raise their kids, and its wrong if they had little choice. but some werent. Many had no income. and no support. and plenty of women were pleased to send their kid up for adoption out of love for their child.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            Documentation on capitation grants paid can be found in the relevant city and county archives, under local authority records and minutes. They exist for every home in every corresponding county, and are available for inspection. The numbers aren’t that hard to find.

            And yes, I do have evidence for the $10,000 figure. This individual was adopted by a very wealthy Long Island family. Their story is theirs to share in detail with the Commission and for parallel testimony-gathering by the Clann Project, not with you.

            But the fact that you believe these details are pulled out of thin air and not based on hard evidence-gathering shows you have much to learn, grasshopper. Do you honesty think I would make these claims without having spent years researching this?

            I know there are some who would leap to wild hyperbolic claims – and believe me, it annoys me to no end and does much damage to the actual narrative. But there are those of us who have been working with this material since the time it first should have been investigated, under the Child Abuse Commission. We’re not interested in fantastical mis-lit stories; just the hard truth.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            What’s interesting to me, is based on your commentary here, you seem to have some limited grasp of the scale of whatever been discussed and even more limited access to relevant historical material. It’s not as if I’m pulling things out of my ass, Chris. As I’ve said, all of this exists in archives held by cities and counties, government archives (NA), Oireachtas archives, Catholic Charities US archives in DC, and in the records from the homes themselves, now largely held by HSE branches.

            Moreover, a good bit of it has been published publicly before. Lindsay Earner-Byrne, Mary Daly (who now sits on the Commission’s committee), Diarmuid Ferriter, Sarah Anne Buckley, Mike Milotte, Mary Raftery, James Smith and others have all written extensively about the mother-baby homes, Magdalene Laundries, etc.

            Your lack of awareness of this rich trove of materials seems astonishing, or perhaps disingenuous.

    • Mari Tatlow Steed

      Interesting that you would end your exploration of the death rates at 1937, Chris. It’s been well-publicised that Bessboro in Cork alone had astonishing infant mortality rates in the 1940s – far exceeding the national average. From the Cork City archives:

      “Evaluation to Ireland of Mothers and Children.

      “Copy Cork County Council. Public Health Dept 66 South Mall 17th August 1943

      F Wrenne Esq. NA County Manager Courthouse.

      Dear Mr Wrenne Bessboro Maternity Home

      With reference to the high rate of infant mortality in the above named institution as drawn to your attention recently by LCD (?) this matter has been investigated by Dr O Briain assistant (HCH?) who reports the following terms:

      Bessboro Maternity home and High Infant Mortality
      I investigated this home and figures obtained were Deaths 68% sixty eight of the births. Diagnosis in most of these cases was Debility some were given as gastroenteritis and a small number as prematurity Most of the deaths were from 2-3 weeks to 3 months. This is the period they leave the Maternity Hospital for the home. The sister in charge has no Hospital training in infants and children apart from 2 months in Temple Street Hospital Dublin. This may or may not be a cause but I suggest a specially trained qualified in infant feeding should be appointed for 6-12 months. The figures could be then compared with the previous term

      Signed, D O Briain Asst Co H O H”

      Death rates for this particular Sacred Heart home, and to a lesser extent, its sister homes at Sean Ross Abbey and Castlepollard, did not drop significantly until around 1950. This may partly be thanks to the arrival of trained, qualified midwives like June Goulding (only one mother and two infants died while under her care at Bessboro, 1950-52), and the institution of Ireland’s first Adoption Act in 1952, which brought with it better scrutiny, inspections and accountability (particularly from American adopters who wanted healthy babies).

      I do not disagree with you that much of the hyperbole and hand-wringing over Tuam has done more harm than good. We know what lies in the cillini grave there. Thanks to Catherine Corless’ exhaustive work, we have 796 names and death certificates to tell us how they died.

      What we do not know about Tuam is why deaths reported in the home’s registers don’t match death certs found by Corless, and official local authority records and Health department memoranda indicate more than 1,000 Tuam children were adopted abroad. Official Dept. of Foreign Affairs records list less than 100. Now of course we know (I know many of them personally) children were slipped out of Ireland without visas and under the radar of Foreign Affairs, mostly with US servicemen stationed in the UK who could easily transport such children without benefit of official government sign-off, particularly before the 1952 Act.

