One would imagine that news of a mass grave of 796 children, whose short lives and untimely deaths have gone unremarked upon for decades would warrant exhaustive media coverage and provoke widespread public outrage and calls for a full-scale public enquiry. Devil the bit! Despite the front page article in the Irish Mail on Sunday on 25th May, there seems to have been little media interest in this story in the last week.
The unmarked mass grave, located on the site of a former home for unmarried mothers, run by the Bon Secours order from 1925 until 1961, was previously thought to have been a graveyard for unbaptised babies or famine victims. In the course of her research into the home, local amateur historian and genealogist Catherine Corless discovered the death records of the 796 children. Whilst the Western Health Board could provide her with no information on the daily running of the place, evidence from death certificates shows that the causes of death included malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia.
Apart from irishcentral.com, the little coverage that has emerged seems to be focused on the proposal to erect a plaque or memorial at the site of the grave (it was, in fact, a disused septic tank). For examples, see here and here.
The remains of the 796 children, inmates of a former Bons Secours home for unmarried mothers between 1925 and 1961, were in fact discovered as long ago as 1975 according to this report by RTE, entitled “Campaign under way to commemorate babies at Tuam home”. The same report also mentions that, “It’s understood that a small financial donation has been made by the Bon Secours Sisters to help the community build a memorial”. I call this adding insult to injury
It’s a sad and telling indictment of Irish society when the response to this outrage is the desire to put up a plaque. I’m not suggesting that the supporters of this plaque do not feel compassion for the suffering of these children. However, that these unfortunate children were buried in unconsecrated ground would appear to be of more significance than the brutal realities of their brief lives. Such is the power of religious indoctrination. The circumstances of their burial (in an unused septic tank) speaks volumes about their perceived value in the eyes of those entrusted with the care of these children. They must have been viewed as sub-human, a distasteful, dispensable but nonetheless lucrative commodity. The nuns were well remunerated for the care of these innocent unfortunates whose only sin was to be born out of wedlock.
In an RTE interview, Fr Fintan Monaghan, Secretary of Tuam Archdiocese says, “I suppose we can’t really judge the past from our point of view and from our lens but all we can do is to mark it appropriately and make sure that there is a suitable place here where people can come and remember the babies that died here”. No, we can judge and we must judge and if a memorial plaque is all we can do, it should be a memorial to the death of compassion and common decency in Ireland.
We owe these children and the mothers who bore them much more than a plaque. We owe them a full scale independent public enquiry with extensive powers to subpoena witnesses, scrutinise records, to exhume and forensically examine remains and to freeze financial assets. The R.C. church should bear the financial cost of the enquiry as well as any compensation claims that might ensue. We owe it to these children, to their mothers, to the survivors of these institutions, to ourselves and to future generations to leave no stone unturned in our examination of these crimes against humanity. Questions need to be asked and answered. Why is this tragedy only coming to light now when the remains were discovered in 1975? Why is there virtually no coverage of it in the media? What of the other mother and baby homes? Are we going to wait for another mass grave to be discovered before we look into the records of other such institutions?
Donal O’Keefe in this article in thejournal.ie describes Ireland as a “country utterly corrupted by its own twisted version of Catholicism”. But it was the version of Catholicism inculcated into people from an early age by priests, nuns, bishops etc. – in short by the authorized and ordained representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church always has and still does come down very hard on any deviation from the party line. For example, liberation theology in south America was vehemently opposed by the Catholic hierarchy, who saw it as communism.
No, this was no “twisted version of Catholicism”. This was a culture that was the inevitable result of submission to a church that teaches that sex outside the prescribed parameters is sin, obedience to authority is a virtue and thinking for oneself is anathema. In this mindset it’s not a huge leap from believing that children born out of wedlock are the product of sin to the conclusion that they are the spawn of the devil. Moreover, clerical abuse of children is not a phenomenon unique to Ireland. A Google search for “clerical abuse of children” returned 10,400,000 results.
Please, let us have no illusions. The country was indeed corrupted but like sufferers of Stockholm syndrome did we not collude with our oppressors in our own corruption? And isn’t it time we stopped?