Sunday, March 19, 2017

IRL : ‘I am haunted by the names of the Tuam babies, what would they have become?’ (Contribution)

A shrine, with an image of the Virgin Mary on part of the site of the former mother-and-baby home run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam, Co Galway, where the remains of an unknown number of babies and toddlers were found buried. Photograph: Reuters/Peter NichollsPatrick. Mary. Matthew. Peter. Julia. James. Joseph. John. Maud. Mary Kate. Christina. Annie. Richard. Florence. Rose. Luke. Donald. Eileen. Henry. Sabina. Bridget. Fabian. Oliver. Stephen. Imelda. Paul.

There isn’t enough space in this column for all of their names. Seven hundred and ninety six death certificates. 

Seven hundred and ninety six infants who died at the mother and baby home in Tuam, some of whose remains are among the “significant quantities” found in underground chambers on the site of the home. 

I am haunted by their names, by the spectre of all those stolen futures. 

Thousands of them, by the time the infant deaths in the other 13 mother and baby homes that operated between 1922 and 1998 are investigated. 

According to their death certificates, the children at Tuam died of “natural causes” – but even in the Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, children in the wider population didn’t just drop dead en masse. 

If they had, questions would have been asked. 

Someone would have been called to account. 

Yet the guilty, conspiratorial silence that shrouded Tuam and all the other institutions allowed those lives to just melt away, as though they had never begun – which is, presumably, exactly how the Church and wider society wanted it.

Their lives were fleeting, but they were real and deserve acknowledgement. 

Julia Hynes was one year old when she died. Who would she have become, if she had been given the chance to live beyond babyhood? 

Would Peter Lally, who died just a month shy of his first birthday, have grown up to become a butcher or a farmer or a solicitor? 

Would Mary Kate Fahey, three at the time of her death, have travelled and seen a bit of the world? 

Did Annie O’Connor, 15 months old when she died, get the chance to know any nursery rhymes? 

Rose Marie Murphy was two when she died – did she suffer? 

What happened to their mother, and the mothers of Baby Carney and Baby McNamara and Baby Haugh and Baby Kelly and Baby Hastings, who died at just one day old, too soon for the absolution of baptism or even the scant consolation of a name? 

We have heard some mothers’ accounts over the last couple of weeks, their voices still ragged with pain. But there are many hundreds more. 

And where were the fathers? Why do we never hear about their fathers?

In a week in which we’re supposed to celebrate all that it means to be Irish, let’s not forget that Patrick, Mary, Matthew, Peter and Julia are part of that heritage too. 

Their short lives, their awful deaths, and the shame and secrecy that surrounded them, are every bit as Irish as the bunches of shamrock and the storytelling and the music and the craic.

Since we returned to Ireland from California last summer, I’ve been congratulating myself on making the choice to raise my children here. 

It is a good place to bring children up. 

A country that has faced up to the wrongs of its past, and is moving forward. 

A country that may not give women autonomy over their bodies, still – but a country that at least no longer measures our worth by the rings on our fingers; by the sacraments we participate in; by the people we love.

The day the horrific news from Tuam, I was once again feeling slightly smug. 

My oldest daughter and I were spending the afternoon together. 

In one shop, she stopped in front of a selection of sweatshirts emblazoned with the words ‘California Girl’. 

“Why do Irish people think California is so great?” she wanted to know. “Ireland is way better.”

She wanted to buy one anyway. 

“Ironically,” she explained.

Then we got back into the car and put on the radio. 

We listened. She wanted to know what it meant. 

I explained, and watched the innocence fall away, the confusion form, and finally the revulsion.

I remember feeling that same revulsion when I was about her age or younger and the nuns in my convent primary school showed us a Super 8 film of the starving babies in Africa – emaciated children with large, listless eyes and flies crawling on their bare skin. I had nightmares afterwards. 

I can’t remember what message we were supposed to take away, but I do recall the horror, and guilt. 

The nuns didn’t say anything about the other suffering babies much closer to home. 

Those babies and their mothers, it seems, weren’t deserving of our collective shame or revulsion.

So yes, Ireland has always been a good place for children to grow up – as long as they were the “right” kind of children. 

Good, Catholic children; the kind of children approved of, not just by the Church, but by society at large. 

Children whose mothers were nice, obedient girls; girls who had absorbed the message that their sexuality was to be kept under control and out of sight. 

Not the children of wayward girls; girls whose very presence might provoke the wrong kind of thoughts in God-fearing men. 

Not the children of girls who had the misfortune to be the victims of rape or incest. 

Not children like Patrick, Mary, Matthew, Peter, Julia, James, Joseph, John or Maud.