Lessons from Tuam: an essay

So it seems that the narrative about the bodies of 800 babies ‘dumped in a a septic tank’ in the grounds of the former children’s home in Tuam has finally unravelled as I predicted last week.

The post met with an overwhelming response – it was never my intention to garner or generate controversy, let alone defend the indefensible, but to cast a critical eye over what seemed to be some very implausible headlines.

It seemed beyond belief that nuns who were purported to be in the grip of religious fervour, would ignore its basic tenets, rites and rituals and simply tip the corpses into the sewage pit. Nothing is impossible, but an examination of the logisitics and historical evidence to the contrary (such as the tender for coffins) showed that the story was the result of febrile imaginations and a confirmation bias. A gruesome motif symbolising the brutal, vicious Catholic monsters of popular imagination.

The story was not so much of a hoax, there was no deliberate intent to mislead, but innate prejudices combined with a journalist’s desire to create a splash and prove his mettle as a top investigative reporter, meant that the only thing being consigned to a septic tank were basic principles of fact-checking.

I was lambasted for suggesting “it was the builder’s wot done it” but in most situations, Occam’s Razor ought to be the default position. The nuns would have had to have gone to an awful lot of trouble and inconvenience to be opening up a septic tank on a regular basis; it would have required a degree of determined and willful cruelty from all involved. It’s inconceivable to think that such an abomination would have been able to have been kept secret for over 53 years. Other people such as the lay staff at the home would surely have known.

In any event two further possibilities emerged this week.

Firstly, the Irish Times published an important letter from Dr Finbar McCormick from the school of Geography, Archeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Sir, – The media should be very wary of using the term “septic tank” to describe the structure containing the child burials at St Mary’s mother-and-child home at Tuam. It is offensive and hurtful to all those involved. The structure as described is much more likely to be a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used in the recent past and still used today in many part of Europe.

In the 19th century, deep brick-lined shafts were constructed and covered with a large slab which often doubled as a flatly laid headstone. These were common in 19th-century urban cemeteries. The stone could be temporarily removed to allow the addition of additional coffined burials to the vault. Such tombs are still used extensively in Mediterranean countries. I recently saw such structures being constructed in a churchyard in Croatia. The shaft was made of concrete blocks, plastered internally and roofed with large concrete slabs.

Many maternity hospitals in Ireland had a communal burial place for stillborn children or those who died soon after birth. These were sometimes in a nearby graveyard but more often in a special area within the grounds of the hospital. It was not a tradition until very recently to return such deceased infants to parents for taking back to family burial places.

Until proved otherwise, the burial structure at Tuam should be described as a communal burial vault. – Yours, etc,

The RTE journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes bears a lot of responsibility for the misrepresentations of the story. He strenuously denies ever stating that there were bodies in the tank, but he certainly strongly implied it, with reports posing the question “what lies beneath”, along with posts and maps demonstrating that the spot where the boys discovered bodies was in the area of a former septic tank, and linking to photographs and highlighting awareness of a protest for ‘the babies in the bog’.

The misrepresented headlines did not appear mainly in foreign publications, as Philip claimed, they were published in UK media such as on ITV, the Belfast Telegraph, the Times and were reported as fact on BBC radio and TV and Sky news bulletins throughout the day.

Philip may not have claimed that there were bodies in a septic tank, but he did go some way to stoke the hysteria.

That said, his blogpost of yesterday appears to have shed more light on exactly what happened to the bodies of the children who died and seems to be the most likely explanation, although of course we still do not know precisely whom the bodies in the tank or shaft, discovered by the boys 40 years ago, belong to.

A woman has come forward who has related to me a credible first hand account of falling into a burial plot at the rear of the home in in the mid 70’s where she discovered a large amount of infant remains wrapped in swaddling.

Her interview suggests that one of the two spots where baby and child remains were placed could not have been a septic tank.

The Mail on Sunday has identified two sites side by side each other in its radar survey. Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney discovered one as boys in 1975. The Mail called it Plot B.

