I don’t live on top of a mass grave.
I don’t know what it’s like to look out at my lawn and think that under it might be 796 dead babies lying in a disused septic tank. I don’t know what it’s like to see in the paper, something we perhaps always knew and pretended we didn’t know.
I don’t know what it’s like to have my home town become suddenly a global by-word for evil.
Last week came news that a majority of people living near the site of the former Tuam mother and baby home would prefer the whole thing to just go away. This was part of the findings of a public consultation established by Galway County Council. 87% of Tuam residents who expressed a preference, favour the erection of a memorial there, and any remains on the site to remain undisturbed.
On the other hand, 89% of relatives of children who lived in the home are demanding a full excavation.
I’m pressed for space, so I’ll have to leave it here that Galway County Council actually set up a public consultation process to ask people who live on top of a mass grave, what they think should be done with that mass grave. Commemoration via popular ballot. X marks the atrocity. Tuam’s Got Babies.
If you haven’t heard of the Tuam Babies scandal, you’re very welcome to Earth. Apologies for the state of the place. I’ve been writing about Tuam pretty much from the beginning. Shorthand version, Alison O’Reilly broke the story in the Irish Mail on Sunday on May 25, 2014. The headline was “A MASS GRAVE OF 800 BABIES”.
Anna Corrigan spent years searching for her (older) baby brothers, John and William Dolan. A Garda put Anna in touch with Catherine Corless, a Tuam-based historian, and the rest is literally, history.
Thanks to Catherine Corless, we now 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: “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 plans of 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. In March 2017, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes confirmed the presence in those chambers of 'significant' amounts of human remains.
I wasn’t surprised that so many who live on top of Tuam’s mass grave want it covered up and quietly forgotten. After all, that’s exactly what happened four decades ago when the mass grave was actually discovered.
In 1975, two schoolboys – Franny Hopkins and Barry Sweeney – were playing in what is now the green area of the Dublin Road estate and prised open a concrete lid, uncovering a man-made chamber filled with human remains. Around the same time, 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 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 estimates she saw perhaps a hundred babies in that small section of the tunnel.
A Mass was said and everybody hoped that would be the end of it.
Three years ago, the Tuam Herald published two letters.
The first letter is signed by Mary Mullen, who styles herself “resident and committee member”. Ms Mullen takes issue with what she describes as “remarks or comments … in a range of media circles regarding the Tuam Home Babies Graveyard”. She says there was a plaque erected “in honour of all those who rest there … A statue of Our Lady was also erected on the site. Our Lady’s feast day every year is when neighbours in the area gather and light nightlights in honour of Our Lady and in memory of all the deceased who are buried in the area.”
“All flowers and shrubs have been donated by the families in the area … This has been done to keep the area nice and for all the little angels buried there.”
Saying that residents would resist efforts to excavate the site, Ms Mullen also objects to “the disclosure to the public the names, ages and addresses of women who had children in the home and died. When did it become acceptable to disclose these details to the public?”
The second letter is signed “On behalf of the Residents’ Association, Anne Collins” and it rather confusingly says: “We wish to clarify that there is no mass grave in the area. The burial site has been tended with loving care for over 40 years. To us, they are our angels and we will stand strong and firm against anyone who will attempt entering this area with the intention of disturbing those sleeping angels.”
Ms Collins concludes: “A final statement from residents and townspeople, you are not welcome to this area. We cherish the bodies (if any) as our own family, we have tended the area before you arrived and will continue to do so long after you are gone …It is now time to close the chapter and let our dead rest … It was the times, and mistakes were made, but it’s all part of our history of the times.”
It’s clear that many in Tuam favour commemoration without consequence, where a few flowers and a good old pray will suffice once a year, where the rest of the world won’t know our guilty little secret and no-one will ask awkward questions. I’m not sorry to say that the world doesn’t work that way anymore.
Here are only a few of those awkward questions:
Why was the infant mortality rate in the Tuam Home five times that of the rest of country, when the State paid the Bon Secours nuns the equivalent of over €100 per child per week?
Why were so many infants – infants who were almost certainly baptised and thus entitled to a Catholic burial – disposed of in a disused sewage system, when there is a graveyard only yards away?
Are all 796 of those babies really dead? Could some of them have been sold and trafficked abroad?
Where are John and William Dolan and all the other babies?
Anna Corrigan, whose lonely search for her brothers sparked the Tuam Babies scandal, says there is a very obvious flaw in any attempt to put up a plaque in Tuam, say a Mass and move on, as was done in the 1970s.
“That is a crime scene, and it features in two open police investigations,” she says. She believes the Garda investigations into the disappearances of her brothers are the two oldest, and perhaps the youngest, missing persons cases in Ireland. She speaks for the Tuam Babies Families Group, and they are demanding a full exhumation, and the DNA analysis of all remains.
I don’t live on top of a mass grave. If I did, I cannot say with any certainty that I would be kinder than some in Tuam appear to be.
I don’t know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if ghosts really do exist and if my house, and all the houses beside my house, might be haunted.
I hope I’d be kinder. I hope I’d remember that the Tuam site is not ancient history. I hope I’d have the decency to realise that to people like Anna Corrigan, Tuam is unfinished family business.
Relatives and survivors are tormented by uncertainty. The dead can never rest so long as the living are haunted.