Art from anguish and solidarity of the Tuam Babies scandal and Bessborough mother-and-baby home

Art from anguish and solidarity of the Tuam Babies scandal and Bessborough mother-and-baby home
Part of the piece by Cork artist Tina Whelan in the Stay With Me exhibition at the Aula Maxima in UCC from next Monday.

A new exhibition in UCC has artists responding to the Tuam Babies scandal and the situation at Bessborough, writes Donal O’Keeffe

“Whatever happened to the notion of cherishing all the children of the nation equally?” asks Cork artist Tina Whelan.

Despite the august intentions of 1916, we were left with an Ireland that did little cherishing and much harm.

Whelan is one of 20 artists contributing to a UCC art exhibition, Stay With Me, inspired initially by the Tuam Babies scandal.

In her Backwater Artists Group studio on Wandesford Quay, Whelan displays ‘Untitled Babies’, the installation she is loaning to the exhibition. A brown suitcase contains nine cast-iron babies, lying in a bed of peat, connected to the earth by twisting, rusting metal umbilical cords.

Whelan quotes Irish Examiner journalist Conall Ó Fátharta , who has written extensively about Bessborogh and related issues, as saying women and children were mistreated in a “sprawling network of interlinking institutions, private agencies and state authorities”. Rather than separate scandals, Ó Fátharta suggests, there is one big scandal.

Whelan, whose M.A looks at the impact of Catholic ethics on Irish obstetrics, says she is seeking to address some of the issues through her art practice. She hopes it may allow us to know in “a felt sense” these difficult truths about Ireland’s often hurtful histories.

Tina Whelan
Tina Whelan

One of the other artists is Sheila O’Byrne. In 1976, when Sheila was 19, she was sent to St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on Dublin’s Navan Road. She was reunited with her son only last year. For Sheila, this exhibition is about bringing out the truth. “Justice is needed for all of us, and we need to people to know what happened,” she says.

Stay With Me is the brainchild of Alison O’Reilly, the journalist who broke the Tuam Babies story, and is co-curated by Dino Notaro of Dublin’s In-Spire Gallerie.

The exhibition consists of paintings, sculptures, poems, music, spoken-word pieces and art installations.

O’Reilly’s 2014 Irish Daily Mail on Sunday report brought the work of Tuam historian Catherine Corless to international prominence, causing worldwide shock that 796 children were suspected to have been buried in a disused sewerage system on the site of the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam.

O’Reilly had been inspired to meet Catherine Corless by Anna Corrigan, whose tireless search for her missing older brothers, John Desmond Dolan and William Joseph Dolan, two baby boys born in the Tuam Home in 1947 and 1950, helped spark a global scandal.

In 2017, the State Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes reported that its excavation in Tuam had found “significant quantities of human remains” in a 20-chamber underground structure, the purpose of which “appears to be related to the treatment/containment of sewage”.

The Commission’s fifth interim report, published this April, revealed that thousands of children died in mother and baby homes, and few received proper burials. In Bessborough alone, over 800 children are missing. More than 900 babies died there, and the Commission was only able to find graves for 64 of them.

Stay With Me is hosted by the UCC School of Languages Research Cluster on Gender and Violence.

“The university is here to create a better future,” says UCC’s Dr Rachel MagShamhráin.

We cannot do right by the future unless we have done right by the past. The work done by Catherine Corless, Anna Corrigan, and Alison O’Reilly needs to be kept in the public eye until right is done.”For Alison O’Reilly, this exhibition is a labour of love.

“As we put the word out, we realised a lot of people had made installations, jewellery and paintings about Tuam. The project grew and grew. We have been so lucky to have artists from all over the world participate in this important exhibition for the children who died in Church and State ‘care’.”

Catherine Corless praises O’Reilly, and all the artists who contributed to this exhibition, and UCC for hosting it. She says an acknowledgement and apology from those who ran homes might go a long way.

“The missing Bessborough babies, like Tuam’s, number around 800. How can we comprehend the reasoning behind the denial of any knowledge of burials from the sisters who were in charge there, who saw those babies die?”

Bessborough Centre, Blackrock, Cork.
Bessborough Centre, Blackrock, Cork.

Alison O’Reilly concurs: “Cork children who are missing and who did not receive a dignified burial deserve to be honoured.”

Anna Corrigan, who has never stopped searching for her brothers, says the exhibition speaks for women like her mother, the late Bridget Dolan.

These women never had a voice, but now not only can they be heard, but people are getting a look into their hearts and souls and minds through these pieces, and seeing the damage done by Church and State

Catherine Corless is the guest speaker at the exhibition launch at 5pm in UCC’s Aula Maxima next Monday.

“This exhibition is so necessary to survivors, for it shows solidarity and compassion,” Corless says.

The fact that an artist would give them the time and consideration to create a masterpiece in their honour surely drives home the message that someone cares. I hope Cork people will show solidarity too by visiting this major exhibition.

Evocations of dark deeds and tragic histories

Home Babies, by Alison Lowry

Home Babies, by Alison Lowry.
Home Babies, by Alison Lowry.

A glass sculpture of a life-sized, empty christening robe floats suspended in the air, looking for all the world like a small child’s idea of a ghost. Another piece, consisting of nine pâte de Verre (crushed glass) wall-mounted baptism records, is based on records discovered by Catherine Corless.

Aiséirí, by Bonnie Kavanagh

796 cast bone-china hearts hang against a pitch-black drape, symbolising the lost children of the Tuam Home.

The Chalice of the Defenceless Children, by Martine Sterck

The Chalice of the Defenceless Children, by Martine Sterck.
The Chalice of the Defenceless Children, by Martine Sterck.

This piece was presented to Catherine Corless by Belgian artist Martine Sterck last year. On hearing the story of the Tuam Babies, Sterck, an art student in Dendermonde, asked 796 mothers to mould a baby shape from clay. The little clay figures are interlinked and bound together to form a bowl-shaped sculpture.

Stay With Me runs from Monday 19 to Friday 23 August in UCC’s Aula Maxima

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