      What we also don’t know are the true infant and mother death numbers for other mother-baby homes or their burial locations/practises, particularly the Sacred Heart home’s, and most particularly Bessboro.

      The current excavation at Tuam is no more than a dog and pony show organised by the Commission of Inquiry to distract from answering the harder questions begging. Questions guaranteed to lead to more troubling answers than those which lie in the ground at Tuam. Questions that commenters like Carmel Cantwell (above) need answered and on which the religious orders need to stop stonewalling and lying.

      Your responses here indicate a bare-bones assessment of the situation as outlined in this article, but clearly no in-depth knowledge or understanding of the history of adoption/fostering and the mother-baby homes in Ireland. I’d suggest you do some additional research before wading into waters far over your head.

      • Mark Hill

        The fact is baby homes of the era had appalling high mortality rates everywhere due to diseases that were not understood. The mortality rates are tragic, but there is nothing fishy about them. This story has been manipulated and distorted. Its a moral panic just like Maria Monk. Everyone would like to know more about what happened. But the records are there in public institutions. The sisters have done the little of what they can do to help and to say there are lying is nonsense.

        • Mari Tatlow Steed

          And you know this how? Which order do you work for?

          • Chris_Michaels

            We have documentary accounts. For example a 1940s report said ” “the care given to infants in the Home is good, the Sisters are careful
            and attentive; diets are excellent. It is not here that we must look
            for cause of the death rate”.

            This whole “scandal” about mistreatment is an example of people making assumptions without serious medical know how. Kids raised in crowded conditions away from their mothers and not breast fed were extremely susceptible to infectious diseases before modern medical conditions. In the US some homes had mortality rates of 90%. These deases can cause wasting and failure to thrive which has nothing to do with diet or treatment. Nor were the sisters incompetent. As were trained as nurses. Your idea that the sisters choose to neglect some that were weak is based on speculation. This debate deserves a fact based approach not speculation.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            Interesting you say “away from their mothers and not breast fed.” At the Sacred Heart homes, our mothers remained with us until we were adopted out – often as long as 3 or more years. Hence the appellation “mother AND baby homes.” And we were breast fed. My medical records and my mother’s own testimony bear this out.

            As far as reports, it seems you haven’t read them all, or only choose those that bolster your assertions. But witness this excerpt from the 1939 report of Ms. Alice Litster, inspector for boarded out children in the Department of Local Government and Public Health:

            “The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers. I except the Manor House, Castlepollard, in which the infantile death rate is comparatively low. In theory, the advantage should lie on the side of the child institutionally born. Pre-natal care, proper diet, fresh air, sufficient exercise, no arduous work, proper and comfortable clothing, freedom from worry, the services of a skilled doctor, the supervision and attention of a qualified nurse, all should be available and should make for the health of the expectant mother and the birth and survival of a healthy infant…Cleanliness, medical attention, dietetic knowledge, all the human skill may continue to preserve child life should be at hand. Yet any infant born in any other circumstances appears to have a better chance of life. I have grave doubts of the wisdom of continuing to urge Boards of Health and Public Assistance to send patients to the special homes so long as no attempt is made to explore the causes of the abnormally high death rate The illegitimacy birth rate shows an upward trend. In 1916 it was 1530; in 1925 it was 1662. We cannot prevent the birth of these infants. We should be able to prevent their death.”

            Again, you seem to believe there are no questions remaining or that issues only existed in Tuam. If that were the case, why do we have a current ongoing Commission of Inquiry investigating the practices in *fourteen* mother-baby homes and into the history of adoption overall?

            The facts are there. Whatever the Commission doesnt ferret out, there are advocacy groups like Adoption Rights Alliance (and its partner organization, Justice for Magdalenes Research, as well as others) who, with the assistance of esteemed researchers/academics, a legal team, and thousands of eyewitness testimonies (including medical professionals, former nurses and midwives, workers, etc) and evidentiary documents, will. And we have unending patience and no ulterior motivation but to unearth the true historical narrative. And it’s not our first rodeo.

