The State destroyed a woman’s family; her son pieced it back together again

Clodagh Finn talks to a prominent academic who overcame secrecy, bureaucracy, falsified documents and ‘bare-faced’ lies to discover his ‘lost’ aunts and uncles, in Ireland and abroad and, in some cases, introduce them to each other for the first time
The State destroyed a woman’s family; her son pieced it back together again

Professor Thomas Garavan looking through documents collected as part of his search for his mother's siblings. Picture: Denis Minihane

Thomas Garavan, professor of leadership practice at University College Cork, was 12 years old before he found out his mother had a sister.

Just as he was getting to know his ‘new’ aunt, he found out he had a second aunt. And then, more than a decade later, in 1982, he discovered his mother had a third sister. And three brothers. None of them knew of each other’s existence.

Another three decades passed before he discovered, in 2011, that one of the sisters had died as an infant in Tuam children’s home in 1936. He found her death cert, but not a burial record so he wonders if she is among the 796 dishonoured souls committed to the earth in a mass sewage-tank grave which was discovered by historian Catherine Corless.

“You couldn’t make this up,” he says, again and again, as he explains how the Irish State sundered his mother’s family and how he spent decades piecing it together again.

Seven siblings were taken from his married grandparents in Co Mayo and put into Tuam home between 1934 and 1940.

He stresses the word ‘married’ because people tend to think that only children born to single mothers ended up in those dark institutions, although the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes does specify that Tuam was never just a mother and baby home.

Some 655 of the 3,000-plus child residents in Tuam from 1925 to 1961 were children of married or widowed parents, but Prof Garavan has yet to establish why all his grandparents’ children were taken from them.

He has documents that say some of his aunts and uncles were born to parents of “no fixed abode”. He has heard suggestions of alcohol abuse, and a rumour the father was the “black sheep” of the family.

None of that, however, explains how an officer of the State could effectively erase the familial ties between seven siblings.

There is no explanation in the commission’s final report, or any account of what happened to the children once they were boarded out.

“The report is an utter whitewash,” Thomas Garavan says. “It is a sanitised and very selective version of what really happened.”

Physical, sexual and emotional abuse

That is why he wants to shine a light on how his aunts and uncles were first taken into care, then later boarded out and subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse over a period of decades.

His Aunt Mary got pregnant at age 13 and was forced to marry a man considerably older than her.

His Uncle Joe was “tampered with by priests”, while his Uncle John was boarded out and treated as a slave.

But this is not a miserablist account. Prof Garavan is keen to stress that. It is the story of how he overcame secrecy, bureaucracy, falsified documents and “bare-faced” lies to forge new relationships with his own family and, in some cases, introduce them to each other for the first time.

Aunt Mary with her foster father about 1947. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan.
Aunt Mary with her foster father about 1947. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan.

It all started one Sunday in 1972 when a woman and her daughter came to the door of the family home in Newport, Co Mayo, asking if his mother, Margaret, was in.

A 12-year-old Thomas said she wasn’t, and asked who the callers were: “‘Oh,’ the woman said, ‘I’m your mother’s sister.’ It was the first I ever heard of my mother having siblings,” he says, still clearly rocked by the fact that he had spent so much of his childhood in the dark.

He asked them in and when his mother returned, tea was made and they chatted as if nothing unusual was taking place. When they had gone, his mother simply said that was her sister Mary and left it at that. The sisters hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, even though they lived just seven miles apart.

Journey of discovery

That out-of-the-blue encounter was the start of a journey of discovery that would take decades, but it eventually resulted in the piecing together of the “Humpty Dumpty” family that officers of the State had shattered into disparate pieces, as Professor Garavan describes it.

Back in 1973, the academic, who now has an international profile, was still just Thomas, a pre-teen who was about to make another big discovery. The woman he believed to be his grandmother was actually his mother’s foster mother.

“This lady also fostered another child from Tuam home and it was [the other child] who told me that my mother was fostered. It was the first time I had ever heard any mention of the institution.”

