Catherine Corless: One year on and no decision on mass grave

Historian Catherine Corless, whose work led to the discovery of a mass grave in Tuam, argues that the expertise exists to start DNA identification of the babies interred there

Catherine Corless received the Bar of Ireland’s Human Rights Award in recognition of her work

SATURDAY, March 3, will mark the first anniversary of the announcement by Minister Katherine Zappone that a substantial number of juvenile skeletal remains had been discovered in a disused sewage tank on the grounds of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home and that a forensic examination of the remains proved they were from the era of the former Tuam Home.

The minister expressed her personal horror and sorrow, along with that of all of her Government colleagues with the grim discovery.

The Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary spoke at the 10.30am Mass on March 5 in Tuam Cathedral of his shock and horror at the ‘magnitude of this situation’.

The media both nationally and internationally quickly took up the story, and for the month of March 2017, the Tuam shock discovery was the topic of conversation for television, radio and newspapers. Each and everyone asked how this could have happened in Holy Catholic Ireland, and all called for immediate action to rectify this horrific discovery.

One year has passed, but nothing much has happened. Despite the outpouring of public grief and anger, the significant number of baby’s remains, ranging in age from 35 foetal weeks to 3 years, still lie in a rat-infested sewage tank.

The Government’s disdain and horror has somewhat dwindled and been replaced by concerns of costing and disruption to the site. Survivors’ pleas to have their siblings removed to consecrated ground have been filed away.

An attempt to appease this appalling situation was made by Katherine Zappone who did visit the Tuam burial site in April 2017 where she met with a group of Tuam Home Survivors. Afterwards she formed a team of experts in the field of forensic archaeology and mass graves to examine the possibilities of finding a solution to the Tuam burial problem.

But after several weeks of head scratching and scrutinizing to find a solution, the team declared that neither nationally or internationally had they ever come across a situation like Tuam where a mass grave in a septic tank held the remains of a significant number of babies and toddlers, and where the burials were centred in the middle of a housing estate.

Ms Zappone had also ordered that an archaeological survey be carried out on the remaining area of the Tuam Home site i.e. the playground and surrounding grassy verges. The results of that show that, indeed, there is another large, rectangular structure alongside the one already discovered with the remains, and also indicates that there are more burials in the playground area and on the surrounding grassy verges.

All of those details are in the specialist team’s 200-page report which was issued last December for all to read, along with details on how the excavation and exhumation can be achieved.

The Government’s response to all this? A naive person would feel that the shock and horror of March 2017 displayed by the Government would rekindle and persuade it into some immediate action.

But what our Government decided to do was to hand the problem back to Galway County Council who own the 7-acre site comprising of the housing estate, septic tank area, playground area and the grassy verges full of infant burials. The same Galway County Council which was responsible for the building of this housing estate in the 1970s, and whose forbearers would have been part and parcel of the running of the Mother and Baby Home.

There is a little reminiscence here on a Biblical theme where Herod did not want to be responsible for the fate of Jesus. So what does he do — he hands Jesus over to the gathering multitude to let them decide. While we are on a Biblical theme, I thought of the soldiers who ‘cast lots’ for the cloak of Jesus after he was crucified, when I heard that Galway County Council are asking the public to cast votes as to what they should do with the Tuam Babies.

Yes, we have it in print and attachments to emails — a three-page document. The first page explains what to do. The second has the voting system - tick one of five boxes, numbered 1 – 5 on your preference from no. 1 whether to erect a statue over the septic tank where the babies lie therein, and disregard the other burials, right through to number 5 for a full-out forensic investigation re-interment and DNA.

We can if we wish decide to add our reason for voting thus. Then we are instructed to hand this back to Galway County Council which, in turn, hands it back to the Government for an inter-departmental group to finally decide the fate of the Tuam Babies. This decision will be made in April/May of this year.

Local author JP Rodger at a grotto where the unmarked mass grave containing the remains of nearly 800 infants who died at the Bon Secours mother-and-baby home in Tuam was discovered. JP lived at the home until he was fostered at the age of 6, he has written two books on the subject detailing his mother’s life and his own. The site is now part of the Dublin Road housing estate. Picture: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

I would like to add my own feeling of dismay at this outcome. I have given over three years of voluntary time, expense and effort to further the cause of the Tuam Babies and the Survivors of the Tuam Home. I have facilitated each and every journalist, news reporter, television and radio programme just to further the Tuam cause and to keep the story out in the public and to keep pressure on the Government to achieve justice and a proper burial place for the babies.

Nothing less, nothing more. I thank the multitude of decent people who have contacted me to wish me well and who appreciate what I am trying to achieve. I tried in vain to stop this callous and cold voting system to decide the outcome of the Tuam Home babies who lie in a sewage tank.

I have spoken to many experts in the field of DNA who can see no reason not to go ahead with DNA stating that, in this day and age, it is very possible and does not cost the earth as the Government is stating. I have spoken to retired forensic anthropologist and former Cork county archaeologist, Catryn Power from Cork , who is adamant that the team of archaeologists who discovered the remains of the babies in the sewage tank are an expert group quite capable of carrying out exhumations.

Last word, I would ask the Bon Secours Sisters, who were responsible for the running of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home to look to their conscience and make reparation by ordering and funding re-interment of the infants’ remains to the main Tuam graveyard, just a 100 metres across the road.

The Bon Secours Sisters have had a link to Tuam since 1925 when the Tuam Home opened and it was the Mother Superior there, namely Mother Hortense, who instigated and raised funds for the opening of the private Bon Secours Hospital (The Grove) in 1945.

This private hospital closed around 18 years ago, and the sisters sold the land and building to the HSE West for a substantial sum.

Catherine Corless is a local historian who uncovered details of a mass grave at the former Mother and Babies Home in Tuam

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