            I can be clear and forthright in my agenda: I lived it. I want the historical narrative to be the correct one. Not the one created to be most advantageous to religious orders or the bureaucrats who swept so much of this under the carpet.

            Until 2013, most people believed that Magdalene Laundries were run by the kindly nuns with no involvement from the State; that women were treated well, free to come and go as they pleased, and that it was always their families that put them in there. Likewise, it was believed children in industrial schools received great educations and that the nuns, priests and brothers never laid a hand on them. Now we know better.

            So the question is: what’s your own agenda in so vigorously defending them? What do you fear about the truth?

          • Chris_Michaels

            Yes, I agree with the idea that illegitimate children had higher death rate. There are very logical reasons why this would be the case, namely the higher rates they were in institutions. It is very good that mothers were there as I am sure the mortality rate would be far higher without them. I am not saying that is ok. Nor is it ok that in poor neighborhoods today the rate of mortality from cancer is far higher. These are issues of concern but they aren’t criminal matters, or issues that warrant commissions. It is an issue more suited to academic research. The records show officials were concern about mortality rates and in time reduced them hugely despite the poverty of the era.

            I don’t think anyone thought that the state had no involvement in the
            laundries. However, the average person knew very little about them. Of the institutions, it was the industrial schools that were the houses of abuse. In contrast, although the laundries were cold places, there is no evidence of physical or sexual abuse there. There are a lot of misconceptions about the laundries. Namely they were palaces were women were sent for having premarital sex but the records show that wasn’t the case at all. Instead they were more like the workhouses of old, a place you could end up for many reasons.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            You have a curious lack of insight on the Laundries – I’m guessing your knowledge of them is solely based on the McAleese report? Of course there was denial of State complicity – by the State itself – until Justice for Magdalenes submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture. At its review of Ireland in 2011, the DOJ’s own representative, Sean Aylward, denied State complicity (you can view actual video of his testimony here: They continued to deny it in the Oireachtas and publicly until they no longer could.

            As far as proof of physical and sexual abuse, there was plenty of evidence. Just because McAleese chose not to include it in his report or omitted dozens of testimonies doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. He chose to stay within the very strict terms of reference laid out to the Interdepartmental Committee and focus on establishing whether or not there was State complicity. Although oddly, he did spend a lot of time detailing entrance routes to the Laundries, which actually refute your comment. I’m guessing you didn’t read that section of the report.

            As for the testimonies on abuse themselves that were omitted by McAleese, you’re welcome to peruse them here:

            As far as criminality within the mother-baby homes, you’ve missed it by a country mile. There’s ample evidence of forged consents, consents coerced from under-aged minors, children born within marriage and adopted out (when it was expressly forbidden until 1967 under Ireland’s Adoption Act), false reporting of deaths, fraudulent registrations of births and adoptions (children being registered as the “natural born” child of their adopters – a frequent practice by St Patrick’s Guild and the operator of St Rita’s Nursing Home, Mary Keating).

            And that’s before we get into the vaccine trials, an area where I happen to have considerable personal expertise. I was one of the children given the 4-in-1 experimental vaccine at Bessboro between 1960-61. I was fortunate in that I was able to get my full medical record from the nuns well before the Laffoy Commission began its investigation into the trials, when the nuns were blissfully unaware they would be called to task for these trials. I was also fortunate in that I found and reunited with my mother, and together we gave depositions to the Laffoy Commission in 2002. She verified in that deposition and in subsequent video testimony that she was unaware I was being used in that 60-61 trial, and that her permission was never sought or given, despite that this all occurred before she signed relinquishment, so in every legal sense, I was still her child.

            I was later able to get full verification via FOI from GlaxoSmith of my participation in that trial, and that no follow-ups were ever done with my adoptive parents to determine adverse reactions, efficacy of the vaccines, etc.

            And then interestingly, I was able to get a full copy of my entire records (including some damning ‘dossier’-style commentary kept on me by the nuns) via another FOI to the HSE in 2011. Included in that was clear evidence that my records had been doctored in 2002. Because this forms part of a criminal complaint in progress, I’m not at liberty to discuss more details, but rest assured, it’s being pursued.

