Children at "the Home" in Ireland in 1924 (Connaught Tribune, 21st June 1924). Photo: @Limerick1914
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That 796 children, mainly babies, died at St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and its closing in 1961 is not disputed. A local historian, Catherine Corless, says she researched the death certificates. What troubled her was that she could find burial records for only one child and wanted a plaque to commemorate the lives of the others.
Corless surmised that the children's bodies were interred in a septic tank behind the home, and she then met a local man who said he had seen bones there while playing as a child. While even she acknowledges that the conclusion was a circumstantial leap, once it was picked up in the local press, it was sensational enough to rocket around the globe, becoming a story of a disused septic tank brimming with bones.
Since the news broke last week, however, some of the assumptions that led Corless to her conclusion have been challenged, not least by the man she cited, Barry Sweeney, now 48, who was questioned by detectives about what he saw when he was 10 years old.
"People are making out we saw a mass grave," he said he had told the detectives. "But we can only say what we seen: maybe 15-20 small skeletons."
Where and how the bodies of the children were actually disposed of remains a mystery - and a scandal in tiny Tuam, population 8200, that has for the moment revealed more about the ways local lore and small-town sleuthing can be distorted in the news media juggernaut than about what actually went on decades ago at the state-funded home for unmarried pregnant women run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Roman Catholic order.
The claims have provoked calls for a long-overdue independent inquiry and revived memories of the many abuses that commonly took place in such homes.
"I think that the facts should be brought together in a coherent form because some of the headlines that went abroad internationally were quite horrendous and gave a very mistaken impression of what actually happened," Irish Education Minister Ruairi Quinn said on national radio on Monday.
Over the years, thousands of children died in the homes from ailments, including typhus, measles and malnutrition. The death certificates Corless collected list a range of common causes at a time when infant mortality was much higher than today.
The death rates at the homes were always well above the national average, according to official figures. In some years, more than 50 per cent of infants died, and there is evidence the state knew this; several commentators have called the homes' problems "a scandal hidden in plain sight".
Corless said Monday that she remained confident that the babies are buried in the general area of the septic tank, if not all are inside. "If they're not there, where else would they be?" she said. "That home was surrounded by 8-feet-high walls, and everything seemed to be done inside there."
She says that to date she has not been contacted by any government officials or by the police, but she expects that she will.
"I have presented a case. My words have been twisted in terms of the terminology: I have never used the word 'dumped,' for example," she said, referring to the way the story has been sensationalised.
"But I still believe those bodies are there in that general area," she said. "There were two babies a day dying at some stages; the chances are they were buried somewhere convenient."
"It doesn't matter if there is even one body in that tank," Corless said. "That child was buried illegally."
What matters now to her, and to many others here, is that those children's lives be acknowledged and respected.
Local residents are divided about the procession of national and international journalists and camera crews, but many appear to welcome the coverage. Others are hoping that the controversy will provide the chance to open an inquiry independent of the Irish government and the church into the abuses that occurred at the homes for women, which gained notoriety last year with the release of the movie Philomena.
"We didn't want to bring any attention to those little babies," said Anne Collins, a member of the committee that has tried to raise money for a plaque at the site. "But if you buried your dog in the back garden, you would want it marked, and that's all we wanted."
Collins said the news media and "church bashers" had hijacked the situation, and she disagreed with the widespread condemnation of the nuns.
"All of the locals knew this was a kiddies' burial ground, but we didn't realise they weren't in tiny little graves," she said. "But people weren't overly stunned to learn otherwise or even the numbers involved. They knew the poverty; I lost a sister myself when she was just 18 months old. We grew up hungry in Ireland, and we are able to understand."
Another committee member, Maura Ryan, who lives opposite the site, said there was little local appetite for a criminal investigation, particularly if it entailed an excavation.
"There will be uproar if they take them up," Ryan said. "That's our biggest fear now since all this started. They should be marked and then left to rest in peace."
In life, peace was rare for many of the children at such homes, according to numerous accounts from those who survived them.
Derek Leinster, who spent time at the Church of Ireland Bethany Home in Dublin, wrote graphically about his experiences and is credited with finding the remains of 219 children from that home in unmarked graves.
"Throughout my childhood, Ireland has always portrayed itself as a very, very religious and God-fearing country," Leinster said. "This representation is at odds with the cruelty I experienced during my childhood and the experiences of all those other lost souls and hopeless causes who were raised within the heart of this supposedly Christian country."
Ryan's husband, Johnny, recalled going to school with the "home babies." They were segregated in the classrooms and in the schoolyard at break times, he recalled, and they were even dismissed 10 minutes before everyone else so they could walk home separately. "It was just the way it was: They were different, or at least we were told they were," Ryan said.
In a statement, the Bon Secours spokeswoman said the order would cooperate fully with any inquiry. But none of the sisters who worked at the home were alive, the statement said, and the order handed all records over to the county council when the home was closed in 1961.
The archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, said in a statement that the archdiocese was not involved in the home and, like the Bon Secours Sisters, had no relevant records, a stance that has angered some because clerical power is often accused of creating the climate of stigma in which these homes operated. But one of Ireland's most senior clerics, the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has called for an independent inquiry into all such homes for mothers and babies.
"The indications are that if something happened in Tuam, it probably happened in other mother and baby homes around the country," Martin said. "That is why I believe that we need a full-bodied investigation. There is no point in investigating just what happened in Tuam and then next year finding out more."
New York Times