Tuam children’s home – salting the earth

article-2645870-1E1E699200000578-319_634x321The story of the home run by the Catholic sisters of the Bon Secours has hit the UK press after a resulting Irish media storm.

It has predictably whipped up anti-Catholic outrage and sentiment amongst the small clique of Irish secularists who seem to inhabit Twitter, lurking to pounce on anyone who dares to say anything less than condemnatory about the Catholic Church in Ireland. It’s difficult to tell how representative they are of wider public opinion, but nonetheless the story and the victims deserve a response.

The UK Daily Mail handles the story in an uncharacteristically balanced fashion, noting that these types of homes were prevalent throughout Ireland and run by both the Catholic and Protestant Church.

The existence of a mass grave is tragic – it is saddening that children were buried in this fashion, without any sort of memorial and no burial records, however the claims that they were unceremoniously dumped into a septic tank full of sewage will almost certainly be false. The bodies which were found by two boys playing in the 1970s were interred in a concrete tank. The septic tank referred to had been attached to the building when it was a former workhouse, and was decommissioned by the time the sisters took over the building to run as a home in 1926.

Little is known about the size of the tank, nor has it been confirmed how many bodies are contained therein. The first task must surely be to secure the site and carry out forensic analysis. The boys who discovered the grave describe it ‘full to the brim with bones’ after breaking through concrete slabs, but that does not confirm numbers of bodies. It’s interesting that back in 1975, no further investigation was thought necessary, the site was apparently blessed by a priest before being resealed.

Local historian Catherine Corless has discovered the records of 796 babies and children who died at the home, but it isn’t clear whether or not they are all contained within the grave. The first thing must be to establish numbers and ages of those who were interred and a respectful re-internmnet and memorial must be erected. This is already in progress. The sisters of the Bon Secours have already requested an urgent meeting with the Archbishop of Tuam to discuss how best to honour all those in the home. This is an important first step.

One inconsistency is that according to an advert placed in a local paper, the Connacht Tribune in 1932, the Home was tendering for coffins. This would seem to be inconsistent with a policy that sought to expediently dispose of bodies in an undignified fashion.

The logistics of tossing corpses into a septic tank should also be thought about. How likely is it that they would have had a permanently open space or pit in which to to place bodies. Surely the existence of this would have been noted somewhere along with resulting hygiene concerns?

Archives from 1937 call for “the removal of the cesspool at the back of the home” as the smell was intolerable. In 1938 the MO and Matron of the home pleaded for a new disinfecting chamber and laundry and six months later sent a letter to the Committee asking if anything could be done to speed up the process. The idea of a permanently open grave doesn’t seem to tally with the other stated concerns. One also has to wonder about how the bodies were placed into a sealed septic tank via narrow pipes. Did the nuns return regularly to a pit full of decayed macerated corpses without commenting on it anywhere?

The Connacht Tribune records that Tuam Sewerage Scheme was to be extended to the Children’s Home in 1928. Is it possible that during this period existing graves were exhumed and the bodies reinterred. The boys’ description of a pit with a brimful of bones suggest that the bones could at least have been adult, it is unlikely that babies’ bones buried in shrouds would have been visible 20, 30, or 40 years later. The grave was  explained as belonging to famine victims  – presumably this belief would have had some basis? Prior to being a home for married mothers, the building was a workhouse for famine victims.

What we do know is that often bodies were exhumed during the road building process in Ireland and not reinterred in a respectful fashion, even being dumped in drains in some instances. It is feasible that the children were buried correctly, even on consecrated ground and then later moved during a redevelopment of the site. This is why decent forensics is vital.

