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Posts Tagged ‘Tuam Children’s home’

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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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.

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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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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.

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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. 

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