Thomas Garavan as a baby in his mother Margaret's arms with Aunt Mary in 1961. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan
Thomas Garavan as a baby in his mother Margaret's arms with Aunt Mary in 1961. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan

In the months that followed, Thomas started secondary school with the Christian Brothers in Westport and began to visit his Aunt Mary, who worked in a café in the town.

“She told me to come in to her every day, that she would give me tea. I got to know her quite well.”

Still, there were some things that she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk about. She told him her father had died in 1944, but when he enquired about her mother, she didn’t want to hear of her. There was lingering bitterness, resentment and hurt that Mary’s mother had never sought out her children in the intervening years.

Some years previously, in 1967, Mary had gone to see her mother, who spent much of her adult life working as a maid in a big house in Ballina, Co Mayo. When she called, her mother slammed the door in her face and said she didn’t want to hear from her again. An unforgivable blow.

Mary did, however, tell Thomas that there was another sister, Annie, who was living in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. Mary had last met her 15 years previously, but Thomas’s mother had not seen her for decades.

“I thought it was really strange,” he says.

Life in Tuam home

Over those years, his Aunt Mary also told him about living in the Tuam home in the 1930s.

“She told me all about Tuam, and that it was the most awful place. ‘Every time I come to Tuam,’ she said, ‘I feel it. It just gives me the shivers. Each day we had to go to school, and we were marched down the road after everyone. We wore these old clogs which made an awful lot of noise, and we were shepherded down to the local school’.

My aunt had a dreadful time there. She was treated very badly; always hungry, unwashed and if she soiled her underwear, her head was stuck in a cold bath. 

"It was the same for my mother. They were marched down to school and isolated. They were lepers in Tuam. The segregation was shocking. None of that is documented.”

Aunt Annie with two of her daughters and a friend in the mid-1970s. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan
Aunt Annie with two of her daughters and a friend in the mid-1970s. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan

When he met his Aunt Annie for the first time in 1987, she also told him of the horror she experienced in Tuam Home. She spent two years there between 1935 until 1937.

He tried to recount those experiences as evidence to the commission of investigation but found its approach legalistic and bureaucratic.

“They wanted to hear from my mother and aunt, but they were not in a position to give evidence. The whole approach was highly legalistic. There was nothing humanitarian about it at all.”

A number of witnesses did give evidence to the commission about Tuam. Some spoke well of their time there, but others spoke of not getting enough to eat — one woman recalls eating moss off the walls — while another former resident said he found it very difficult to find out who his parents were when he first went looking.

None of those experiences are reflected in the report’s final recommendations, Professor Garavan says.

Taking 'legitimate' children from their parents

And there is next to nothing on the process of taking ‘legitimate’ children from their parents, apart from this fragment from 1945.

“Dr [Florence] Dillon commented on the ‘legitimate’ children in the home. She reported that the ‘matron informed me that the county manager sends in children of mothers going to the central hospital as patients’, and the NSPCC inspector ‘sends in whole families’.”

Meantime, Thomas Garavan got on with his life, studying work psychology and human resource management at University of Limerick in the early 1980s. He was home in Newport one weekend when he met a cousin in a pub who, in time-honoured Irish tradition, said he had a message for his mother. 

His cousin had been visiting the county home in Castlebar when he saw a woman in a bed whom he mistook for Thomas’s mother. It was, in fact, his grandmother, but the resemblance between the two women was uncanny.

Thomas did all he could to persuade his mother and aunts to go to see her, but his requests “engendered a virulent reaction”.

He went himself, though, only to find a woman who batted away all questions about the past: “She was as closed a book as you could get.”

When she died in 1981, it emerged at the funeral – “a small, sad, hush-hush affair” – that there were other children. “Ye have brothers,” Mary and her sisters were told.

It was time to get serious. Thomas went to the registry of births and deaths in Dublin, ploughing through the records. He found another sister, Teresa Angela, and three brothers, Joseph, John and Edward Daly.