            Chris, this is just tip of the iceberg. My own testimony and evidence is but one of many, many such testimonies (many worse) that will either inform part of the Commission’s investigation, or will be ignored as they were with McAleese and the Laundries whitewash, and be pursued at the EC and UN level.

            But to sit back and claim there was no criminality involved shows a distinct lack of knowledge on your part. There was a reason the original Laffoy Commission did not delve into the practices in mother-baby homes and adoption: it represents the largest and perhaps filthiest piece of carpet left to pull up in Ireland’s sad, filthy architecture of containment. Since the 1952 Act, more than 50,000 children have been adopted in and from Ireland. We estimate perhaps another 20-30,000 de facto, boarding-out or illegal placements prior to the 1952 Act; 2,000 officially recorded adoptees to the US and likely another 500-1,000 unofficially sent. With those ~100,000, you’ve got 200,000 birthparents and an untold number of siblings and other relatives affected, including birthfathers of some repute or notoriety whose names/titles are something on which a nation might want to keep silent. That makes the scope of the industrial school numbers and the Laundries look tiny in comparison.

            But by all means, carry on with your “nothing to see here, folks” attitude. Methinks thou doth protest too much. And you still haven’t told us what your agenda is. That speaks volumes. Perhaps I should ask you to say hello to a certain little nun for me 😉

          • Chris_Michaels

            I have read over the Justice for Magdalenes reports and really most of what is described as abuse isn’t, or is second hand reports of abuse and is not reliable. About 10,000 women went through the system over 70 years. It’d be impossible for there to be no abuse whatsoever. However there is a lot of evidence that women involved were treated well. The Justice for Magdalenes reports and McAleese Report are both valuable for getting a picture but the McAleese Report has the advantage of vastly more participants (118 women plus others). To call the McAleese Report a whitewash is extremely unfair and ignorant. It only had limited terms of reference but succeeded in sifting through far more data that one might expect and certainly far more than the Justice for Magdalenes reports. It also established some facts based on ledgers that counters some of the myths like the fact that the average length of stay was mere months, or that women were sent there for premartial sex. In reality they were homes for all sorts. The women have very diverse backrounds and this demolishes the notion that a sex obsessed was punishing women for ‘being fallen’. In reality these laundries were more like 19th workhouses than prisons of sexual repression.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            It is hardly ignorant or unfair to call the McAleese report a whitewash. The UN called for a thorough, independent inquiry into the Laundries. The report is neither. It has already begun to be pulled apart by not only JFMR, but by legal firms, and there’s more coming. You’d be in the minority believing it wasn’t a whitewash. But for starters, we know that lengths of duration were grossly underreported, evidenced by extensive deaths research (still ongoing) and research of the electoral rolls. Crossover between mother-baby homes and the Laundries was also grossly underreported.

            County archives were barely touched or ignored by McAleese and his team, as were forensic financial records offered by the HSE in Cork, along with a strongly-worded report from that body urging a thorough forensic audit. Similarly, financial records from the Galway diocesan archives were overlooked, showing the enormous profit that Laundry generated. These are just a few examples.

            As far as abuse, being held against one’s will behind locked doors, being dragged back by gardai after attempted escapes, denied permission to speak with fellow inmates, physical punishment by lashings, being made to lie prone on a floor for hours, and the shaving of hair as punishment are all forms of abuse. Performing commercial labour for no pay or pension is the very definition of slavery.

            Look, it’s become patently clear what you are if not who you are. We know apologists exist and generally they have no in-depth understanding of that which they attempt to defend. No different than racists who claim racism doesn’t exist.

            The fact that you hide behind an alias to do so completely destroys your credibility. If you want to engage fairly, then tell us who you are and why you so adamantly defend these systems.

          • Chris_Michaels

            Look, I agree it was not totally exhaustive but it was not meant to be. It still went through far more data than any other report so far into the matter. The report has its shortcomings but its still an excellent overview and is valued by the actual women who went through the systems unlike you. Its a great pity that some authorities such as the Irish Human Rights Commission are still referring to the appalling misleading documentary Sex in a Cold Climate. A documentary that interviewed a grand total of THREE women. Undoubtly the McAleese report is biased to the most recent history of the laundries but it does jar with your narrative. Some of the research on length of stay by JfM is useful but a lot concerns the pre 1922 period which is really a separate issue.

