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Posts Tagged ‘Catherine Corless’

grotto-tuam

A makeshift grotto on the former site of the home at Tuam, erected over 30 years ago after bodies were first discovered.

In 2014 following the headlines which read that the bodies of almost 800 babies and children had been cast into a septic tank in a mother and baby home run by the Bon Secours sister in Tuam, Ireland, I wrote a series of blogposts.

https://carolinefarrow.com/2014/06/04/tuam-childrens-home-salting-the-earth/

https://carolinefarrow.com/2014/06/07/tuam-breaking-800-babies-were-not-dumped/

https://carolinefarrow.com/2014/06/13/lessons-from-tuam-an-essay/

My aim was not to spin the facts or deny any allegations of abuse, but simply to forensically attempt to uncover the true story of what had happened. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe that nuns could behave in such an appalling fashion, clearly they were capable of all sorts of heinous acts of cruelty and abuse, it’s just that the narrative of them wilfully starving, abusing or neglecting babies and children to death before cruelly dumping their bodies in a septic tank did not ring true. Gradually, a more nuanced and historically accurate picture began to emerge, though still undeniably tragic.

A story of young girls in poverty abandoned by society, in poor health, giving birth to sickly babies unable to withstand the rigours and deprivation of institutional life. A story of a children’s home in a poor state of repair, served by Tuam’s oldest doctor, desperately short of cash and resources, with the council and local population unwilling to put their hands in their pockets. A story of children subject to epidemics of measles, influenza and gastroenteritis in crowded conditions, a time before antibiotics as well as poor diet and perennial low temperatures. An analysis of the death certificates indicates that the causes of death were rarely from one single determining factor – a lot of the children had had underlying ill-health or conditions since birth and some had been born with abnormalities.

Gradually media outlets began to amend, correct and withdraw their stories, rowing back on some of the claims, and Spiked online (which is in no way a right-wing or Catholic publication) published this powerful analysis

Today, the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland, has released a statement saying that following some trial excavations of the site, significant numbers of human remains have been found.

“Test trenches were dug revealing two large structures. One structure appears to be a large sewage containment system or septic tank that had been decommissioned and filled with rubble and debris and then covered with top soil. The second structure is a long structure which is divided into 20 chambers.”

It has not been ascertained what the purpose of this structure is, it appears to be for the containment and treatment of sewage and water but it’s not been determined whether or not it was ever used for this purpose. 17 out of the 20 chambers appear to contain human remains, some of which were recovered for forensic tests. The remains are those of children aged between 35 weeks gestation and 2-3 years of age.

The commission is shocked and saddened and the remains will now be interred respectfully and appropriately, assuming that they were not in the first place.

As my blog posts garnered over 100,000 hits, I have taken a lot of flak, as it is perceived that I was one of the deniers. A second wave of hysteria and outrage about the babies at Tuam now appears to be sweeping Ireland, with many claiming vindication, which is a baffling sentiment. There ought to be nothing to celebrate over the discovery of several deceased infants.

I am prepared to stand by my original posts, because I did not deny the existence of remains on the property, nor that children had died of natural causes, I simply questioned the narrative of babies being deliberately and callously tossed like rubbish into a septic tank.

Interestingly in one post, I quoted a letter from Dr Finbar McCormick from the school of Geography, Archeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. Dr McCormick posited that the children could actually have been buried in a purpose-built burial shaft which were common, as was the practice of burying stillborn children or those who died shortly after birth, in a communal unmarked area inside the maternity hospital. The practice of returning infants back to the family for burial is a very recent tradition.

Anecdotally I know of a number of similar cases whereby children were put in the coffins of unrelated adults by funeral directors (which apparently was commonplace in some UK funeral directors until the ‘60s and in Ireland until the 1980’s), I’ve been talking to several women about miscarriage and stillbirth recently who have told heartbreaking stories of their stillborn children being removed from them straightaway and buried in an unknown place, and even in my own family, my father discovered only last year that he had an older brother who died at the age of two, who is buried in an unknown grave somewhere.  There are mass children’s burial grounds throughout Ireland and plenty of mass graves from non-Catholic institutions, such as workhouses, in the UK.