Another piece of the outrage stems from the widespread practice of burying babies in unconsecrated ground. These days this no longer happens, but the belief in limbo was still prevalent in mid twentieth-century Ireland. I remember being shocked as a child when my mother pointed to an area on the edges of the churchyard in Ashburton which is where she said, her baby brother born in 1946 was buried, away from the graves of his grandparents right in the centre of the church. She related how the monks from neighbouring Buckfast Abbey came out to conduct the service, (they did not have a graveyard at this time), but that he died before they had a chance to baptise him. This may seem cruel, but it was the norm. That’s not to say that no rites were carried out. In any event limbo is not an abhorrent concept which has been revamped in a PR exercise. The truth is that we do not know what happens to the souls of the babies, but we trust in God’s mercy, knowing that He is good. Limbo taught that as innocents, the souls of the babies would enjoy happiness, only not the perfect happiness of the beatific vision.

The practice of burying babies in unconsecrated ground has long since been revised, however it’s telling that no such outrage is expressed by these pro-choice secularists with regards to the appalling treatment of foetal remains by hospitals and abortion clinics who  were happy to incinerate them for energy with surgical waste.

The death rates from neglect, malnutrition and preventable diseases easily treated with antibiotics are undoubtedly shocking. No-one seeks to excuse them. With that in mind, the death rates in Tuam seem to be consistent with the death rates of illegitimate children throughout Ireland as a whole, which were 3 or 4 times that of legitimate children and double the death rates of illegitimate children in England and Wales.

Ireland was in the grip of poverty, as  Anglo-Irish Catholic tweep @dillydillys has pointed out, rural Irish society was ruthless compared with our comfortable armchair perspective. Life was tough during the lean years of the economic wars between Britain and the Free State.

Clare Mulvany, an Irish colleague in Catholic Voices tells of how her uncle died aged 18 months from a simple skin infection easily treatable with antibiotics who was hastily buried the next morning. It’s how life operated. Antibiotics were not easily available or accessed and bodies would be buried swiftly.

There are many allegations of children being deliberately starved and maltreated – where this happened this is abhorrent and should be condemned. The calls for an inquiry and a Garda investigation are correct, if belated. This should have happened back in the ‘70s or even in February 2013 when the story began to emerge in the press. Also there are reports of Catherine Corless meeting with the film-makers behind Philomena last year, Why did this story take so long to air?

In direct contravention of allegations of ‘dying rooms’ and deliberate starvation, a Tuam Herald report in 1949 on the Inspection of the home, says that “they found everything in very good order and congratulated the sisters on the excellent conditions in their Institution”. An earlier Board of Health report in 1935, says that “Tuam is one of the best managed institutions in the country”.  In 1944, the Matron requested that all occupants were immunised against Diphtheria.It was also recommended that vaccines for whooping cough were supplied.  Is this indicative of an uncaring attitude? In 1950 a programme of improvements to the building was proposed to the Committee however these were never carried out due to costs. The home finally closed due to dilapidation in 1961 after the £90,000 proposed extension was instead used to carry out improvements on the nursing home run by the sisters.

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In a revealing exchange in 1961, it was claimed that those in charge of the home had not been paid for extra work done and that some of the most capable nuns had been moved. It was admitted that the conduct of the home had been unsatisfactory for quite some time. The conditions were attributed to a shortage of ‘trained staff, unsuitable buildings and other factors’.

The Archbishop of Dublin is quite correct to call for a social history project to be run in parallel to any inquiry in order that an accurate picture of life in the homes can be established.

This is not to deny abuses or shocking treatment, but to point the blame solely at the church alone is too simple.

Reports from 1929 show that a special maternity ward for the unmarried mothers was added to the Home in Tuam. The reason for this is that married women and paying customers at the local district hospital in Connacht were unwilling to share their hospital facilities with the ‘misfortunates’. They wanted segregation. This proposal was opposed by a priest, Canon Ryder who wanted to find accommodation for these mothers in other hospitals.

This moving of the mothers to a separate institution lacking trained staff and facilities would have undoubtedly contributed to infant and maternal mortality rates.

