Digging for the Truth About Buried Irish Babies

NEWS ANALYSIS: Media misinformation is giving a false picture about what really happened at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

The Tuam Mother and Baby Home in the 1950s
The Tuam Mother and Baby Home in the 1950s (photo: Facebook/Catherine Corless (Irish Family Genealogy))

DUBLIN — The Church in Ireland has been in the headlines again. The reason this time is the sensational claim — based on no hard evidence whatsoever — that nuns in the Bon Secours congregation callously and perhaps criminally dumped 800 babies in a septic tank at a mother-and-baby home in County Galway in the early-to-mid 20th century.

The news headlines around the world have been extraordinary. According to the Voice of Russia, there were “800 babies buried in septic tank at Irish home for unmarried mothers.” The South China Morning Post claimed that there were “mass deaths” at the home. Not to be outdone, the International Business Times suggested that the babies “dumped” in the septic tank could have been used as “drug guinea pigs.”

The Irish tabloid and online media have been similarly sensational. Perhaps the most extraordinary suggestion came from The Journal, an online news site, which went as far as asking: “How did the children die? Were they killed?”

Even mainstream journalists are now frustrated with the way in which the story has developed. In a series of tweets, Philip Boucher-Hayes, a journalist with the national broadcaster RTE, commented: “Reporting of #tuambabies abroad is becoming obnoxious. Today on BBC TV I said malnutrition was listed as cause of death at other mother-and-baby homes. Several outlets now quoting me as source for the unsupportable claim that ‘nuns starved 800 babies to death’ before dumping them in a septic tank. So just in case this needs clarification, I said nothing of the sort.”

In the midst of the wild speculation and rumors surrounding this story, the two most common claims relating to the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home are that there was an excessive mortality rate (perhaps caused by neglect, intentional or otherwise) and that the bodies of the deceased infants were “dumped” into a sewage tank.


What’s Actually Known

So, what do we actually know about what happened in Tuam?

Verifiable facts are thin on the ground. What we do know is that a workhouse (used to house the destitute poor, particularly during the Potato Famine) was built on the site in 1840. There are likely to be bodies of some of these 19th-century famine victims somewhere in the vicinity.

The use of this building was then provided to the Sisters of Bon Secours, who ran a home for mothers and their babies between 1925 and 1961. At that time, the home catered to unmarried women who became pregnant and who were ostracized by their families.

Such homes existed all over Ireland. Many were run by Catholic religious orders, although some were Protestant by ethos. However, according to Seán Lucey, a historian at Queen’s University in Belfast, 70% of single mothers and their babies ended up in state-run county homes rather than at religious houses.

The Tuam Mother and Baby Home, while run by the Bon Secours order, was in fact owned by the local county council, which provided the funding for its operation. The nuns apparently lobbied for more funding, and according to British historian Tim Stanley, “locals actually complained about the cost to the ratepayers of financing the home.”

In 1975, two local boys, Barry Sweeney (age 10) and Frannie Hopkins (age 12), were playing at the site when they disturbed a concrete slab. Under the slab they found a cavity that contained children’s skeletons.

Speaking to the Irish Times last week, Sweeney recounted: “There were skeletons thrown in there. They were all this way and that way. They weren’t wrapped in anything, and there were no coffins. ... But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole.”


Deaths From Infectious Illnesses

Local historian Catherine Corless has uncovered records showing that 796 children, mostly young in age, died in the home during the 36 years of its operation.

Details of the death certificates of the babies have been released and were published in mid-June. They reveal regular outbreaks of infectious diseases that seem to have spread quickly amongst children living together in close quarters.

For example, 24 children died in just six weeks in a serious measles outbreak in the spring of 1926, while measles also killed 13 in the early spring of 1932, and bronchitis and pneumonia killed 10 in 1954. Four children died in four days from gastroenteritis in 1942, while nine died from whooping cough during a two-week period in 1943.

Significantly, one-third of all deaths at the home occurred during the years of World War II, a period of widespread economic hardship. The death certificates also report that 14 children died from marasmus (malnutrition). It is not clear what caused this malnutrition or whether the problem was exacerbated by other underlying medical conditions.

Corless’ hypothesis that at least some of the children were buried in a disused septic tank is based on some old maps locating a septic tank in the area where the boys found some skeletons. But the area has never been excavated, and nobody has corroborated her research.

And speaking last week to the Irish Times, Corless insisted, “I never used that word ‘dumped.’ ... I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words. ... Now it has taken a life of its own.”


A Different Light

The most recent revelation has cast an entirely different light on the story. Journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes has interviewed Mary Moriarty, who claims to have fallen into a burial plot on the grounds of the home in the 1970s, when the ground there subsided. She apparently uncovered an underground space containing infant bodies.

Moriarty said she subsequently spoke with a former employee of the home, who recalled helping the nuns to carry deceased infants along an underground tunnel to a burial vault. As Boucher-Hayes states, “Whatever cruelties you could lay at the nuns’ feet, however harsh or medically incompetent the regime they ran was, it was always hard to believe that they would have knowingly put babies in a septic tank. Because there may have been a tunnel running up and into this vault/crypt/space — this one at least is highly unlikely to have been a septic tank.”

This latest revelation correlates with the suggestion of Finbar McCormick, an archaeologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, who stated that the structure uncovered by Sweeney and Hopkins in 1975 is “more likely to be a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used in the recent past and still used today in many parts of Europe.”


Investigation Commissioned

Last week, the Irish government announced it would commission an investigation of the operations of Church-operated mother-and-baby homes in the 20th century.

“I believe that Tuam should not be looked at in isolation, because, over the last century, we have had mother-and-baby homes right up and down the country,” said Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s Minister for Children. “It’s absolutely essential that we establish the facts; and in this regard, it’s a time for sensitivity rather than sensationalism, a time for seeking the truth rather than indulging in speculation.”

However, the state-run county homes, which housed the majority of unmarried mothers and their babies, will not be subject to this investigation.

As the Irish Bishops’ Conference has affirmed, the Bon Secours home operated at a time that was “harsh and unforgiving,” when “unmarried mothers were often judged, stigmatized and rejected.” But whispers of murder, deliberate neglect and the dumping of babies in the sewage system are, to date, without any corroborating evidence.

This poses a crucial question about the health of public discourse in Ireland and elsewhere: Why did supposedly mainstream, responsible media outlets allow themselves to run away with this story?

Patrick Kenny writes from Dublin.