CATHERINE CORLESS SAYS she is not shocked by the confirmation today that a large number of children’s bodies have been found at the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway. The only thing she is surprised about is how the news is already out in the open.
“So many things get covered up these days, I am just so thankful that this has come out,” she told TheJournal.ie this afternoon. “I think I half expected that it would be toned down or covered up in some way.”
At a hastily-convened press conference this morning, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone confirmed that a ‘significant’ number of human remains have been discovered at the site of the former Bon Secours home in Tuam. A forensic analysis of some of the remains has found that they were children, ranging from tiny babies to 2-3-year-olds.
It is not yet known how many children were buried at the site. “We simply don’t know the numbers,” Zappone told the media.
However Corless’s meticulous research found that 796 children died at the home and were not given an official burial place.
“It is horrific what they did,” she said.
The story has grown from one which was talked about locally in Tuam for decades to one of the most serious scandals the Catholic Church in Ireland has faced – and one which would not have been uncovered if it were not for the work of an amateur historian.
How the story emerged
In 2013, a group of local Tuam people with an interest in history began to raise money for a memorial at the site of where the mother and baby home had been located.
Local people had long known that there had been some kind of graveyard for children from the home, which was officially known as St Mary’s, but was known locally as The Home. The institution, which was run by the Bon Secours nuns, was open from 1925 until 1961.
Unmarried women in the area who became pregnant were sent there to give birth away from their families, as at the time, having a so-called ‘illegitimate’ child was regarded as shameful.
The babies were then left in the institution to be raised by the nuns. Some of them were put up for adoption – in some cases, without the consent of the mothers – while some remained in the care of the nuns.
Some of the poorer women who gave birth were forced to work for the nuns in the institution after they had their child as a way to pay for the service which had been provided to them.
The Home was one of many of its type in Ireland at the time: a social service run by a Catholic religious order which imposed the harsh cultural mores of the time and focused on imposing penance and punishment for what the women had done.
When The Home closed down, many of the children were moved to industrial schools around the country. The building itself was bulldozed and a housing estate now stands in its place.
The discovery of bones
In 1975, fourteen years after The Home closed down, two young boys called Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney were playing in a field where the building had once stood.
The boys discovered some concrete slabs loosely covering a hollow. They moved the concrete and discovered a hole, which Frannie Hopkins described as being “full of skeletons… of children”.
In an interview, Frannie said that his parents told him that a local priest had said a mass at the site and the grave was then covered over again. There was no investigation of any kind into who was buried there and what had happened to them.
A local couple began to take care of the small patch of land, erecting a grotto in the corner and maintaining it for 35 years, trimming the grass and planting flowers.
Catherine Corless had long heard the stories about the site being used to bury children, and several years ago, she began to investigate properly and find out exactly who had been buried at the site.
Corless works on her family farm. She didn’t have an academic institution behind her. Instead, she worked on it in her spare time.
“On a rainy day I’d really get down to it and go and work in the library,” she said.
The search for information
She initially tried to contact the Bon Secours sisters at their Cork headquarters and was told that they no longer had files or information about The Home.
She tried the Western Health Board, who told her there was no information available. When she tried to access information from Galway County Council, she says she was told that she wasn’t allowed because she didn’t have a university degree.
“That’s exactly what I was told. I couldn’t look at the records”.
Instead, the council let her look at the information on the housing estate which was built in the 1970s in the place where the home had been. “From that, I gathered bits and pieces of information about the site and began to make an assessment of what happened.”
She finally began to get the information when she contacted the registry office in Galway to try to get death certificates for every child who had died at The Home. Speaking to IrishCentral in 2014, she described how it was the first time that it became clear that a large number of children had died there:
A week later [my contact there] got back to me and said ‘do you really want all of these deaths?’ I said I do. She told me I would be charged for each record. Then she asked me did I realise the enormity of the numbers of deaths there?
Corless paid €4 for each death certificate and, between 2011 and 2013, ended up with the total number: 796.
They ranged from newborns to nine-year-old children, and the death certificates recorded that they had died from causes including malnutrition, neglect, measles, tuberculosis and pneumonia.
At 796 deaths, this means that one child died approximately every fortnight at The Home – a mortality rate far higher than the rate for other children in Ireland at the time.
Catherine cross-referenced the list of 796 names to see if any of the children were buried in local cemeteries. A Galway County Council archivist told her that none of the names appeared in any nearby cemetery.
She managed to get a map of The Home dating from the late 19th or early 20th century, when the building had been used as a workhouse.
By overlaying a map of the site as it looks today, she discovered that the place where the bones were discovered by the two boys in 1975 correlated exactly with where a sewage tank had been located during the building’s workhouse days. The tank had been put out of use in the 1930s when it stopped working.