I felt weird about it. Isn’t it shocking to find out about all of these siblings that my mother knew nothing about? They had all this separation stigma about them. They were second-class citizens because their parents couldn’t keep them. 

"They all had these little fragments of information, but not the full story. I said to myself, ‘if it kills me, I’m going to find out what has happened’.”

Up against a brick wall

All through the 1990s, Thomas met brick wall after brick wall. He was refused access to the records of Tuam Home and when he met a social worker in Galway, she confirmed that his mother was in the home, but gave him no more details.

Notes taken by Prof Thomas Garavan during a meeting with a social worker over 10 years ago during the search for his mother's siblings. Picture Denis Minihane
Notes taken by Prof Thomas Garavan during a meeting with a social worker over 10 years ago during the search for his mother's siblings. Picture Denis Minihane

In March 2011 he tried again, this time with a social worker in Castlebar, the town where, he believes, a local authority child officer sent all of his aunts and uncles to Tuam so many years before. He had hit the jackpot. He had finally located his family’s records, although he was not allowed to see them.

“I felt like the student and the social worker was the schoolteacher. She said that she couldn’t show me anything, but she could read the details from the Tuam home records. It all came out … dates and where they were boarded out to, and she confirmed for the first time that Teresa Angela had died. A week later, I ordered a death cert and it arrived. I was sad, but I took the view they were lucky more of them didn’t die.”

What struck him immediately as she spoke was the patchiness of the records. In some cases, there was no record at all of the dates the children were placed in the home. However, the dates the children were boarded out and the names of the foster parents were all documented.

“It was so very legalistic with references to the dates that contracts were signed,” he says, shocked by the transactional nature of the exchange.

On that day in 2011, he also found out for the first time that Teresa Angela went in to Tuam home from Castlebar in 1936.

Deaths of 'legitimate' children

She was only about nine months old and apparently already ill. She died a few weeks later of meningitis, according to her death cert. It is interesting to see that the commission’s final report notes that 1936 was the worst year on record for deaths of ‘legitimate’ children: “The death of ‘legitimate’ children peaked in 1936 when 17 children died.”

He also got confirmation that his aunts Mary (born in 1928) and Annie (born in 1932) were sent to the same foster home, something which his aunt Mary had told him. Mary was boarded out on December 7, 1935, and her sister followed two years later.

His mother was fostered out in 1940/41 to another family in the same town, but had no idea her sisters were nearby. It was not until 1942 when his mother was nine that she found out, in a chance meeting after Mass, that she had two sisters.

“It happened by accident,” Prof Garavan says, “My mother’s two sisters, who were a few years older, approached her after Mass and told her that they were her sisters. My mother’s foster mother tried to persuade her that this was not correct, however, her sisters persisted and eventually my mother was allowed talk to them. You couldn’t make this up.”

His mother was born in 1933 and was taken into the Tuam home when she was five years old. She was there for a few months, returned home to her parents, then sent back to the home before she was eventually fostered out in 1941.

Unbeknownst to her, Joseph, her brother, was also in the home around the same time and, like her, was put in for a time, taken out for a while and finally boarded out to Kiltimagh on June 9, 1942.

“What becomes clear from the records is that my grandmother tried to hold on to her children, but was unable to do so,” says Prof Garavan.

After providing details and dates, the social worker warned Thomas contacting his relatives might be complicated, and they might not want to see him. It didn’t deter him. If anything, it strengthened his resolve.

Vital information

He also now had vital information, knowing where his relatives had grown up: “That was a significant piece of information because for the first time I knew where to start fishing, village-wise. There is a lot of organisational memory in villages and people will remember things.”

He started with Joseph and phoned Kiltimagh church where he found a digitised record of his Confirmation. When the local priest saw the dates, he called out to his housekeeper, who was around the same age, to ask if she remembered him.

“I knew him well,” she said. “Joseph went to school with me. There’s a woman down the road in Kitimagh who will know all about him.”