Plot A is the square shaped one Mary Moriarty says she fell into in the 1970’s when the ground subsided. A child was found playing with a baby’s skull and when Mary and neighbours investigated she discovered a large underground space with shelves from floor to ceiling stacked with infant bodies. She says she saw in excess of 100 tiny figures swaddled and guessed from the size they were newborn or stillborn.

Subsequently she talked to a woman called Julia Devaney who had been a resident of the home and later an employee. By then in her late seventies she told Mary how she had assisted the nuns carrying dead babies along a tunnel running from the back of the home to this vault.

Now obviously it will take excavation to confirm any of this but her description of the space and the possible existence of a tunnel used to access this burial plot would suggest that plot A (whatever of Plot B) at least was not a septic tank.

Boucher-Hayes goes on to say that unanswered questions remain such as why were the babies buried there instead of the municipal graveyard over the road where there was an ‘angels’ plot’ for unbaptised babies. I suspect the answer is cost, we know that the rate-payers were already unhappy at having to fork out for ‘illegitimate’ children along with convenience. We do not know whether or this vault was consecrated at any point or whether or not it only contained babies.

It’s been exasperating and amusing in equal measure to watch how media organisations including the BBC refer to how the babies and children were ‘routinely denied baptism’. Firstly, why should the BBC even care about whether water was splashed over a child’s head and received a religious sacrament which will probably be nothing more than superstition to an impartial secular state broadcaster.

Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that such a thing did routinely happen, if anything the childrens’ circumstances of birth would have made their baptism seem doubly important to those religious running the homes and there are plenty of accounts of children attending Mass and receiving First Holy Communion, a sacrament it is impossible for the unbaptised to receive. As yet there is nothing to suggest that baptised children were not buried in consecrated ground, but as ever it’s a subtle way of reinforcing contempt for these sisters and placing the finger of blame upon their religion, by portraying adherents as uncaring hypocrites who tried to exclude children from the faith. The evidence to support this just isn’t there.

This is why campaigners have been so keen to attempt to repeatedly hammer home other unpalatable facts, in particular the high mortality rate experienced at Tuam’s children home which was in common with the mortality rates for infants and children born out of wedlock and in institutions across Ireland. This, they believe, is evidence of deliberate cruelty and maltreatment, in which the home at Tuam, being run by a Catholic order, would have undoubtedly participated.

Mortality rates and Vaccine trials

Lurid claims that the children in some homes were subject to horrifying trials of vaccinations without consent, along with other claims of abhorrent practices are precisely why an inquiry needs to be held, in order that, as the Archbishop of Dublin has said, the truth may come out. The vaccine trials element seems to be especially concerning, in that this would have involved the complicity and silence of the manufacturers and medical profession, who to some extent must have been driving this initiative. Did no-one in the medical profession, including those who received the results of such research think to ask questions about the appropriateness of testing them upon children or the ethics of using or recommending a vaccine that had been developed in such a fashion? What is the involvement and complicity of big Pharma along with the state’s medical officers who supervised and administered the trials. Why are they not being pressed about this issue in the same way? Do pharma companies still use institutionalised children and prisoners as has been suggested? It seems that there is still an issue in terms of obtaining informed consent from patients for drugs trials in poorer countries, but without the addition of monstrous demon nuns, the interest is limited.

It is not good enough to blame atrocities upon the age or the time, those who ran Christian institutions ought to have known better – Christianity is uncompromising about sexual ethics, but it is equally demanding on the principles of forgiveness, reconciliation and treating one another with love. Strictures about due care of widows and orphans appear to have been wholly disregarded.

However, justice is not best served by trashing the reputation of a particular order of deceased nuns on the basis of scant evidence, supposition and confirmation bias. All parties deserve better than for Tuam’s children to be treated as a convenient totem. As yet there is nothing to suggest the deliberate or willful cruelty at this one institution.

So if the story about the septic tank is wrong then what else is wrong? If you’re going to fashion a stick with which to beat the Catholic church, it would be better not to use papier-mache as your raw material.