So, the outrage about the unmarked mass grave, while understandable may be misplaced. They are not a historical anomaly and were at various points, the norm.  It is not proof of an uncaring or un-Christian attitude and we do not know that the deceased were accorded absolutely no rites or respect.

Secondly, while the commission has noted that the structure containing the remains appeared to be a septic tank, it might not ever actually have been used as one, and they are not clear as to its purpose. I’m no engineer, but 20 chambers seems rather a large amount. Dr McCormick’s suggestion that the septic tank could be a burial vault and should be treated as such until proved otherwise, still seems to hold true. The commission have only said what the structure appears to be, but aren’t entirely sure, neither do they know if it was ever used.

In his blogpost which appears to row back from some of his original claims, journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes, quotes an eyewitness called Julia Devaney who was firstly a resident of the Tuam home and later an employee. She recalled assisting the sisters in carrying the bodies of deceased babies through a tunnel which led to a burial vault. A vault accessed by a tunnel, as Boucher-Hayes notes, could not be a septic tank. This vault was in the same place (Plot A) as another witness, Mary Moriarty had fallen into while playing, when the ground subsided. Moriarty says that she and her neighbours investigated further  and discovered a large underground vault with shelves from floor to ceiling neatly  stacked with about 100 swaddled infant bodies.

So as yet we have two structures found. One a septic tank with no human remains which was clearly decommissioned. The second consists of 20 chambers, at least 17 of which contain human remains, many of which are children under 2, dating from the ‘50s. Which tallies with the eyewitness account of a vault with shelves from walls to ceiling containing deceased infants, and could well be the vault which was accessible from a tunnel, which another witness recalls being in use in the 1950’s.

There is nothing then as yet to suggest that the remains of these children were maltreated or buried without the due accord and respect. It may not have been the way that we would wish for them to be buried today, but neither is this indicative of anything sinister.

Just as it is perfectly possible that these poor children were simply tossed into a septic tank (though I note that critics are now beginning to concede that the tank was disused and claim that it doesn’t matter whether or not it was filled with sewage), it’s also more than feasible that the vault was styled in a similar way to the catacombs. Placing bodies on shelves in a vault hardly seems like egregious disregard. Archive evidence demonstrates that the home did put in a tender for coffins, therefore it may only have been the infants who were buried tightly wrapped in swaddling. Again, not what we might wish for a child, but not necessarily indicative of anything nasty. And neither do we know whether or not some or all of the vault was consecrated, because it would surely need to be if older babies and children were interred there.

As the commission has noted, the news is not any great surprise – they had been excavating a known burial site.

Historian Catherine Corless deserves respect and vindication because her main aim has not been to propagate a sensationalist anti-Catholic narrative, but because she has always believed that bodies were buried on this site and that they ought to be properly accounted for and given the respect and memorial they deserve, not least because as she recollects from her own time at school with children of the home, they were often treated with contempt and disdain.

There may well be 798 bodies underneath the site, a fact that nobody has ever sought to deny, including the locals. Though this is far from established fact. There was a septic tank in use for the first 12 years of the home, during which period 206 children died. Where were their bodies placed if the second structure was in use servicing the first? Or was the second structure used right from the outset! How many is a ‘significant number’?

Is this definitive proof of evil-doing by a group of nuns who are unable to defend themselves or explain what their burial practices were? Justice is not best served by supposition and assumption and neither should these deceased children be politicised. Particularly not when those weaponising them, are using this to whip up hatred of the Catholic Church to use in the forthcoming referendum on Abortion. I wonder what many of those proudly displaying their ‘Repeal the Eighth’ avatar while venting their fury over the babies in the septic tank, would make of the incineration of aborted babies’ remains in hospital incinerators for energy?

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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.

Childrens Burial Grounds 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.

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