June 17, 2014

Brave Irish historian demands dignity for 796 dead babies of Tuam

Ireland is once more in a mess. After numerous scandals revolving around revelations on abhorrent conditions in orphanages, industrial schools and similar institutions have rocked the Irish society in the last decades – with a hard to read Ryan Report only out in 2009 – new discoveries two weeks ago on 796 children who died in a mother-and-baby-homes in Tuam without getting a proper burial have caused again ripples that by now turned into huge waves. The Irish government, reluctant at first, has decided to establish a full scale investigation into not only this case but all similar cases of mother-and-baby-homes in Ireland, and it is feared that discoveries made there might bring even more shocking news.

The mother-and-baby-homes had the concept of locking away young girls who had become pregnant without being married. Society regarded them, not least due to the harsh teaching of the Catholic Church, as sinful and a shame to their families. For this reason such 'fallen' women were literally dumped by their families at mother-and-baby-homes run by religious Orders, where the girls were hidden away from the curious looks of the neighbours, who were told the girls had gone overseas.

In the homes, the girls, who were not permitted to leave the premises, were kept like slaves, working hard without any pay. They gave birth there, and almost always had to give up their children a year later for forced adoption. Something that the sisters seemed to have made a lucrative trade of, selling the babies off to as far as America, promoting them like a commodity to prospective buyers, as a letter by a Reverend Mother of Roscrea's Sean Ross Abbey shows. The dealings of the nuns was nothing short of human trafficking, consented by society and families who seemed to care less what became of these so called 'illegitimate' children.

Harrowing accounts of maltreatment in these mother-and-baby-homes have come up, of the authoritarian rule by the nuns – in the case of Tuam the Sisters of Bon Secours – and how they deliberately inflicted pain and humiliation on the fallen girls to punish them for their sin. Long times of complete silence or prayers were demanded from them while at the same time doing hard labour in the house or in the gardens. Some of these girls were as young as 15 years and had no understanding of sexuality or the concept of pregnancies that resulted from something where the boy had told them: "Don't worry, it's ok." When however they became pregnant, the boys turned their backs on them, their families discarded them and the nuns had a free hand to punish them in every way they wanted. It is reported that painkillers during birth were deliberately refused so that the women would feel the pain of the sin they had committed. Other witnesses report that babies, when in need of food, were by order of the nuns breast-fed by other women while the original mothers had to scrub floors somewhere else in the building. Another attempt to humiliate and punish the girls for what a deeply conservative society and a Church regarding sex before marriage a crime deemed to be their unforgivable sins.

At the same time, the young men who had had their fun and were the root problem of all this went unharmed and retained their respectable lives in their families.

A story of skeletons

The cause for all this to surface now, decades after these horrific conditions were forced upon 'fallen' girls and their offspring, is the determination of a local historian from Tuam, a small town north of Galway on the west coast of Ireland. Catherine Corless, who, as she herself says, has always led a quiet secluded life, never anticipated that her persistency on getting to know the truth behind the fate of children who died in Tuam would ever lead to a world-wide media storm and a governmental investigation.

It was hearing a story back from 1975 that led her on her path of research. At the times two young boys from Tuam had played on the grounds behind the – by then torn down – mother-and-baby-home of the Bon Secours Sisters, had as so often hopped over the wall to play in a small patch of grass, when they discovered concrete slabs that seemed to hide a secret. As the slabs were broken, the inquisitive boys did their best to push them aside – and froze. Beneath them, in a pit of approximately 3 metres depth, skulls and bones of little children were chaotically piled up right to the top. Scared, as eleven old ones would be at such a sight, they ran off and informed their parents. Other children came to check what the fuss was about, and in the end, the two boys, now grown men and still living in Tuam, report, a priest from the Parish came and held mass over the open pit. Then the slabs were put back in place and no one ever spoke about it anymore.

When local historian Catherine Corless heard this story, at the time not knowing the two boys were still around as grown men to be interviewed on this, she wanted to find out the truth behind the pit "filled to the brim with bones". She contacted the local registrar and asked how many children had died in that mother-and-baby-home of the Bon Secours Sisters, that existed from 1925 to 1961, when it was finally shut down, later bulldozed and replaced by a housing estate now on its grounds.

The registrar needed a week to check up on Catherine Corless' request, but the news she had when she came back for her, was a shock. Almost 800 children had died in the care of the nuns of the Bon Secours Sisters in the time from 1925 to 1961, meaning in average one child died in the home almost every two weeks throughout its existence.

