The truth of the Mother and Baby Homes lies buried with the bodies

Excavation work being carried out at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Picture: Interim Report

When I read that skeletal remains, indicating an infant “on its left side”, lie in a structure that was probably designed for sewage, in the former grounds of the Mother and Baby home in Tuam, I feel sick.

This little mite is possibly in the company of hundreds of other, similar skeletons.

Why dead babies and infants were entombed here is still anybody’s guess, however.

The past is another country.

The dig was never going to come up with a simple answer as to why the remains of so many babies and young children lie in a structure seemingly designed for drainage.

It was never going to prove the tabloid theory that nasty nuns stashed the corpses of ‘illegitimate’ babies in a sewage tank because they were the fruits of ‘sin’.

It was certainly never going to prove that the nuns killed them or stashed them in there alive.

The fifth interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes does not give relatives of infants who died in the home many answers, but it sketches the landscape of the past in fascinating detail.

For a start, responsibility for the burial of these infants lay entirely with the State. Galway and Mayo County Councils paid the Sisters of the Bon Secours a capitation rate to look after individuals and their babies, but the nuns were paid nothing for their work.

Galway County Council owned the home. They may even have employed a caretaker on the site and someone other than the nuns lifted the heavy lids of the drainage structure and deposited the dead infants in there.

The council must have known that children had been buried inappropriately in Tuam, because they developed some of the site for housing in the 1960s.

In 1991, a local priest complained that residents were upset by the “bones being exposed quite often” at the site of the old children’s burial ground and a council engineer responded by advising parents to control their children on what was “a formal burial ground.” The idea that this home, and others considered by the Commission, such as Bessborough, in Cork, Sean Ross, in Co Tipperary, Castlepollard, in Co Westmeath, or Pelletstown, in Dublin, were designed exclusively as places of detention for women who had ‘got themselves into trouble’ satisfies our fantasies about the past, but is untrue.

Tuam also housed married people who were homeless and many ‘legitimate’ babies whose parents could not look after them. Many of these babies are among the 800 whose burials are unaccounted for.

Pelletstown housed very sick children and abandoned children, who were ‘unsuitable’ for adoption. It was, according to the report, “routine” until 1946 for private, paying patients at Bessborough to discharge themselves, leaving their babies behind for the home to deal with through the Catholic Women’s Aid Society.

In today’s Ireland, it would make tragic news headlines if one baby were thus abandoned; in the past, it was “routine”.

So “routine” was the abandonment of dead infants that one of the most disturbing elements of the report is that infant remains were allowed to be used for human dissection classes if they were unclaimed for 48 hours.

This appalling practice, which was also routine in the UK and elsewhere, continued until the 1960s, when voluntary donation became the norm.

While it was claimed that the dissected bodies were then buried with dignity, there is disturbing evidence that this didn’t always happen.

Some single mothers in mother-and-baby homes were likely not told about the 48-hour rule and the commission has evidence that the time limit sometimes wasn’t respected.

I imagine many such mothers were simply so disempowered, so distraught, and had so few means that dealing with their babies’ bodies was beyond them.

I doubt they were any different than me or you, but they lived in a different time.

They were poor. They were stressed.

Look around the world and you will see similar behaviour, and much worse, in countries that are poor and stressed.

Hard as this is for us to swallow, the Bessborough mother-and-baby home was set up in 1922, by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, at the behest of the Cork Board of Guardians, so that unmarried mothers and their children could be removed from workhouses.

Bessborough must have represented a step-up for these women, in that at least they could keep their babies with them.

In setting up the home, the Cork Guardians were leaving the other country of the past behind, but their present is our past and we know, from the evidence of former chief medical officer, James Deeny, that appalling hygiene standards at Bessborough were, by the 1940s, claiming the lives of dozens of infants.

The commission says it believes that possibly all of the unclaimed remains of babies who died in Bessborough between 1928 and 1960 were buried by the South Cork Board in Cork District Cemetery, Carr’s Hill.

They don’t know for sure, because they can’t locate the burial ground records for this cemetery. The burial records of those who died at Cork District Hospital/St. Finbar’s were, it seems, in the hospital in 2001; it seems some records were transferred to Cork University Hospital in that year, but they have not been found.

It seems that when faced with the still-grieving mother of a boy whom we know was buried in Carr’s Hill, one of the Bessborough nuns lied and said the boy was buried in the grounds of the home.

It was dreadful to hear the distress of this boy’s sister, Cork-based Carmel Cantwell, on radio show ‘Liveline’ last week. The family had only found out about the suspected lie from reading the commission’s report.

We await confirmation that her brother is indeed the baby mentioned in the report.

Meanwhile, said Cantwell, the boy’s family were dealing with the distress of knowing their mother’s son lay in a “pauper’s grave.” That is, no doubt, exactly why the nun lied.

This is a horrendous tragedy for the family.

I’m left asking a wider question, however: how come anyone was ever buried in a ‘pauper’s grave’?

How could class have applied even to the dead?

This was common in that other country of the recent past.

Most cemeteries had a ‘poor ground’ for those who could not afford their own burials.

Glasnevin Cemetery, in Dublin, only renamed its poor ground the Angel’s Plot in the 1960s.

The past is another country because it was poorer and, though that poverty excuses nothing, it explains a lot.

The idea of congregations of nuns as baby killers is appealing because there are very few nuns left and they can be blamed with few consequences, leaving us guilt-free.

The truth beneath the ground of the Tuam mother-and-baby home — that our State organised the “care” of these infants — is what we must face if we are ever to stop poverty wrecking lives that have barely started.

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