Society and state wanted these women to disappear and colluded with the Church who were willing to provide institutions. A sanctioned burning of library books portraying unmarried mothers in a positive light took place in Galway in 1928. A ratepayers meeting in  Portumna said that no additional burden should be placed upon married parents who already had enough to do with the raising on their own children and that the state must step in to act. In a direct contravention of the Catholic principles said to be influencing attitudes towards unmarried mothers, it was deemed unreasonable to expect married families to pitch in and help. In 1926, the annual cost of £26 for each year to raise each infant was deemed unacceptably high. The Board of Health was told to provide for them at the least possible expense and therefore the charity of the Sisters was extremely convenient.

Fr Owen Sweeney, Chaplain to London’s Irish centre noted in a meeting in Galway in 1964, that “facilities were so much better in Ireland (than England) for the unmarried mother and her child”.

But before condemning the Church alone, we should also ask questions of a society that was happy to wave goodbye to unmarried mothers and who wanted them hidden. The concerns and stigma were driven as much by cost as anything that the Church taught on this matter. Every single Western culture stigmatised single mothers prior to the advent of the contraceptive pill.

I am glad that such attitudes have changed. I mentioned in previous posts that my grandmother was illegitimate. She was born in 1913 and one of the lucky ones, but the stigma blighted her childhood and affected her right up until her death at the age of 99. My family has experienced what this does to a person. My mother was never able to learn the identity of her own grandparents until her mother died last year.

For every mother sent to an institution there was a society unwilling to accept them into their community and to stand up for their basic dignity. There was a documented unwillingness to rely on their testimony regarding the paternity of their children or to hold the men to account.

To blame the refusal to share precious resources with those who were deemed to be morally deficient on account of their straightened circumstances, on Christian doctrine, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel message. The Catholic church may be complicit in that the institutions may well have mistreated those in their care, but that surely needs to be attributed to the individuals who worked there, some of whom had discovered a vocation was a convenient solution to their own poverty. Nowhere does the Catechism ever condone unjust treatment of the poor and Christ reserves some of his strongest words for those who mistreat children. One wonders how much of this pointing the finger of the blame at the Church is a projection of personal guilt – the children from the home were forced to sit apart from and bullied by their legitimate peers as Catherine Corless relates.

But we are fooling ourselves if we believe that we are living in a more enlightened age or seek to blame such stigma on religious doctrine. The demonisation of those on welfare and benefits due to the media coverage of families such as those belonging to White Dee has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with human nature.

We display exactly the same attitude in terms of marginalising vulnerable children and wishing for an expensive embarrassing problem to be quietly dealt with every time we stay silent or sanction an abortion, whether that’s of a child from a socially disadvantaged or financially struggling parent or one who has disabilities.

Last week Archbishop “Charlie” Brown described the green shots of the Irish Catholic Spring following 20 years of winter.  Ireland’s wounds are beginning to heal, helped by the enthusiasm of the young and the appointment of Marie Collins to the newly established Pontifical Commission to the Protection of children.

With the green shoots and buds of Spring emerging no wonder then, that there are those waiting and willing to use opportunistically whatever they can, in this case the tragic deaths and apparent insensitive disposal of childrens’ remains, to scorch then salt the earth. Justice can only be served by truth. The victims deserve nothing less.

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With thanks to Twitter user @limerick1914 who has provided a fascinating compilation of the archives.

Update:

This post is not intended as either a defence of anything untoward which may have happened in the Toam home. It is simply applying a reasonable standard of criticism to hyperbolic narratives flying about the internet, based on publicly available sources.

The facts as we have them so far are these: there are records of 797 children dying over a 40 year period at The Home in Toam. Some bodies are known to exist in the site of a former water tank. We know the site was formerly a workhouse for famine victims. It is reasonable to request more evidence, be that forensic or some sort of archeological records in terms of work completed on the site which now contains part of a building site.

For those concerned with the fate of the deceased, a far more constructive step than venting online would be to donate to the St Jarlath’s Credit Union account set up for the purpose of receiving donations to the memorial fund which is one of the reasons why Catherine Corless broke her story. Incidentally she does not seek to lay the blame at the door of the Catholic Church – her reflections being far more nuanced.