            Until I see numbers I cant help but doubt unsubstantiated claims about enormous profits.

            There is no evidence that hair was shaved as punishment. Utter hogwash. Can you cite some sources on lashings? Comparable institutions existed all over Europe and in the the world. If you argue the laundries were slavery, then I hope you feel there was slavery in the Germany, Netherlands, US, UK etc.

            I am not defending anything. I am just calling out exaggeration and shoddy research. I don’t get why you are attacking me. We all are seeking out the truth right? Judging by your posts next you will acuse me of being in the pocket of the Good Shepard Sisters.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            You have decided that the truth lies in the reports generated by non-independent government bodies and a few offhand archival reports of the day. so to say “we are all seeking the truth” is more than a bit disingenuous.

            Women were not satisfied with the McAleese report. There are still women battling with the Magdalene Commission, having to file appeals, because the nuns’ records of duration of stay conflict with the women’s actual experience (despite electoral roll and other proof bolstering the women’s claims); women are still not receiving the benefits guaranteed them under the Commission’s remit, such as health cards or like benefits if they live out of the country. You might find a few women who accepted the report and subsequent redress at face value, because most are quite elderly and not able to fight any longer, but to say they “valued” it is an insult. And how would you know who these women are? Magdalene survivors are a relatively private and quiet population. One doesn’t come across groups of them as a matter of routine, unless you’re involved in advocacy work on their behalf, or oversee a population of them in elder care settings or in a pastoral setting. You claim not to be in any pockets, but that’s a pretty big tell right there.

            As far as Sex in a Cold Climate, you didn’t even get that right. Four women were interviewed, not three. And are you saying those four women were liars – one of whom did have her hair shaved as punishment for helping another inmate to see her child in the adjoining industrial school?

            Rather than put down the documentary (and for the record, Humphries did seek input/participation from the religious orders to create a balanced view, but was refused), perhaps you should note the importance of it taking a UK-based filmmaker (and around the same time a French team did a similar documentary) to bring the story to light outside Ireland. RTE refused to cover the topic until 2013, and no other documentarian, journalist or other media touched it save Mary Raftery, and she was excoriated.

            And again, performing commercial work for no pay or pension is the definition of slavery. These women didn’t “volunteer” their time. Offering up false equivalences of similar institutions that operated around the world isn’t helping your argument. We’re discussing the Laundries. In Ireland. Of course the US had the transatlantic slave trade – that’s not germane here. What they didn’t have were religious-run institutions where women were forced to work for no pay. And believe me, that was not for lack of trying on the part of the Good Shepherd order. But the archival records of the Catholic Church in Washington, DC bear out the fact that they wanted no parts of that system and considered the Irish model “far too harsh.” It would never have passed muster under the US’ much stricter labour laws.

            I will continue to rebut your nonsense as long as you keep throwing it out. I told you earlier – I have patience and an intense desire to set the historical narrative straight, and access to far more evidence than you clearly do, be it the Laundries or the history of adoption in Ireland. I have a personal, vested interest and agenda. I’ve been up front about it. You have not. So if you want to continue a debate on the topic, come armed with better facts and evidence. So far all you’ve offered up is the typical apologist nonsense, of the same ilk as Bill Donohue of the US-based Catholic League. You would call victims and survivors liars to defend the indefensible. You aren’t after truth; you’re only trying to defend your seriously lacking view of what you think the truth is. So stop pretending some high ground of “truth-seeking.” I told you I would grant you that some of the hyperbole surrounding Tuam is unhelpful, but that is not license to dismiss it all as some sort of conspiracy to besmirch the good and holy nuns. You might be surprised at just how bad and unholy many were. And when you have in your “care” people whom your Church (and its brainwashed partners, State and society) has deemed “other,” a curious thing begins to happen: you start to see them as “subhuman”- especially since you’ve been taught you’re a morally “superior” bride of Christ – and start to treat them accordingly. The Stanford prison experiment amply highlights this. If you haven’t read up on it, I suggest you do. Human beings are capable of a great many atrocities – whether they wear the cloth or not.

