Written by Dave Page
Tuam mass graves
Although the Catholic Church is no stranger when it comes to stories of child abuse, neglect and exploitation, the case that we are looking into today is truly shocking even by their standards. The abuse or mistreatment of anybody by anybody is wrong but, it is much, much worse when the abuse is carried out by the very people who are supposed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. This is made even more terrible when the perpetrators of these crimes are allowed to justify their actions by claiming that they are carrying out the will of God.
Today we will be looking at a truly horrific example of just what can happen in exactly these circumstances…
So, let us explore together just what went on at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, unwanted pregnancies were a huge problem in Ireland.
The main reason for this was due to the introduction of the 1841 law called “The Offenses Against the Person Act” which absolutely forbade any form of abortion no matter what the circumstances. According to this law, any woman who underwent an abortion should spend the rest of her life in prison and, in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population were practising Catholics, a religion which absolutely forbids pregnancy outside of marriage, illegal abortions and other such extreme measures were prevalent.
Backed by the Catholic Church and the Irish government, the introduction of so-called “mother and baby maternity homes” was believed to be both an excellent way of rehoming unwanted babies and an effective deterrent against committing the egregious sin of becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
So, just what went on at these homes?
The following is a brief account of one young Irish ladies experience:
“Once I discovered I was pregnant, the local priest was immediately summoned to my home. Once he arrived, I was sent to my room, and he spoke with my parents privately. When he left, my mother came to see me and told me that everything was sorted and that the nuns would take care of everything. From that point onwards, I was not allowed to leave the house and, about two weeks before I gave birth I was taken, in the middle of the night, To
the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home where I was placed in a dormitory with several other expecting mothers. As soon as my child was born, she was taken away and I was not permitted to see her again. I had to stay for another two years and work off my debt to the home and to God. It was the same for all the other mothers. We were expected to clean the premises and look after the other babies.”
From what we’ve been able to find, this appears to be a fairly typical example of the process. One thing that came up time and time again during our research was that nobody seemed at all interested in the fathers. In a similar account from another young lady, when she tried to tell her priest the name of the father, he refused to allow it, and when she persisted, he said “your sins and bad choices may have ruined your life, but I will not allow you to ruin the life of another”.
Apparently, this response was fairly common. Although it certainly takes two people to create a baby, in the eyes of the Catholic Church at that time the responsibility lay solely with the mother.
So, what was lifelike for the children and new mothers who were essentially held captive at this facility?
In an interview given for a documentary, one of the former children of the home had this to say:
“I don’t call that place a home, I call it a prison. The only time we were allowed out was to attend school and we would arrive 10 minutes after all of the other children and leave 10 minutes before. This was done to prevent us socialising with the ‘normal children’. We were known as the bastards, that was the name put on us because we were born out of marriage. We were treated as inferiors. A common threat issued to misbehaving children was that ‘if you don’t straighten yourself out then you will have to go and sit with the bastards’. Once the school day was over, we were marched back to the home and locked up again until the next morning”.
Conditions inside the home were less than ideal, another former resident reports that “there were no toys or any kind of mental stimulation for the children really” and yet another accusing the nuns of “inflicting brutal punishments without cause.”
Moreover, sanitation and medical care were poor, and this led to many avoidable deaths from things like tuberculosis and whooping cough. In fact, the home had such a high mortality rate that it eventually led to the Irish government sending an inspector to investigate in 1940. In that year alone, 40 children had died whilst under the care of the nuns.
Following this investigation, the report, which was not finalised until seven years later, described, “infants living in the nursery as emaciated, with open abscesses and bloated stomachs.”
However, in spite of this report and the increasing number of reported deaths, no action would be taken until 1961, when the Galway City Council of Tuam and the Department of Local Government and Public Health would finally close the facility.
It is believed that over 800 children aged between zero and three years died during the
36 years that the home was open.
If not for the outstanding research carried out by Catherine Corless, an Irish historian and activist, this may very well have been the end of the story.