The investigations

This in itself disturbing news, Corless however wanted to know more. She wanted to research the reasons for such a high number of deaths and she wanted to know where these 796 recorded children had been officially buried, seeing that there was a pit behind the home filled with children's skeletons. She asked for copies of the death certificates to these children and learned that each official copy meant a fee of € 4. "Do you really want them all?" the registrar inquired doubtfully.

Corless did. It took her two years until finally, in September 2013, she had spend a considerable sum of money but held all 796 death certificates to the – today on social media dubbed – #tuambabies in her hand.

The reading was hard to take. Most of the often only months old babies had died of infectious diseases, others were said to have been 'idiots' or 'mentally defective' or born with disabilities in numbers, that seemed dubiously high. Besides that, the death certificates listed measles, mumps and other illnesses, that, given the cramped space the children were subjected to, spread like wildfires in the home and led to horrible, painful deaths. A local health board inspection report from April 1947 described the children as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs” leading to impressions of malnutrition, which even given the hard times Ireland had been through, could only be considered gross neglect by the nuns. After all they received considerable amounts of payments from the Irish state per child in addition to the lucrative income achieved through selling the babies off later to adopting parents. This malnutrition had no doubt a disturbing impact on the immune system of the babies and in itself needed urgent research.

All in all the causes for deaths made for a disturbing read. Yet the most troubling question of all remained: Where were these 796 dead children?

Corless set out to the Tuam graveyard, situated conveniently across the road from the plot, where in former times the Bon Secours Sisters home was situated. She asked to see the cemetery register and compared all names at the given times to the 796 names she had with her. To no avail. None of the babies had been buried there. Catherine Corless is still bitter about this.

"These babies were not buried in the main Tuam graveyard across the road, where they should have been buried in an angels plot in consecrated ground. Why? - They were just illegitimate babies.  Illegitimate children don't matter, do they?"

But the historian did not give up easily. With her list of dead babies she travelled around the region, visiting many graveyards around Tuam in other villages, hoping to find something there. But at the end she had to accept that, but for one boy who she could trace to having been laid to rest in a families plot, 796 babies of the Bon Secours Sisters had vanished without a trace of a decent, proper burial anywhere.

The Archbishop apologises

In January 2014 Catherine Corless wrote an essay about her findings on her Facebook page. She was so engaged with this case by now that she searched for old maps of the Bon Secours Sisters home, only to find that the place, where the boys had discovered the children's remains, was used as a septic tank by a workhouse originally located there and then still in the early years of the home. When public sewage came to Tuam in the late 1930s, the septic pit, just behind the grounds of the home, was no longer needed. Placing the old maps over the current ones shows that the area of the old septic tank was where the skulls and bones of the children had been discovered in 1975 by the two boys.

The findings were reported by local newspapers without stirring any public reaction. Something, that still puzzles the historian to this day. Only when the Irish Mail on Sunday picked up the story at the end of May, did heads shoot up and people started to take notice. And before Corless knew what was happening, the story made headlines all over the world and had been published more than 2000 times in just over a week.

The Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, responded swiftly with a strong statement, the honesty of which Corless finds "admirable".
"I am horrified and saddened to hear of the large number of deceased children involved and this points to a time of great suffering and pain for the little ones and their mothers." Neary said.
 "I can only begin to imagine the huge emotional wrench which the mothers suffered in giving up their babies for adoption or by witnessing their death. Many of these young vulnerable women would already have been rejected by their families. The pain and brokenness which they endured is beyond our capacity to understand. It is simply too difficult to comprehend their helplessness and suffering as they watched their beloved child die."
Neary welcomed the decision of the government to establish an investigation about the fate of the Home Babies in Tuam and noted that, "regardless of the time lapse involved this is a matter of great public concern which ought to be acted upon urgently."

The Archbishop pointed out that as the diocese did not have any involvement in the running of the home in Tuam it did not have any material relating to it in its archives but went on to say: "While the Archdiocese of Tuam will cooperate fully nonetheless there exists a clear moral imperative on the Bon Secours Sisters in this case to act upon their responsibilities in the interests of the common good."

In accordance with the statement of the Bishop the archivist of the Archdiocese of Tuam has tried to find anything relating to the Babies Home that was run by the religious order of the Bon Secours Sisters. To little avail, as Fr. Fintan Monahan, Secretary to the Archbishop, points out.

"In our archives - the only thing we have in my knowledge is a letter from the head of the Bon Secours asking the Bishop of the time to open a separate foundation which turned out to be the Grove Hospital in Tuam. That hospital closed down over 10 years ago to the sadness and disappointment of Tuam people. The only other item we have in the Tuam Parish that might be of assistance to the commission is the baptism register and the death register."