Thomas Garavan couldn’t believe his ears. Here was a direct connection to an uncle he knew nothing about.

“I said, ‘I’m going to pull the bull by the horns now and call to this woman’.”

He drove the short distance from Castlebar to Kiltimagh and called to the house. On reflection, he was glad no one was in as “it wasn’t the wisest thing to do”. He later rang the woman, Pauline, whose mother had fostered Joseph. Pauline believed Joseph had no siblings, but after tea and an two-and-a-half hour chat, she was convinced otherwise.

Uncle Joseph in 2011. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan
Uncle Joseph in 2011. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan

Thomas found out his uncle was a Christian Brother with the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Pauline agreed to ring him and ask if he’d like to speak to his unknown nephew. Four days later, they spoke.

“It was St Patrick’s Day in 2011. I rang him and said, ‘I believe I am your nephew.’ ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘I was the lone ranger. There was nobody but me.’”

He was incredulous when he heard he had six siblings, one of whom was a twin, yet open to the news. Two months later, Thomas flew out to Albuquerque to meet him.

“I arrived at the airport and there was a posse to meet me. Every single brother in the order was there to greet me, or to suss me out!”

When the order saw a photograph of Thomas’s mother Margaret — she was the spitting image of Joseph — they were convinced of the blood tie. It took the man himself some months to process the information, but over the following months and years, nephew and uncle got to know each other very well.

There were seven more visits and while Thomas’s mother and aunt didn’t feel up to meeting their lost brother in person, they spoke over the phone.

He went through 70 years of his life without knowing that he had any siblings. He went looking for his family and he got a genealogist, but they found nothing. He gave it up as a bad job. It’s an awful thing to go through life not knowing who you are or where you came from.”

When Brother Joseph died of bone cancer in 2019, there was some comfort in knowing he had finally found out about his family. His family, too, learned for the first time what had happened to him.

Priests 'tampered' with him

He was treated terribly in his first two foster homes. There was a shooting incident in the first and he was quickly moved to a second where, he says, two priests “tampered” with him. After that he moved to a third family — Pauline’s — whom he loved.

As an adult, he worked for a farmer in Longford, who lodged him in a barn and worked him to the bone. He left and went to England and did a series of jobs before finding a late vocation.

“He joined the Brothers because he had no family. He loved working with the poor, but he was continually restless. He was always on the move,” Prof Garavan says, tracing his uncle’s journey from England to New Mexico, then Canada and New Jersey.

Finding his family, even so late in life, meant a lot to Joseph, although Thomas Garavan can’t quite believe his story is not only absent from the records of the State, but misrepresented.

When Thomas Garavan requested his Uncle Joseph’s birth cert, he also received a death cert which claimed that his uncle had died in 1937.

Official documents obscured the truth

It wasn’t the first time official documents obscured the truth. In his Aunt Mary’s case, he was shocked to find she had been baptised on the day of her wedding “because her age was not known”. Her age was known, however. She was born on November 11, 1928, which meant she wasn’t yet 15 at her February wedding in 1943 to the considerably older man who got her pregnant while she was in a foster home.

“Three months afterwards, she had a son. She was 14 when she had the baby and her husband was 30-something,” he recounts.

“She had 11 more children before he kicked her out and she became a deserted wife. She had three young children under the age of 12. The Sacred Heart nuns in Westport took her in and gave her accommodation and provided schooling for the children. The others had grown up. Two died, one in a tragic accident at age three, the other was a cot death.

“She then got a job in that café in Westport and then she got her own house. When the husband who had thrown her out died, she buried him. That is how dutiful she is. She then met another man and married him. Mary is 94 now. She is fully with it. The woman has had nine lives when it came to trauma.”

While her marriage cert reinvents her age, it also contains an interesting correction. The original cert noted her parents were vagrants, but some time later, a few lines were added by a ‘2nd priest’. “This girl was baptised in Claremorris, she is legitimate. Her parents are not vagrants. They were decent residents,” the priest’s addendum states.

