In a revealing article in the Irish Times published online 45 minutes ago, Catherine Corless, the amateur historian who uncovered the records of the 796 children who died at the Tuam children’s home, run by the Bon Secours sisters has expressed her dissatisfaction by the way the story has been covered by the media, in particular the claims that 800 bodies were ‘dumped’. ‘I never said that word’ – she states.
What has upset, confused and dismayed her in recent days is the speculative nature of much of the reporting around the story, particularly about what happened to the children after they died. “I never used that word ‘dumped’,” she says again, with distress. “I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own.”
Her motivation was entirely about commemorating those who died there and her original article describes how she believes that the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of the home. Perhaps this is why the locals have been so shocked on the discovery of the news, because many of them had tended to what was believed to be ‘the angels plot’ putting up a makeshift garden and Marian shrine.
In the light of Corless’ research which was first reported last year, a graveyard committee was established, a copy of her article was distributed and donations asked for a plaque following a Mass at Tuam Cathedral last year. Barry Sweeney, one of the boys who had originally discovered the graves, got in touch with Catherine to confirm that he had found bones, but as the Irish Times reports:
. “But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that.” How many skeletons does he believe there were? “About 20.”
He goes on to state that the size of the slab broken into was 120cm by 60cm, roughly the size of his coffee table. This makes sense and what I was suggesting in my previous post which received such condemnation from certain quarters. There is no way that you would squeeze 800 bodies into a septic tank.
The article notes the archive material about the sewage scheme which was brought to the home in 1937. The tank had been in use between 1926 and 1937 during which period 204 children died. Catherine Corless admits that it is impossible that the tank would fit 204 bodies and that they would have been thrown into a working sewage tank.
My theory has always been that during these works, which would have required digging, bodies of famine victims were unearthed and it was these who were put unceremoniously into the hollowed out tank, perhaps to save space.
Catherine Corless has said that no-one from the government has asked to review her work, neither has anyone corroborated it, but that she would be happy to share it.
It is likely that the babies are buried on the site somewhere, there are many children’s burial grounds in County Galway and throughout Ireland, but the story that 800 babies were ‘dumped in a septic tank’ is undoubtedly false.
Michael Cook from Mercatornet produced this map of all the childrens’ burial grounds in Country Galway.
Here is an archeological explanation of the work that has so far been carried out on the site of the former home. These specialists posit that the children may have been buried at a site less than a mile away.
We would hypothesise that not only did the Bons Secours nuns in Tuam have to face the difficulties in burying dead infants but so too did many/most Irish families at a time when infant mortality rates were very high. It is no coincidence that Children’s Burial Grounds abound throughout Ireland and also that one is found in Ballymoat townland less than a mile northeast of the Workhouse. If the nuns did bury the infant dead within the Home grounds then where did the neighbouring families bury their infant dead? Some in the children’s burial ground and some in consecrated ground?
None of this detracts from the unacceptably high death rates in Mother and Baby homes and it is important that more research into these institutions is carried out, which is why the Archbishop of Dublin asked his diocesan archivist to collate all the records pertaining to the Mother and Baby homes and make them available to the government, just a few months ago.
This letter in the Irish Times, along with many of the comments on my previous post, throws some light onto conditions faced in the home.
Cohorting infants in institutions puts small infants at risk from cross-infection, particularly gastroenteritis. Early infection to the gastrointestinal tract can cause severe bowel damage. Without the availability of recent technology, many such infants would die from malabsorption resulting in marasmus [severe malnutrition]. The risks would have been much increased if the infants were not breast fed.
In foundling homes in the US in the early 20th century, mortality was sometimes reported as greater than 90 per cent among infants cared for in such institutions. Lack of understanding of nutrition, cross-infection associated with overcrowding by today’s standards, and the dangers of unpasteurised human milk substitutes were the main factors.
Of course many of the babies are reported to have been breast-fed as their mothers were there, but gastroenteritis is certainly an important consideration. Even if the babies were breast-fed, they would have been at increased risk once weaning began. There is always the possibility that they were mixed fed but in any event milk substitute only one factor in gastroenteritis which is very dangerous. My daughter was very ill with campylobacter as a baby, despite good hygiene and being breast-fed.
Irish Blogger Shane, (Lux Occulta) has carried out research indicating that the mortality rate in the home at Tuam was actually LOWER than much of the rest of the country, except in Dublin, where it was the same.
Between 1925 and 1937, 204 children died at the Home — an average of 17 per year. 17 deaths 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 83 per thousand (ie. a mortality rate of 8.3%), in Cork it was 89 per thousand (8.9%), in Waterford it was 102 per thousand (10.2%) and in Limerick it was 132 per thousand (13.2%). (Source: Irish Press, 12th April, 1935; below).
Also the historian Liam Hogan (@limerick1914) who has done so much work in digging up the archives and sharing them, has discovered that the home never once left the hands of the County Council. In 1951, 10 years before it shut, the sisters were begging the board for a grant, saying that they were too ashamed to show councils part of the building which desperately needed renovations, the children were sleeping in attics in terrible conditions and the building were considered a fire risk. In a meeting in 1949, Senator Martin Quinn were told that the children were suffering as result of the condition of the building, to which he replied “I do not like these statements which receive such publicity”.
It seems that the home shut after money wrangles, the County Council were simply not prepared to spend the money to upgrade the building which they owned, especially if it was later to be handed into the hands of the nuns. It was pointed out however, that the nuns could not be expected to take over and maintain a property which was in such bad condition.
Other interesting facts to have emerged are that the Mother Superior was a member of the NSPCC and that the ratepayers repeatedly talked about the unacceptable cost of the ‘misfortunates’. ‘I want the public to know what the illegitimate children are costing the ratepayers of Galway’ said one report in 1938.
This is not meant in any way to deflect or divert blame from any individuals within the Catholic Church, we know that various religious fell well short of the standards expected of them.
“800 bodies dumped and she wants to talk about the logistics” scoffed one tweep. But to most critical thinkers, the story never made sense.
No matter what may have gone on, there is no way that nuns would have been refusing to baptise children as suggested or simply tossing their bodies into a septic tank. That people were so willing to believe this and jump on the outrage bandwagon should be a cause for concern and shows that much work still needs to be done to atone by the Church and others for a terrible time in Ireland’s history.