So far at least, no notes have been found by the priest who back in 1975 was said to have held mass over the opened pit containing unknown children's remains. "I have asked the older priests and they genuinely have no knowledge of this as the priests that ministered in Tuam then are now deceased." says Fr. Monahan, ensuring once more that the Archdiocese of Tuam will assist the governmental investigation in all points "and support the memorial committee in whatever way we can."

The Archbishop of Dublin, who is also the Primate of Ireland, put out a statement demanding a full investigation into all mother-and-baby-homes, as in his opinion "there's no point" in just investigation Tuam. "It probably happened in other mother-and-baby homes around the country,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said, acknowledging that "there was collusion between church and State institutions.” The Archbishop added: "We need to investigate exactly what happened... to try to identify the areas of culture that were there, and to make sure they’re all gone."

A few days later Archbishop Neary on his part directly addressed the victims:
"As a minister of the church, I apologise to the people who are hurt and have suffered and who are pained by this. We must think about them at this time. This is a time for transparency. Our diocese is committed to transparency and for that reason, all who have been involved in the management of those homes throughout the country have a responsibility to contribute to the inquiry and ensure that the truth comes out."
The reaction of the Bon Secours Sisters to the revelations so far however have been limited. In a statement the Sisters had said that they welcome an investigation into the matter without letting out, what their position was on the allegations. A little later however, when the media storm grew in intensity, the Bon Secours Sisters made use of one of the best PR firms of Ireland only to let journalists know that from now on the Sisters would not say anything anymore.

A troubling reaction seeing that the Bon Secours Sisters, in whose home these 796 children died without a burial recorded anywhere, have a lot to explain. Credible testimonies have been given to Catherine Corless by mothers who gave birth in the Tuam Homes who state that their babies have been baptised by the local Priest when he came by for holding daily mass at the Home each morning at 7 a.m. The mothers, as they recounted, were not allowed to attend the baptising of their own children, another disturbing aspect of the inexcusable way the nuns treated the 'fallen' women. No governmental inquiry would be needed for the Sisters of Bon Secours to open up on this dark chapter of their own Homes and explain this inexplicable treatment of young mothers during the sacred act of baptising of their children. All it would take is the courage and decency to face the past, in order to help those that were victimised to find healing after all they have been through.

The rejected Home Babies

From "Christ's life in us. Workbook." Dublin: CJ Fallon, 1970s
For Catherine Corless, finding the truth and restoring the dignity of those who perished in the home with no tombstone to their name has become a matter of huge importance. As a child she herself had been in school with children from the home, called by all the Home Babies and subjected to maltreatment and rejection. The Home Babies were considered unclean and fruits of sin. In school they had to sit separately in class and had to leave early when school was over to make sure they would not mingle with the decent children who were encouraged by the nuns not to be nice to the outcasts.

Corless had played a trick once on one of the Home Baby girls, offering her a little stone wrapped in candy paper. She had seen this done by a friend of her and found the reaction of the poor girl on discovering she had been fooled funny at the time. The idea that that girl would never have seen a kindness in her life and the unfairness of the trick haunts her to the day. “Years after I asked myself what did I do to that poor little girl that never saw a sweet? That has stuck with me all my life. A part of me wants to make up to them.”

For this she has gone to great lengths, has been tireless in her research and persistent in trying to find out the truth. She even build a model of the Bon Secours Sisters home using the old plans of the workhouse she had found.

"Building the model kept my mind focused on the mother-and-baby-home and I felt that it might help those who spent time there to see and remember and perhaps find a healing of some sort," says Corless.

The model shows where the mothers dropped off their unfortunate girls in the front house, handing them over to a stern Reverend Mother who would hold them in her possession and at her continued disposal from now on. The horrific insults and accusations hurled at those poor girls on such occasion one can only imagine.

For all this to be known, the historian made huge personal contributions, especially in her attempt to obtain all the records of the 796 dead children. The Irish state should reimburse Catherine Corless for her expenses. Had it not been for her  willingness to invest such a lot of private money and time, Ireland would not know what it knows know and urgently needed to know about. Especially as the mother-and-baby-home in Tuam was only one of many. And even the Archbishop of Dublin fears that this is only the beginning to more gruesome discoveries.

A story of the battle of the Faiths

Not everyone naturally is pleased about the revelations of the historian in Tuam. Denialists in the Church, the media and on social media were quick to refute all findings, denying such atrocities ever happened. Some, calling themselves "Catholic militant" refused to acknowledge the existence of dead babies in the pit or took great efforts to explain that the pit was a burial ground as used in medieval times and not, what the maps showed in fact, a septic tank. Some called it a 'hoax' or spoke of a fake story invented to tarnish the image of the Catholic Church.