If that was the case, why then were all their children taken from them? It’s a question yet to be answered.

Two missing brothers

In the meantime, the three living sisters, Margaret, Mary and Annie, had rekindled a relationship but had yet to find two missing brothers, Eddie and John, Joseph’s twin.

Thomas made no progress at all with Eddie until 2013. He went to a church in Louisburgh and found a decades-old address. When he went to the location, he found an abandoned house but, again, the memory that insinuates itself into the fibres of a local parish gave him an important lead.

A neighbour pointed him in the direction of a man who had been Eddie’s best man. He found that man and established his uncle had married a woman called Kathleen, in Telford, in the UK. This was enough to mine the UK register of electors and he found a possible address.

A letter from The Salvation Army to Prof Thomas Garavan confirming they were able to send communications to two of his two uncles, Edward and John, the first confirmation he received that they were alive. Picture: Denis Minihane
A letter from The Salvation Army to Prof Thomas Garavan confirming they were able to send communications to two of his two uncles, Edward and John, the first confirmation he received that they were alive. Picture: Denis Minihane

It was September 2014 before Thomas Garavan got to Telford. He asked directions in the shop at the top of the road and was told to go to the fifth house on the right. He called, but nobody was at home.

“I was coming up the road again and who was coming towards me only the woman in the shop. ‘The man you are looking for,’ she said, ‘his son has just gone down the road.’”

He called again and after some time a man answered the door. There was silence and disbelief as it was clear to the man in the house that he was looking at a close relative, the resemblance was so striking.

“Jesus,” he said, “I knew that this day could happen.”

The man was called Eddie after his father. He invited his first cousin in and, over a long chat, showed him his father’s two birth certs. Each certificate contained a different set of parents and different birth dates. Both of them were incorrect.

'He was given the wrong birth certificate – twice'

Uncle Eddie aged 20 in 1960. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan.
Uncle Eddie aged 20 in 1960. Picture courtesy of Prof Thomas Garavan.

“He was given the wrong birth certificate – twice,” says Thomas Garavan.

Little wonder that all of Eddie senior’s previous attempts to trace his family failed.

“The number of times I said to my dad, ‘where the blazes did you come from?’ He had no clue,” Eddie’s daughter, Kathleen, told Thomas.

At the time, Edward senior was in hospital but soon afterwards, he met his nephew for the first time. As well as finding out he had six siblings, he also found out he was two years younger than he believed.

Like his brother, Joseph, he told a story of childhood abuse from a foster family who used to beat him. He was fostered out to a childless couple, as many of his siblings were, and the man of the house used to threaten him with a gun.

“He used to hold the gun to my uncle’s head. [The foster father] had fought in a war and had post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Prof Garavan.

Eddie, however, escaped and went to England when he was 17. He met his wife at 19. They were married the following year and he went on to have a family and a successful career as a scaffolder.

Later, he spoke briefly to his sisters in Ireland on the phone while his children, Kathleen and Eddie junior, visited their new-found aunts.

He died three years after that first meeting but, by then, he at least knew where he had come from.

Finding John

The most elusive member of the family was John, Joseph’s twin. There was no record at all to say that he had spent time at Tuam home, but it is clear from the commission of investigation’s final report that the Bon Secours nuns left few documents about the institution it ran for more than three decades.

Of the 281 boxes in the order’s archive, just two related to Tuam.

When the home closed in 1961, the records went to Galway County Council and then to the Western Health Board in 1970. They became the property of the HSE in 2005 and, seven years later, they were transferred to the Child and Family Agency, Tusla.

In its final report, the commission noted some of the records may have been lost or destroyed over the years: “It is impossible to establish if the records currently held by the Child and Family Agency constitute all of the records which existed when Tuam closed in 1961. The commission made digital copies of all these records.”

