Excavations at other mother and baby homes are being demanded after the discovery of “significant quantities” of infant remains at Tuam, writes Conall Ó Fátharta and Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.
The Mother and Baby Homes Commission announced its findings after the completion of a test excavation of the site which made global headlines after research by local historian Catherine Corless revealed 796 children died in the home run by the Bon Secours Sisters from 1925-1961.
Following test excavations in November/December 2016 and in January/February this year, two large structures were found. One appears to be “a large sewage containment system or septic tank” that had been decommissioned and filled with rubble and debris and covered with top soil.
The second structure is long and divided into 20 chambers. The commission has not yet determined what the purpose of this structure was but it “appears to be related to the treatment/containment of sewage and/or waste water”. It has not yet determined if it was ever used for this purpose.
In the second structure, “significant quantities of human remains” have been discovered in at least 17 of the 20 underground chambers. The dead babies’ ages range from approximately 35 foetal weeks to two to three years.
The commission said carbon dating of the remains suggests they date from the timeframe relevant to the operation of the mother and baby home.
“The commission is shocked by this discovery and is continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way.
“Meanwhile, the commission has asked that the relevant State authorities take responsibility for the appropriate treatment of the remains. The coroner has been informed,” said a statement.
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone said she is “very disturbed” by the discovery: “It was not unexpected as there were claims about human remains on the site over the last number of years. Up to now, we had rumours. Now we have confirmation that the remains are there, and that they date back to the time of the mother and baby home, which operated in Tuam from 1925 to 1961.”
The commission has not commented on the exact number of remains found or if other sites will be excavated.
The Irish Examiner previously revealed that almost 470 infants and 10 women died at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home between 1934 and 1953. Over half of these children died in a six-year period between 1938 and 1944. The cause of death in around 20% of the deaths is listed as “marasmus” or malnutrition.
A death register listing these details, as well as those for infant deaths at the Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home in Roscrea, was maintained by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and has been held by the HSE (and now Tusla) since 2011.
Ms Corless said she was relieved her work has been vindicated but said an investigation should have occurred long before now. “In Tuam, the nuns just walked away and said nothing about a grave. The county council must have known as well. It wasn’t marked, it was just forgotten. It was like these children didn’t exist. This is exactly what people are looking for, just the truth and answers,” she said.
Claire McGettrick of the Adoption Rights Alliance emphasised that Tuam was not an isolated case and that deaths at other mother and baby homes such as Bessborough, Sean Ross Abbey and Castlepollard needed to be examined. The group also called for an extension of the commission’s terms of reference to include all institutions, agencies and individuals involved with unmarried mothers and their children.
Paul Redmond of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors said Tuam was likely the tip of the iceberg and the “worst is yet to come” as the scale of deaths in other homes like Bessborough and Sean Ross Abbey is revealed.
The Bon Secours Sisters had “no comment” to make other than to confirm their continued co-operation with and support for the commission’s work.
Labour TDs Joan Burton and Jan O’Sullivan were distraught at the findings, with Ms Burton saying it appears “these children were interred in some kind of mass grave, and maybe even without their wider families having been made aware”. She said the commission’s investigation may have to be extended, a view backed by the Greens and Sinn Féin.
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