          • Chris_Michaels

            The McAleese Report was independent in the sense that Senator Martin McAleese was not part of Gov and had no reason to be biased to Gov interests. It was perfect. For example unfortunately witnesses weren’t cross examined but as I said it was limited. It is true that some women aren’t receiving benefits, some of that is due to various legalistic reason, that side of things has nothing to do with the Report. Senator Martin McAleese had no power over the redress scheme. To be honest the design of a redress scheme is questionable, most people who went to Industrial Schools never got redress. I am not sure women who entered voluntarily to a laundry should be paid compensation if they were not abused.

            Sex in a Cold Climate only interviewed three residents, the forth woman was never in a laundry. BTW I am no fan of RTE. They are completely incestuous and bias. God only knows how many Steve Humphries interviewed but had too positive experiences to suit his agenda. The documentary also had frankly bizarre quotes like
            “…just as Mary Magdalene rejected her sexuality..”

            What the hell? Since when did Mary of Magdalene reject or sexuality. Its such a sloppy myopic narrative.

            As far as I know the hair cutting happened in the doc happened in an orphanage. It is clear that Peter Mullan empathized this given his interest in building this story about women losing their identities in some harsh environment.

            I ad appreciate if you stopped misrepresenting me. I did not call anyone liars. You are not reading what I write. The US did have industrial schools, which were far far worse the Laundries.

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            I told you, you keep pitching ’em, I’ll keep hitting ’em.

            The only one misrepresenting you is you. You have repeatedly called into question testimonies given to JFMR, the four women in Humphries’ documentary, and even my own facts and evidence. You are calling us liars. You can phrase it any way you like, but at the end of the day you’re calling us liars. It’s a typical Bill Donohue strategy (and he does often direct his interns to these comment boards to stir shit).

            The woman you refer to in ‘Sex in a Cold Climate,’ Mary from Limerick, was moved from the industrial school to the Limerick laundry. It was a fairly common route for girls – especially rebellious or ‘bold’ ones. My mother followed that same path. The girls industrial school there would have shared the same grounds as the laundry, as was typical of most of the institutions then. Mary’s testimony (had you watched it and listened carefully) was that shortly after being moved to the Laundry, one of the women learned she had come from the industrial school, where her own child was (this is traditionally where children went if they weren’t adopted or fostered out). When Mary related she knew the child and knew what time of day they’d be outside, they conspired a way for the mother to get a glimpse of her child. They were caught at it, and for her ‘crime,’ Mary’s head was shaved. In the Laundry.

            As for Humphries’ more maudlin intertcuts and commentary on Mary Magdalene, it’s not even secondary to the actual stories of the four women. I paid no attention to it, but clearly you paid more attention to that than what the women were relating. That speaks volumes.

            In terms of McAleese being ‘independent,’ not even close. And certainly not the UN’s definition of the word. An independent chair and committee would have been comprised of a non-Irish current or former judge, for example. Or leading experts, academics or barristers in human rights law and practice. Not yet another Irish solution to an Irish problem. Moreover, if you’re going to stick to the terms of reference – establishing State involvement – stick to it. Don’t go half-assed into territory like abuse, and gather a handful of testimonies and not even investigate it. But that committee was never given statutory powers as the current mother-baby home Commission has (and I’m still not hopeful it will help – it’s still yet another Irish solution to an Irish problem).

            By the way, my testimony and that of six other women and two daughters – given in person to Senator McAleese and his staff on 6 Dec 2012 – were never included in his report. I was under no illusions, as were the other two daughters. But imagine how those six other women felt, their testimonies not even worthy to be included with women who were brought through two other organizations.

            These “independent” inquiries have failed again and again and again.

            And redress is only one portion of restorative justice. In the case of the industrial schools, it was a weighted scale based on the actual occurrence of abuse, its duration, severity and psychological effects. There were some educational benefits thrown in for victims and their families, and it was called a day. The government even went further to insult victims, establishing Caranua to mete out funds based on humiliating needs assessments, after they decided cutting direct checks to survivors wasn’t in their ‘best interest’ and making them go begging cap in hand again.