This leaflet produced by the Committee for the Children’s Home memorial in Tuam, describes not only how children were receiving Firstly Holy Communion but also how one of the problems facing the children were that they were boarded out to unsuitable homes, where foster parents were happy to take the money from the government to look after the children, but treated them like slaves, in many cases not giving them enough to eat or even clothing them properly.

How responsible were the sisters for vetting the homes into which the children were sent? The Mother Superior complained that the home was not suitable or designed for large numbers of children and that there were not sufficient numbers of staff to look after and raise them all. Whose responsibility was it for ensuring the wellbeing of the children once they left the home?

I am not saying that the nuns were not in any way at fault, but what has emerged is a picture of a home which never left the hands of the state who were struggling with rising costs, a delapidated building, a council reluctant to put its hands in its pockets and an elderly doctor on the point of retirement. According to this report, the medical officer in the Tuam Home was probably “Ireland’s oldest doctor”.

Some of the many causes of death were listed as follows: whooping cough, anaemia, influenza, kidney inflammation, laryngitis, congenital heart disease, enteritis, epilepsy, spinal bifida, chicken pox, general odeama (dropsy), coeliac disease, birth injury, sudden circulatory failure and fits. As anyone living in any sort of close proximity to another knows, it only takes one member of a family to come down with a lurgy and within 24 hours the whole household is struck down, with whatever nasty is doing the rounds. Conditions like gastroenteritis could quickly prove fatal in the absence of decent medical care, hygiene and medication. I’ve had to take two of babies to hospital for dehydration.

There are many issues arising from child mortality rates, Irish blogger Cathyby has compiled some useful charts which put these into sombre perspective and ought to be considered as part of the inquiry.

Speaking on RTE’s morning show, historian Ann Matthews who has written a book on the mother and baby homes made some interesting points. She reminded listeners that under discussion were isolated high mortality rates in the ‘20s. In 1933-34 the mortality rates of children in one home spiked to 40% due to a measles epidemic,  but by 1934-1935, due to help from the local government and the sweepstake, 4 homes had dedicated maternity hospitals built and they started to slowly get on top of keeping the spread of infection down, stopping the spread of measles and trying to feed young women.

What is overlooked is that there were clusters of young girls aged 14-18 coming into the homes completely malnourished, barely capable of carrying a successful pregnancy to term and unable to breastfeed the baby so that it would have little chance of thriving. Some reports blame nuns for forcing women to breastfeed, which is commonly accepted as best for the baby, others berate them for encouraging bottle feeding which would have put the babies at increased risk of deadly gastroenteritis.

The effect of maternal health upon the unborn child is a something that there is increased awareness of today – we know that conditions such as hypertension and diabetes need to be carefully monitored as they may affect mother and child. Teen pregnancies are more problematic from a health point of view, they at are increased risk of complications and premature birth. When you factor in the age and social strata of many of the girls presenting at the homes, it may go some way to explain the high mortality rates, along with other factors such as lack of  nutritious diet, antibiotics and adequate infection control.

According to Ann Matthews, meticulous records were kept at all the homes she studied, which are now in the hands of Ireland’s HSE.  All the information is there to enable the story to be studied and told in a non-judgemental and informative way. She claims that the religious orders were more than happy to assist her in obtaining the information and answering enquiries in the course of research for her book.

I do have some sympathy for the nuns especially the current sisters who have come under severe criticism for their decision to employ a PR firm. The fact that they have allowed this to be known, shows how ill-equipped they are to handle the media. The sisters have neither confirmed or denied reports of a mass grave because they are unable to. The home shut down 53 years ago and the records were handed over the authorities at the time. Their particular vocation is about caring for the sick and suffering particularly in hospitals, care homes and private homes, not running a slick PR operation. They have neither the time, manpower, nor expertise and this must detract from their vital and necessary daily work  of tending to the sick.

Any inquiry must examine, not only the religious institutions and how they were interconnected, but also the state organisations such as the state-run County Homes where up to 70% of unmarried mothers and their children ended up which is what historian Sean Lucey claimed in this week’s Irish Times. The scandal of the unmarked graves in the Protestant-run Bethany institution which was revealed in the same week as Tuam, received no global media.

