THE burial locations of thousands of babies born in mother and baby homes remain unknown after investigators hit unexplained gaps in official records and claims by religious orders that they did not know what went on.
The latest shocking report by the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes found that even the presumed final resting place of some of the forgotten children where relatives have gathered in commemoration for years is probably incorrect.
But it can not say where the children are and campaign groups now fear they will never find out.
The long-running inquiry found that some 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from the institution. However, despite “very extensive inquiries and searches” over the past five years, the commission could only find the final resting place for 64 children.
It found no significant surface evidence of burials on the grounds of the former mother and baby home, outside of the nuns’ burial plot, where one child is reportedly buried. However, it said it was “likely” some children are buried on the property.
In relation to the Tuam home, the report confirms that underground chambers in which bodies were found were designed as, and for a time used as, cesspools for wastewater and sewage.
Sample remains have been determined to be infants who died during the time the home was in operation but it is not yet known how many are buried there and there are no records that any child was ever left there.
“It did not provide for the dignified interment of human remains,” states the report.
The commission, chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy, said they were “surprised by the lack of knowledge about the [Tuam] burials on the part of Galway County Council and the Sisters of Bon Secours”.
“Galway County Council members and staff must have known something about the manner of burial when the home was in operation,” they said.
The report criticises the Sacred Heart sisters who ran the Bessborough, Castlepollard, and Sean Ross Abbey homes. They had provided the commission with an affidavit that was “in many respects, speculative, inaccurate and misleading”.
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone acknowledged there would be upset over the failure to trace many of the burial locations.
“I feel deeply for the families who may not get the answers they are seeking. In a lot of cases, the evidence is not there,” she said.
Galway County Council, the Bon Secours sisters, and the Sacred Heart sisters responded to the criticisms in the report by insisting they had given their full co-operation to the commission and would continue to do so.
But Catherine Corless, the amateur historian whose work led to the revelations about Tuam, said she had been hearing that same claim for five years. “They are only hiding behind each other,” she said. “It would be great if the Bon Secours sisters and Galway County Council could just come forward and say this happened and we are sorry it happened, it should not have happened, and what can we do to make amends.”
Paul Redmond, chair of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Homes Survivors, described the report’s findings on Bessborough as shocking.
“Nobody knows where between 700 and 900 babies are buried and they could be anywhere,” he said.
The Bethany Home Survivors group said the commission appeared to have omitted 71 of the 310 children the group had identified as having died after transfer from the home. Spokesman Niall Meehan said he was seeking a meeting to reconcile the discrepancy.
Sean Sherlock, the Labour Party’s spokesperson on justice and children, said the report raised more questions than answers and he called on Ms Zappone to set out her plans for further investigations at Bessborough.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the report made for gruesome reading and provided further insight into a “very dark part of Irish history”.
The report in full can be read here or below.