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Posts Tagged ‘Sisters of Bon Secours’

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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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.

children-at-the-home-in-tuam-co-galway

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.

childrens_home_nursery

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. 

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