Whilst carrying out research on the Bon Secours sisters, she visited the former site of the home (now a housing estate) to ask the locals if they had any information or stories that might be helpful. One of the things that she was told was that during the 1970s, two small boys were playing on the waist ground that had once been the mother and babies’ home whilst playing, they came across a concrete slab covering what appeared to be some sort of tank. Interested to see what was inside, they broke apart the slab and what they found inside still disturbs them to this very day. The tank was filled with tiny human skeletons.
They reported this discovery to their parents who reported it to the local council but, apart from replacing the slab and adding some shrubs and a small wall they took no further action.
It has been the local residents, not the council, who have maintained this area as a mark of respect for the children interred beneath the slab. Corless said in an interview that, “if it wasn’t for those locals, I truly believe that this site would have been completely forgotten about.”
After hearing this story, Corless set about trying to discover exactly who these skeletons belonged to.
Many of the locals believed that the skeletons belonged to children who had lost their lives during the famine as, before the nuns took over, the building had been used as a workhouse.
But the reality would turn out to be far more disturbing.
After extensive investigations, Corless was able to obtain the death records of all 796 children who died at the home. Out of all of these children, she was only ever able to discover burial records for two of them.
This led her to believe that it was highly likely the skeletons belonged to the babies who had died from disease, malnutrition, or neglect whilst under the care of the Bon Secours sisters.
Her suspicions would later be confirmed. Although the Irish government provided money so that each child who passed away could be given a dignified burial, this money was being kept by the home and the children’s bodies were simply thrown into a disused septic tank within the grounds.
In 2014, the Irish government set up the Mother and Baby Homes Commission to investigate what went on in all such homes across Ireland between the years of 1922 and 1998.
The Commission’s report found that infant mortality in the homes was almost twice the national average and detailed shocking instances of emotional abuse. The report also found that roughly 15% of children who entered the institutions died.
This report, along with ceaseless campaigning by surviving relatives, led to the proposal of the industrial burials bill.
According to The Irish Times:
“The Bill provides for the establishment of an “agency” to oversee access to burial sites, exhumations, excavations, identification, and re-interment of remains, and reinstating sites to their previous condition. It says for the duration of the agency “the coroner shall not have jurisdiction…in respect of bodies exhumed from that site”.
But according to Susan Lohan co-founder of Adoption Rights Alliance:
“The ‘how’ the children died has to be addressed. There is just no way of getting around that. It is not a matter of just removing children from one burial spot to another. It has to be investigated – how they died and who is responsible for that.”
She would go onto call for two immediate changes:
“First to ensure each death is thoroughly investigated and second to ensure all burial sites are investigated. Currently the Bill is confined to unnamed “certain sites”.”
On this occasion, it looks like the Irish government took these concerns on board. When the bill was published in February of this year (2022) it included a number of significant amendments which deal with the concerns raised by Lohan along with those raised by a number of other campaigners.
If all goes to plan; it is estimated that work will begin later this year, providing these children with the dignity and justice that they have been denied for so long.
Although today we have focused on one particular Catholic run institution, similar atrocities are known to have been committed in both Protestant and state-run facilities throughout Ireland. Although the laws surrounding abortions have been slightly relaxed in recent years, it is still illegal to terminate a fetus that is older than 12 weeks and three days unless two separate medical professionals agree that continuing the pregnancy would pose a serious risk to the life of the mother or the child. This leads to thousands of women each year travelling to the United Kingdom for abortions.
I believe that it is also worth mentioning that, although the Bon Secours sisters would eventually issue a formal apology, it was a very long time coming. Originally, they denied all knowledge of any burial site within the grounds. The following is taken from an email sent by a member of the public relations company that represented the sisters in response to a request for information on the subject:
“If you come here, you’ll find no mass grave, no evidence that children were ever so buried, and a local police force casting their eyes to heaven and saying, “Yeah, a few bones were found – but this was an area where Famine victims were buried.”
It is exactly this sort of flagrant denial of the truth that allowed such shocking instances of abuse and neglect to continue unchallenged for so many years.