It isn’t just the deaths of the children which are problematic, it’s the maltreatment, the vaccination programme, forced adoptions and boarding out. The inquiry should be far-reaching and ask why these homes were set up and include both the privately and publicly funded ones. It should also examine the young women and how they came to be there, including how they became pregnant, was it rape, family members or employers? It should also examine all of the individuals’ records.

One unfortunate consequence of the story is that it has proved enormously distressing to the survivors of these homes who have been left wondering whether or not their relatives were dumped in a septic tank or similar. It has also concerned those who do not wish for their personal histories and stories to become public knowledge as a result of the press coverage or any resulting criminal investigation. Much of the resulting coverage has been very insensitive and caused enormous hurt to the already vulnerable victims and survivors.

“You pro-lifers you don’t care about dead babies, only unborn ones – you have no compassion”

Some of the personal criticism I have received as a result of writing about this has included accusations of a lack of compassion and trying to defend wrongdoing. Let me be clear about this, as a mother of 4 children, the issue of how unmarried mothers and children were treated has appalled me and not just in Ireland.

Thinking about the physical conditions and shame that these women had to endure, along with how most of them were forced to give their babies up, produces a hard knot of nausea and panic in my stomach. It constitutes a form of torture for mother and child alike. My visceral response is one of violence, the type of violence that anyone would receive if they tried to remove one of my babies or children from me.

When it comes to the children themselves, it’s the small details that choke me, for the last week every time I brush my children’s teeth I can’t stop thinking about the children in the home, who was there to help them with basic tasks of self-care, who helped them to cut up their food, or hold a drink without spilling it, wiped their bottoms and so on. It isn’t just the harsh conditions, but the lack of a loving family and individual emotional nurture that is so heartbreaking, especially when you then consider how they were further stigmatised by the wider communities as untouchables.

Keep your nose out of Ireland’s business

lucky charms

The other criticism or implication coming from folk like Colm O’Gorman who was happy to welcome Nadine Dorries’ negative comments about the Irish Catholic church (on the grounds of her Liverpudlian family connections) is that as an ignorant Sasanach I really ought to refrain from commenting on this affair which is purely Ireland’s business and resulting from a particular brand of Irish Catholicism.

Whatever the particular causes, be it a Jansenist version of Catholicism which was practiced in Ireland, or that people were genuinely terrified as to the consequences of illegitimacy and poverty having experienced several famines, or that the newly established Free State was trying build a Utopia and using Catholicism as a moral arbiter, (though no Christian could condone what happened here), leaving aside the ubiquitous Irish family card (my husband’s family), or the fact that I write for a publication with a significant Irish readership, this story is of interest to anyone concerned with the rights and welfare of women and mothers.

As a pro-lifer I have a direct interest in attempting to understand attitudes which led women to be abandoned in institutes and caused suffering to them and their babies – these are the same attitudes which lead to abortion today. In the absence of serious indications to the contrary, mothers and babies always fare better when a mother is allowed to raise her own child. Adoption is a wonderful gift but it should only ever be a last resort.

As a Catholic there is also an interest in getting to the bottom of what happened. What people fail to understand is that the Church is the body of Christ, comprised of every single believer on the planet. When one part hurts, we all feel the pain as a collective. Therefore where abuses have been committed in her name, it is the responsibility of all of us. This is not just Irish history, but part of Catholic history. Communities are formed in part by memories and histories and so we have a duty not only to the victims, but also to future generations to ensure an accurate version of history is preserved.

But to write this off as purely an Irish tragedy or an Irish Catholic tragedy is short-sighted. The UK had more than its fair share of institutions which were little more than dumping grounds for unwanted mothers and babies. The website motherandbabyhomes provides a harrowing insight into life and conditions in such UK institutions. Jennifer Worth, author of the Call the Midwife series of books, relates how unmarried mothers were pressurised into giving up their babies for adoptions, in many cases being threatened with incarceration in a mental hospital if they refused and of false diagnoses of mental illnesses justifying the child’s removal.

