In a special edition of The Message, on International Women’s Day, Hot Press editor, Niall Stokes reflects on an issue that has provoked outrage and anger.
So now we know. Catherine Corless was right.A local historian from Tuam, in Co. Galway, Catherine had heard the stories about children dying and being placed in undocumented graves in the 'mother and baby' home in the town.
It niggled away inside her, the feeling that it was wrong, that a terrible injustice had been done to the children who had died. And besides, what is history, if it isn’t about establishing the truth about what happened in the past? Would it not be right to establish their names and to erect a memorial plaque? She decided to start digging.
In the way that things always worked in the past, and frequently still do work in Ireland, attempts were made to frustrate her quest at every turn. Her first port of call was the Cork headquarters of the Bon Secours order of nuns, who formerly ran the Tuam ‘mother and baby’ home. Their name now attaches to a chain of private hospitals, in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and, just down the road from Tuam, in Galway city.
Catherine Corless asked the nuns for the records from the Tuam home. They told her that they no longer had files or information about the mother and baby home in Tuam.
She might have intuited that they were being economical with the truth, but she ploughed on anyway.
She approached the Western Health Board. They too told her that no records were available.
She moved on to Galway County Council. Here the response was different. They pulled rank.
Officials apparently told her that she would not be allowed to examine records because she did not have a university degree.
But Catherine Corless was not going to be dissuaded.
Working quietly away, checking every record that might add to the store of information, she confirmed to her own satisfaction that, across a period of five decades, 796 children had died in the Bon Secours home in Tuam.
They had died in the care of the people, who now run a multi-million hospital business all over the country.
The question was: where exactly were they buried?
TREATED LIKE DIRT
When the information about the hidden Galway graveyard was first revealed to the media it was treated sceptically by some. There was a touch, in the PR response, of “move along there, now, sonny, there’s nothing to see.”
The Bon Secours nuns hired Terry Prone, a PR and reputation management expert, to deal with the media.
The content of an email she sent to a French journalist, and reported in the Sunday Independent, is indicative of a deliberate policy of disinformation on the part of the nuns.
The tone of the email was essentially condescending to, and dismissive of, Catherine Corless’ work.
“If you come here,” she told the journalist, “you will find no mass grave, no evidence that children were ever so buried and a local police force casting their eyes to heaven and saying, ‘Yeah, a few bones were found – but this was an area where famine victims were buried'. So?”
The language was clever.
The Gardaí were casting their eyes to heaven.
Up there, doubtless God was nodding his approval.
How could anyone suggest such a thing of the nuns?
The policy seems to have been one of plausible deniability.
Throwing in a reference to the famine was using a convenient and itself emotive truth to bolster the argument that Catherine Corless was an amateur and out of her depth.
Sure, of course there’s bones down there. There’s bones all over this poor little island. Ochón. Ochón.
Except Catherine Corless wasn’t an amateur in the sense that they were suggesting.
As a result of her careful research work, which became public in 2014, the Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation was established in February 2015.
Still, Catherine was marginalised.
The archaeologists involved were sworn to secrecy. She was not kept abreast of how the investigation was proceeding.
The Commission carried out test excavations. Last week, they issued their first report. They explained that they had found two structures. They described the second of these as a long structure divided into 20 chambers.
“In this second structure,” the report said, “significant quantities of human remains were found in 17 of the 20 underground chambers which were examined.”
Remains were removed and examined. The bones they dug up confirmed that the ages of the deceased ranged from 35 foetal weeks to two to three years.
But the commission went further.
Were these, after all, the misfortunate sons and daughters of the region who had died during famine times?
They were not.
Radio carbon dating blew that red herring out of the water.
Damningly, the scientific evidence is clear that the remains date from the period during which the so called Mother and Baby home was in operation, from 1925 to 1961.
And the report went on to say that a number of the samples are likely to date from the 1950s.
This is not ancient history.
In its statement, the Commission described the discovery as “shocking.” In one sense that is an understatement.
We might well ask what kind of barbarism results in the dumping, apparently in the sewage system of the ‘home’, the bones of hundreds of dead children? But in another sense, it is not shocking at all.
Anyone who has paid attention to the kind of things that were done to children in religious institutions in Ireland – and especially to the children of unmarried mothers – knows that there is an element here of par for the course.
Children were brutalised in Ireland without the slightest compunction, by people into whose care they had been entrusted.
The appalling truth is that this is no longer a shock.
The horrible realty, which so many children in Ireland had to endure, is that they were treated like dirt.
A PERVASIVE SENSE OF SHAME
Rather than continuing the excavations, the Commission has handed responsibility for this over to Galway City Council and the Galway Coroner.