With little to go on in Ireland, Thomas Garavan again turned to the British electoral register and after a few false leads finally found his Uncle John in Birmingham.

“I went to visit him. He got an awful fright. He was very hesitant to meet me and didn’t want to open up the past or hear that Joseph was his twin who, at one point, was living up the road from him,” he recalls.

A letter to Prof Thomas Garavan from his late uncle, Michael Joseph Daly. Picture: Denis Minihane
A letter to Prof Thomas Garavan from his late uncle, Michael Joseph Daly. Picture: Denis Minihane

He did, however, tell his nephew that he had been in Tuam home for about two years and was fostered out on the Mayo/Sligo border to a childless couple who treated him as a workhorse on their farm.

“At age 14, he left the foster home and walked to Dublin. He had saved up enough money to get the boat to Liverpool. He worked on the roads; did all the things a typical Irish labourer would do and lived a very solitary life.”

Thomas met his uncle twice more before learning he had died.

What a sad way for him to live his life, to know nothing about his family. He went to the pub, lived in a rotten old, cold flat and spent his money in the bookies.”

Just two of the siblings survive: Mary who is thriving at age 94 and Thomas’s mother who will be 90 soon, but has Alzheimer’s disease. They have waited years for redress, though for Thomas’s mother it is already too late.

When it does come, it will go nowhere near addressing the deep wounds of the past.

Redress amounts 'derisory and totally inadequate'

“The amounts given are, in my view, derisory and totally inadequate for what happened,” says Prof Garavan. “My family were put into Tuam by the State. They were also fostered out by the State, yet the fostering out piece is not factored in at all. In the case of my mother and all of her siblings that would constitute quite a period.”

When the siblings finally left Tuam, the records used the word “emancipated” to mark the day of their release.

“My Aunt Mary was not emancipated at all,” says Prof Garavan. “She was married so that they could cover up a crime. None of that damage, wrongdoing, cruelty and suffering is compensated for, or even considered in the scheme.”

He criticises Children's Minister Roderic O’Gorman for being so rigid in the application of the €800m redress scheme and urges him to see the need for it to change. Having said that, he credits him with keeping his promise to allow the relatives of those who have already died to apply for redress.

On balance, though, Prof Garavan says none of the measures introduced by the Government to deal with the scandals around mother and baby institutions are fit for purpose.

The Institutional Burials Bill was passed by the Oireachtas last summer to allow for a full-scale forensic excavation of children’s remains in Tuam. It has yet to start.

We must assume, as my aunt Teresa Angela died in 1936, that she is in the septic tank in Tuam. I have collected DNA from my mother so that we can do a test to find out if she is in there. But we still don’t know when it is going to happen or how it is going to be done.

“Everything has moved on that score at a snail’s pace. And they have been pulled through it kicking and screaming.”

He says the Birth Information and Tracing legislation is important, but it will not help him in his search to find out who made the decision to put his mother and her siblings in Tuam home.

“The child officer was obviously derelict in her duty because she — we believe it was a woman — did not join the dots to tell these seven children who their siblings were and, in the case of my uncles, Joe and Eddie, they gave them misinformation on their parents. They were told that their mother and father were deceased.”

His mother wasn’t told anything about her siblings and all of them were fostered out in a “cloak of secrecy”, as Thomas puts it.

“A contract was signed, and foster parents were paid money. There must be others like them, although I could not ascertain from this famous commission report how many others there were.”

He would encourage other affected people to tell their stories, but not through another commission.

Commission 'a failed model'

“That is a failed model,” he says. “It didn’t work. They need to find another mechanism through which people can document their stories. The very act of documenting is therapeutic, and it allows those stories to be there for the record. Historians will know that these are the true stories and experiences of people.”

In his own case, though, there is a deep satisfaction in having had such success in finding his mother’s siblings and meeting them. He was, he says, finally able to flesh out his mother’s identity.

He wants to put his own experience on the record too so that others will know the real truth because, as he says one final time: “You couldn’t make this up.”

- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.

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