Catherine concluded that this was the most likely site where some or all of the 796 children who had died at The Home were likely to have been buried.
How Ireland learnt about what had happened at The Home
As a result of Catherine’s work, she and some fellow local historians began their appeal in late 2013 to raise money for a permanent memorial to the children who had died there.
In October 2013, a local paper covered the fundraising appeal. Four months later, the Connacht Tribune ran an extensive interview with Catherine in February 2014, detailing what she had found.
But the story came to national attention when the Irish Mail on Sunday ran a front page story on Sunday 25 May 2014, focusing on the mass grave rather than the fundraising appeal. The journalist who wrote the story, Alison O’Reilly, interviewed Catherine Corless about her work and her primary source documentary evidence about the number of children who had died at the home.
It took some time for the full extent of the story to resonate. The story broke on a Sunday. That Tuesday, the Cabinet did not discuss it and the government did not make any official statement on it – despite a promise from the then-Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan that it would be brought up.
It took several days for other media outlets to follow up the story, and for the government to comment. Once they did, however, media outlets around the world began covering it. The BBC, CBS, Al Jazeera and BuzzFeed all wrote about what had happened, while it was the most-read story on the Washington Post on the day it was posted.
The pressure for answers began mounting and just over two weeks after the Irish Mail on Sunday story, on 10 June 2014, a Commission of Investigation was announced to investigate what happened in mother and baby homes which operated across Ireland – not just in Tuam – including the mortality rates at them, how mothers were treated, the burial practices and how adoptions were handled.
An initial stratigraphic study was carried out at the Tuam site in October 2015 which identified an area of interest, which was then excavated between November 2016 and February 2017.
What happened at today’s press conference
This morning’s press conference was the first that Catherine Corless had heard about what had been found. “The archaeologists said they were sworn to secrecy.”
Things moved fast. The media received a press release at 9.05am this morning to say that Minister for Children Katherine Zappone’s planned visit to a school in Tallaght today was cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances”. At 9.28am, a press release said that Zappone would be giving a press conference about the Commission of Investigation at 11.15am.
At the press conference, Zappone said that forensic testing suggests the remains all date from the time when the mother and baby home was operating. She also said that the coroner has been informed.
In a statement about where the remains were discovered, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation said that two structures had been found during the excavation: one was a septic tank, and the second was a long, underground structure divided into 20 chambers, which the Commission says appears to have been related to the treatment or containment of sewage or waste water, although it is not yet known if it was ever used for this purpose.Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube
This structure is where the ‘significant quantities’ of human remains were discovered.
Katherine Zappone rang Catherine Corless about it this morning. “She was very emotional, really and truly. She was honestly shocked,” said Catherine.
What happens next
The discovery vindicates Corless’s research into the deaths of children at The Home. Since the story first broke, her work had been criticised by some local people who argued that it was unnecessary to further dig into events which had happened in the recent past. The Irish Times ran an article which raised doubts over some of her research.
As well as the Catholic Church, questions will also asked of the State’s role in these institutions. The researcher behind the @Limerick1914 Twitter account found contemporaneous reports that the Bon Secours nuns were paid £2,800 per year by the State in 1927 to look after the mothers and children in The Home.
What happens next will hinge on what the coroner determines, and what the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation decides to do.
Corless thinks it’s important to focus on next steps (“This is only the start”) and on what this means for the people who went through the brutal mother and home system.
“I hope now that this has come out that the shock and horror will move people to do the right thing for survivors. That’s the main hope,” she said.
In recent years, relatives have come to her looking for help, trying to find a burial place.
“The women [who stayed in The Home] are few and far between. It’s mainly brothers and sisters of the babies who died there, who want to know what happened to their siblings because the mothers have passed on.
“I bring them to the housing estate, show them where it was. They’re often very emotional. It’s so sad to bring them in there and not being able to show them where the babies are. Their family member could be under the playground, under the grass area.”
She is critical of the order of nuns who ran The Home and their lack of sympathy towards the people who were in their care.
“It’s horrific how the sisters did this. The Bon Secours sisters have to come out and apologise to survivors. They are hidden behind their PR people at the moment. They don’t communicate with survivors.”
So what made her do it all? Corless says that she felt compelled to do her research and uncover the truth of what happened to the children.
“It really gripped me. It’s almost as if those little babies were reaching out and looking for recognition. That’s how I always felt when I went into that graveyard.
“A lot of other people have said that too – there was something not right in that place. I can’t put it into words, but I felt that this is what I had to do.”
Read about what happened today: Remains of young children and babies found in sewage chambers at Tuam mother and baby home