As yet, no decision has been taken as to how the process will be handled, though Galway City Council has made a commitment to "helping the Commission of Investigation in any way possible."
For its part, the Commission says that it intends to continue to investigate who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way. They might also try to get to the bottom of how so many children died at such a young age.
There is talk of turning the area into a ‘place of peace’. Clearly what the relatives of the dead want is most important here – but this idea seems to me like a grotesque travesty. How can you talk about a place where the remains of children were thrown, without a shred of dignity or respect, as a place of peace?
It is a place, rather, where the story of the horrendous abuse of these children, and the extent to which they were stripped of their rights as individuals, should and could be told.
It is a place where it would be fitting for us to learn about the Taliban-esque regime that tonce had this country in its icy grasp.
Politicians have rowed in with predictable hand-wringing. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny (pictured) rightly described the place run by the Bon Secours nuns as a “chamber of horrors.”
But he also seemed to make what was a bizarre attempt to deflect criticism from the nuns.
"No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children," he said – as if anyone had accused them of breasking and entering to steal babies. It is burying them as if they were vermin that we are talking about.
"We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns' ‘care’,” he added. "We gave them up maybe to spare them the savagery of gossip... and we gave them up because of our perverse, in fact, morbid relationship with what you call 'respectability’."
There is truth in that. And he went on, in reference to the unmarried mothers that were routinely incarcerated in places like the Bon Secours ‘home’ in Ireland as follows:
"And for their trouble,” he said, "we took their babies and we gifted them or we sold them or we trafficked them or we starved them or we neglected them or we denied them to the point of their disappearance from our hearts and from our sights, from our country and, in the case of Tuam, and possibly other places, from life itself."
That’s all good, historically accurate stuff. But let's be clear about this. It was the nuns and their cronies in the Roman Catholic adoption agencies who sold the babies, who trafficked them and – in many cases – who starved them or neglected them to point of death.
Many of the children in the Bon Secours baby homes were abused. They were bullied, beaten and made to feel that they were worthless. The working assumption of the religious orders in Ireland, and of the clergy generally, was that these children were the product of of sin, and should be (mis)treated accordingly. Their mothers were fallen women. They were a stain on the stupid bib of respectability that those in charge demanded Irish people must don.
Honestly, I am sick to my heaving stomach of the suggestion that we are all to blame for what happened. It is true that there was a penitential deference to authority in Ireland. It is true that people lived, to one degree or another, in a valley of the squinting windows-style culture, where a fear of what the neighbours might think paralysed otherwise decent people.
There was an element of that in many Irish women of my mother’s generation. They were decent, lovely, kind and generous women, who loved children. But there were times when a fear of what the neighbours might think froze them with a sense of horror – and too often they didn’t rightly know how to rise above it.
The dark truth is that the vast majority of Irish citizens were brainwashed into feeling a pervasive sense of shame. In the generation that was born into the new State, over which Catholicism took an immediate and oppressive stranglehold, very few of them could escape from the clutches of the poisonous ideology which produced that shame.
BUILT ON THE BONES
Which brings us back to Tuam and the Bon Secours nuns.
The unmarried mothers, who were incarcerated there, were victims of a toxic code which was invented, promoted and enforced by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. It was based on disgust with, hostility towards and shame about sex and sexuality, an attitude which is powerfully symbolised in the vows of celibacy taken by the clergy themselves.
That toxic code came directly from the rulebook of the Catholic Church, who demanded that contraception be banned in any and every form in Ireland. It was drummed into people, in churches and in schools, often violently, by the priests, the nuns and the ‘brothers', as well as by their lay proxies.
And it resulted in a deeply confused, conflicted, ignorant, brutish and often utterly hypocritical attitude both to sex – and to the children that were a product of it – especially among the clergy themselves.
And so there is no basis for letting the Bon Secours nuns or any other religious order deny their responsibility in all of this. They were the authors of Ireland’s misery in relation to sex, and to the disgraceful, gulag-like conditions in which unmarried mothers were kept.
Because not only did they steal the children from the mothers, they also sold them and trafficked them out of Ireland. We do not know the full extent of this, but we need to do everything possible to find out.
Until then, it has to be said that the words of Brid Smith of PBP/AAA, speaking in the Dáil yesterday ring absolutely true.
“The Bon Secours order is behind the biggest private hospital empire in the country,” she said. “I want to argue that this empire was built on the bones of the dead Tuam babies.”
And in the meantime, we still have on our statute books a law which means that someone can be given a 14 year jail sentence for supplying an abortion pill.
Clearly, there is a mountain to climb, in the campaign to undo every aspect of the grotesque regime imposed on Irish people, and on Irish women in particular, by the tenets of the Catholic church in relation to sex.
Our politicians should not be standing in the way. We need to get a move on.