David Quinn writing in the Irish Independent has highlighted how that liberal paradise Sweden forced unmarried mothers to have abortions and sterilised them along with other women thought to be at risk of producing illegitimate children. Even the good old USA, land of the free and home of the brave has something of a chequered history when it comes to forced programmes of eugenics and sterilisation of poor women.

We are deluding ourselves if we think these attitudes do not exist today – a recent UK example being the numbers of Downs Syndrome children aborted, whose existence was  forgotten, deemed unimportant enough for the abortion clinics to even record properly.

Equally the drive by successive UK governments to get unmarried and single mothers back into work as swiftly as possible instead of the all important job of raising and nurturing their children, echoes a similar desire for ‘penance’ and a Protestant work ethic.

The enquiry is both a blessing and a curse for Enda Kenny, on the one hand he can indulge his habit of berating the Irish Catholic society of 50 years ago thereby distracting from the pressing issues of Ireland’s healthcare system and the economy; on the other hand Ireland is currently skint, and one could legitimately ask whether or not an inquiry is the best use of resources.

In a scandal which has shades of Tuam, one child dies every fortnight in Ireland’s HSE care system, according to this report in November 2013. Old people are stigmatised and institutionalised in homes on account of their fragility and similarly complained about in terms of their cost.

To isolate Mother and Baby homes as being a symptom of twentieth-century Ireland combined with Catholicism is self-satisfying, sanctimonious, short-sighted and glib. The answer lies not in demonising Ireland or Catholicism, but returning to Christian teachings which identify flawed human nature and propose a definitive strategy in terms of how we should all be treating each other.

6 thoughts on “Lessons from Tuam: an essay

  1. It’s not because you’re a Sasanach. That’s just racist.
    It’s because you are a stupid denier of truth.
    An others will believe you and that’s more than sad. It’s dangerous.
    It’s because people like you defending the indefensible and whitewashing it means it will get repeated over and over.
    It’s because you are the enemy of justice, the one who stands in the way of truth.
    It’s because your blind allegiance makes you complicit.
    You are part of this problem.

  2. Of course, there was a deliberate attempt to mislead (as many of them are continuing to do in respect of this particular lie). This attack on the Church and its values through lies is a constant, relentless, daily phenomenon in most of the big Media (print, radio and TV) in Ireland, which is controlled by an anti-God, anti-Church, anti-morality ideology. This has been the case for thirty years. It is extremely flagrant and extremely vicious and extremely dominant – and does not permit of truth or reason. Most of the Media and those with public platforms in Ireland have just continued on without abatement as if the evidence and reason showing the story to be false did not exist. As I said, this “story” is typical of what people in Ireland have been and continue to be fed on a daily basis for decades. On this occasion, the “story” was directed worldwide. Just because you and others, mainly in independent or Catholic media, mainly online have shown the falseness of this “story”, do not imagine for one moment that the so-called “mainstream Media” in Ireland has disavowed it – on the contrary, they are still peddling it and using it to push laws, policies for, inter alia, more killing of babies in utero; and for the further cultivation of hatred of God, His Holy Church and objective moral truth.

  3. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/k

    The Associated Press has issued a correction to its original story (my emphasis)

    “In stories published June 3 and June 8 about young children buried in unmarked graves after dying at a former Irish orphanage for the children of unwed mothers, The Associated Press INCORRECTLY REPORTED that the children had not received Roman Catholic baptisms; documents show that many children at the orphanage were baptized. The AP also INCORRECTLY REPORTED that Catholic teaching at the time was to deny baptism and Christian burial to the children of unwed mothers; although that may have occurred in practice at times it was not church teaching. In addition, in the June 3 story, the AP quoted a researcher who said she believed that most of the remains of children who died there were interred in a disused septic tank; the researcher has since clarified that without excavation and forensic analysis it is impossible to know how many sets of remains the tank contains, if any. The June 3 story also contained an incorrect reference to the year that the orphanage opened; it was 1925, not 1926.”

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