Everybody knew about burials so why does silence persist?

Dr Catherine Corless visiting the graveyard at the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. Picture: Hany Marzouk

The shocking report on burial practices from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission took five years to prepare. It has left us with more questions than answers.

It says something about the sheer scale of this scandal that an interim report focused solely on burial practices took five years to publish and runs to just shy of 100 pages.

It focuses a lot on the where but hasn’t yet begun to tackle the much more fundamental issue of why?

The commission points out that this last interim report is limited to examining just burial practices. It hasn’t looked at the more fundamental issues around causes of death and the registration of death — the why. It is crucial that it does.

It’s worth noting that in 2012 — two years before Tuam became a national and international scandal — the HSE itself had raised queries about not only the number of deaths at Tuam and Bessborough but the veracity of the causes of death noted for some of those that died.

These were outlined by Dr Declan McKeown, of the medical intelligence unit, in a report sent by then assistant director of the Children and Family Service at the HSE, Phil Garland, to the national director of the HSE’s quality and patient safety division, Philip Crowley, and which CC’d then national director of Children and Family Services, Gordon Jeyes, and then head of the medical intelligence unit, Davida De La Harpe.

“Queries over the veracity of the records are suggested by causes of death such as ‘marasmus’ in a two-and-a-half-month-old infant; or ‘pernicious anaemia’ in a four-month-old. These diagnoses would be extremely unusual in children so young, even with the reduced nutrition of the time,” he said.

This goes right to the heart of the issue: It’s not just about where children are buried but why they died. Are the causes of death accurate and were deaths correctly registered?

And that’s just deaths. It has often been lost in much of the coverage of this issue over the past few years that the commission is tasked with looking at a lot more than the issue of infant mortality in these institutions.

The main areas of focus are worth repeating. The commission is tasked with looking at the circumstances and arrangements for the entry of single women into these institutions and the exit pathways on their leaving these institutions. This is to include consideration of the extent of their consent in entering the institutions.

It will establish the living conditions and care arrangements experienced by residents during their period of accommodation in these institutions.

It will investigate the extent to which the child’s welfare and protection were considered in practices relating to their placement in Ireland or abroad for adoption, whether consent of the mother in respect of the adoption was free, full, and informed.

It will examine the role of adoption agencies in this process and the practices and procedures for placement of children where there was co-operation with another person or persons in arranging this placement.

It will also investigate the murky area of vaccine trials carried out on children in these institutions

In short, this report is focused on just one part of the puzzle. The larger scandal, one which drags in the State and a whole host of other agencies — many of which do not fall under the commission’s remit — is that of forced and illegal adoption.

What the commission will say about that thorny subject remains to be seen. It may find, such is the scale of the adoption issue, that another inquiry is required.

For now, the commission has produced a report on burial arrangements which has left people with little solace. The major issues of concern in this area related to the Bessborough and Tuam Mother and Baby Homes.

The people who should have the answers — local authorities and religious orders — come in for pointed criticism by the commission over their lack of knowledge on the final resting place of thousands of babies.

Carmel Cantwell’s brother William, whom she and her mother had always been told was buried in Bessborough, was in fact laid to rest in a famine grave at Carrs Hill, Cork. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney
Carmel Cantwell’s brother William, whom she and her mother had always been told was buried in Bessborough, was in fact laid to rest in a famine grave at Carrs Hill, Cork. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney

The report confirms that some 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough. Despite “very extensive inquiries and searches” over the past five years, the commission could only find the final resting place for 64 children.

The burial locations of more than 800 infants — including some 470 infants on the order’s own death register as revealed by the Irish Examiner — remain unknown.

The commission was scathing in its criticism of the order, stating that the affidavit it supplied on burial arrangements was “in many respects, speculative, inaccurate, and misleading”.

Given the seriousness of the issue at stake here, this is simply astonishing. Will anyone be held accountable?

A number of individual members of the congregation provided affidavits and/or oral evidence to the commission but provided “remarkably little evidence about burial arrangements”.

“The commission finds this very difficult to comprehend as Bessborough was a mother and baby home for the duration of the period covered by the commission (1922-1998) and the congregation was involved with it for all of this time.

“The commission finds it very difficult to understand that no member of the congregation was able to say where the children who died in Bessborough are buried,” states the report.

One member of the order who worked in Bessborough for most of the period between 1948 and 1998 told the commission that she did not remember any child deaths during her time there but implied that the children who did die there were buried in the nuns’ burial plot.

The commission found it “surprising that she does not remember any deaths” considering 31 children died there between 1950 and 1960 alone.

Within weeks of its establishment in 2015, the commission wrote to the religious orders asking for specific information on burials. The replies from the Sisters of Bon Secours (Tuam) and the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Bessborough) stated that the relevant information was no longer available to them because their records were all held by Tusla. There is no information about burials in these records.

In the case of the order that ran Bessborough, it simply said it didn’t know where more than 800 children who died in its care are buried — something the commission said is “very difficult to comprehend”.

Carmel Cantwell’s brother William died shortly after he was born in Bessborough, pictured, in 1960. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney
Carmel Cantwell’s brother William died shortly after he was born in Bessborough, pictured, in 1960. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney

With respect to burials having taken place on the site of the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home itself, the commission said cartographic and landscape assessment was undertaken of possible unrecorded burial arrangements on the grounds. A site survey was also conducted.

It said it is clear that there are a number of locations within the grounds where burials could have taken place but found “no significant surface evidence of systematic burial anywhere except for the congregation burial ground”.

However, it also said that it “is likely that some of the children are buried” on the grounds.

Despite this, the commission said that as no physical evidence of possible burial locations was found, “it did not consider it feasible to excavate 60 acres, not to mention the rest of the former 200-acre estate”.

Groups such as the Irish First Mothers have said the very fact that just 64 burials have been located for almost 900 children means it is incumbent that a full ground radar survey of the site be done.

In a similar vein, the Bons Secours Sisters were also unable to provide any information about burials. The commission expressed its surprise at the lack of knowledge of the nuns in relation to the burial of hundreds of children who died in the institution.

Galway County Council is also reserved for scathing criticism. The commission said county council staff and members “must have known something”.

Staff sometimes held meetings there, visited the site for repairs, and maintained the grounds.

The report states that it was “very likely” that Galway County Council must have been aware of the existence of the burials when they were planning the Athenry Road housing scheme in 1969.

It goes on to to say that the people of Tuam also know more about the burials which occurred there but did not come forward.

So everybody knows. Yet we have silence. And more questions. Always more questions.

More on this topic

Commission refusing to clarify questions over death registers for Bessborough Mother and Baby Home

Bethany Home survivors disappointed over Government's refusal to extend 'fast track’ redress scheme

Zappone declines to give deadline for publication of report into illegal birth registrations

Mother and Baby Homes Commission called on to release details of buried children

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