The story of the 796 vanished Tuam babies is after all also a story of the not yet buried war of Faiths in Ireland and a troubled relationship with the British. Having gained independence in 1922, everything connected with the former colonial power, including their Protestant belief, was strictly rejected. Many girls were taken up in the homes so to ensure they would not leave for England, while others were brought back from Protestant homes in England under great troubles to make sure they remained in the realm of Catholicism. The war of beliefs over which church is the right one, ignoring the valid question if God cared for such quarrels, has been waging ever since, and even the Ireland of today, having officially a non-religious government, still shows the rift when emotions run high on the comment section of newspapers or on social media where the Catholic Church is defended blindly despite all the scathing reports of the past, or the call for finally separating the Church from the state can be heard loud and clear.

After all, since the Irish Constitution of 1937, the draft of which the then government send twice to the Vatican for reviewing, "the State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens", a right that is not reserved for the Protestant Church seen as closely connected with the former colonial ruler. And so the battle wages on with every new finding from the past shedding a light on the dubious system of the state paying the Catholic Church to put up institutions, including the mother-baby-homes, where the 'fallen', shameful girls of society could be put away and out of view. The one – the state representing the society – paid and the other – the Catholic Church – offered gladly to do the job. Both will now once again need to come to terms with their horrible past and their collusion on any wrongdoings against children where welfare of the vulnerable should have been the dutiful concern for the parties involved.

The Archbishops with their strong worded statements and demands for full investigations they promise to be part of have set the tone for how the Catholic Church of Ireland has to deal with this new crisis. Stepping back from this would be a great failure. As Archbishop Martin pointed out in response to earlier scandals already in 2009: "There is always a price to pay for not responding. The church will have to pay that price in terms of its credibility. The first thing the church has to do is to move out of any mode of denial." What the denialists in contrast don't see is that with their militancy denying even the facts that are proven they do damage to the very Church they pretend to protect.

Little bodies stacked in shelves

In the meantime more revelations have come up. A media company financed a subsurface radar examination of the plot where the boys said they had found the skeletons in a pit. The results showed two 'anomalies' in the ground of that area – a rectangular shaped plot A and a plot B resembling the former septic tank. At the same time a new witness came forward supporting Catherine Corless and her research.

Mary Moriarty, who lives close to the area, told an Irish reporter that in the mid-70s a child had played with a children's skull and, startled, she had gone to investigate the matter with her neighbours. On crossing the area that contains the two anomalies, the ground over todays plot A suddenly caved in and allowed her to enter what she describes a huge vault with shelves stacked from bottom to top with over 100 children's bodies wrapped in clothes. The witness recalled the conversation afterwards with a woman in her late 70s, called Julia Devaney, who said that she had worked at the Bon Secours Sisters home at the time and repeatedly had helped the nuns carry dead babies through a tunnel to this vault.

Such a tunnel, Catherine Corless had found out in her research, had indeed been build. The Co. Galway Homes and Home Assistance Committee had decided to prepare it as a shelter in case of possible air raids, as was reported by the Tuam Herald in July 1940. The story of Mary Moriarty seemed to make sense against this background, presenting not only for the former septic tank, found as plot B in the subsurface radar examination, but now in addition also for the marked plot A an explanation and a story of a grim discovery of babies' bodies.

How many children indeed are buried in these two places and if all 796 babies who have no burial record are to be found here, only an excavation could establish. As things stand, there are testimonies of witnesses so far and subsurface radar results but no view of the skeletons yet, giving those who want to fight or defend the Catholic Church enough room for heated arguments and accusations in public forums, often coldly ignoring the fate of the children who lost their lives in the Tuam mother-and-baby-home. 

She won't give up

To Catherine Corless the battle of the Faiths and their followers matters little. She demands justice and dignity for the 796 children that died and simply vanished. "All that matters is the truth", the undeterred historian says. "796 children must be accounted for." Surely, she argues, the children had a right to a proper burial, to dignity and respect. In her opinion, the fact that they vanished without an official trace of having been laid to rest is an inexcusable failure of the nuns of the Order of Bon Secours, the Catholic Church and the conservative society of Ireland that needs to be fully investigated. And before anyone should get any doubts on her determination, she insists: "I will not give up on them."

It is not hard to see, the babies of Tuam, wherever they might be buried, have finally in death found a friend they clearly didn't have in their short, suffering life. It can only be hoped that the governmental investigation into the fate of those that perished in mother-and-baby-homes will finally uncover the full truth about sadly yet another dark chapter of Ireland's haunting past. If so, Ireland has no one to thank but a stubborn local historian from Tuam who just wouldn't give up.

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