            For the Magdalene women, JFMR’s recommended approach was far more comprehensive. The actual redress portion, which was recommended/adopted by Justice Quirke, used a similar weighted scale to Ryan, based on duration and other factors. Unfortunately, the religious orders have chosen to refute more than a few women’s claims, based on incorrect or missing records (see above earlier comment). And even more unfortunately, they have refused to pay into it. But there were issues beyond that which we wanted to see addressed: comprehensive health care benefits (still a matter of contention); death issues, reporting, and care of existing grave sites; preservation of records and artifacts; and a government-led department to address all of these. It goes without saying many have not been met.

            So all your armchair-quarterbacking doesn’t come across as being any sort of ally or fellow truth-seeker. It reeks of the same smug, self-righteous and grossly misinformed garbage we’ve heard from every other apologist. Nothing new here. Nothing you can possibly say will change that.

          • Chris_Michaels

            ‘When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.’
            I am sorry that you are going down this nasty path of throwing abuse at me. I didn’t insult you. Stop whining and trying to discredit me and try to engage in the nitty-gritty. I am not calling residents liars. I said the testimony for a handful is woeful unrepresentative, and the evidence of 120 women is vastly more meaningful.

            I don’t know why are you are making a big deal about your data not being included. You submitted weeks before it was published. Too late.

            A human rights lawyer is a terrible person to lead such an enquiry. Most of what happened was legal, hence the Gardai quit their investigation and predating any form of human rights law. Likewise an academic had a bone to pick and isn’t independent.

            Again the redress scheme has got nothing to do with the McAleese report. Anyway, if all residents get payments why dont all residential school inmates get payments? And I don’t think needs assessments are insulting. No one has a right to compensation. Money doesnt undue abuse.

        • Mari Tatlow Steed

          And malnutrition – the leading cause of death in the Tuam situation (and also the most prevalent in the death records researched for other homes) is hardly a “disease that was not understood.”

          • Chris_Michaels

            There is actually some documentary evidence that they were well fed. gastroenteritis is a more Ilkley killer. That been said part of the danger was the fact that they were not being breast fed.

    • tinx

      I don’t know Ireland but I’d hazard a guess that Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Limerick are all larger than a home, even a large one. It seems high regardless of whether it meets the threshold to be called something in particular.

      • Chris_Michaels

        We are dealing with percentages here so population size is irrelevant. The mortality is not high by the pre modern medicine standards of the era.

  • Carmel Cantwell

    It’s very tiring trying to justify to people why my mother and the rest of the family wish to know the details as to her sons death and his final resting place. Is this not a human right?

  • Mary Allen

    This is why I’m cynical about everything now, those we were taught to trust the most could least be trusted. Charitable never! Yes there were good people in religious institutions but they were as scarce as hen’s teeth, not powerful enough to make a difference to the little ‘unworthy victims’ who were intentionally left to die, were murdered or those who were sold to well-heeled do-gooders, not to mention their helpless, heartbroken and unfortunate mothers. Please, NEVER STOP ASKING QUESTIONS, while institutions continue to capitalise on vulnerable peoples needs, and government continues to throw money at ‘institutions’ to divert responsibility from their door.

  • Annette McKay

    I have a birth certificate for my sister and a death certificate for this sister. So where is she? You can’t have it both ways Chris Michaels, either she is dead in a former sewerage pit or she exists somewhere else, trafficked?
    You must be a special kind of stupid if you think this isn’t a scandal

    • Chris_Michaels

      I am sorry you lost your sister so young. I think you are missing the point. Statistically this home was in fact safer for babies than many local hospitals. That is undenable. The is no evidence that babies were thrown into sewerage pits. Maybe they were buried in a crypt , if so it is perfectly normal. As is common in the era burial records are patchy. Its only in the last 40 years that burials records become reliable.

      • Annette McKay

        In a period of two weeks in the month my sister died, eleven babies died
        God help all Irish babies if that was a safer place
        THe babies died of wholly preventable diseases along with babies who died of malnutrition, how was that safer
        You wish to be blind to facts because it is somehow more compatible with your own beliefs, so be it. But remember the truth sets you free and that I wish for my late mother and my missing sister
        A basic human right surely?