IN THE SPACE of two weeks, the story about a mass grave at a former mother and baby home in Galway has grown from something that was just talked about locally in Tuam to a worldwide news story.
The oh-so-gradual unfolding of the story, beginning in the 1970s with the discovery of multiple skeletons, seemed to take people by surprise. After breaking in the media almost a fortnight ago, it took more than a week before any politician made a comment about it, and it was days before national mainstream outlets covered it.
Here, we look at how the story has unfolded, and all of the many, many questions that still remain.
What is the home at the centre of the controversy?
From 1925 until 1961, an order of nuns calls the Bon Secours Sisters ran an institution at this building in Tuam in Co Galway.
The institution was called St Mary’s but was known locally as The Home. 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 orphanage to be raised by the nuns. Some of them were put up for adoption - which, some contend, was done without the consent of the parents - 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.
Why is it in the spotlight now? It’s been closed for more than 50 years?
Simply put, the story spans a long period of time but has only gotten media attention in recent weeks.
Let’s start with the event at the centre of the story: In 1975, fourteen years after The Home had 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 has described as being “full of skeletons… of children”.
In a recent 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.
Local people knew that the area had served as some kind of graveyard for children in The Home, and a local couple began to take care of it, erecting a grotto in the corner and maintaining it.
And so why is it making the news now?
A committee of local historians began a campaign to raise money for a proper memorial at the site, which led one of them, Catherine Corless to do more research on who exactly was buried there.
As the fundraising appeal began, the story appeared in two local newspapers – the Tuam Herald and the Connacht Tribune – last October.
However it only really began to gain attention when The Irish Mail on Sunday ran it as a front page story on Sunday 25 May, focusing on the mass grave rather than the fundraising appeal.
The paper ran an interview with Catherine Corless in which she detailed her work and research methods.
What did Catherine Corless find?
It took a long time, but Catherine Corless methodically researched what happened to children who died there.
She requested the death certificates for all of the children who died at The Home during its 36 years and, after being passed from office to office, was given a list of 796 children from the State agency who kept the records.
“Eventually I had to contact the registry office in Galway,” she told IrishCentral.
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?
The children ranged from newborns up to the age of nine years old and the records show they died from a variety of illnesses.
Catherine Corless then began to cross-reference the list 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.
Catherine managed to get a map of The Home back from when it was a workhouse in the late 19th and early 20th century. 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.
As a result, Catherine concluded that the 796 children were likely to have been buried at the site on the grounds of The Home.
Is there any kind of gravestone to mark this?
No. From the evidence presented by Catherine Corless and Frannie Hopkins, it would seem that the children was placed into the ground, that coffins were not used to bury them, and that there was no gravestone.
So 796 children definitely died at The Home – we know that because there are State records. But how do we know that they were buried in the former sewage tank?
We don’t. The only record of the skeletons being seen was in 1975 when the two boys discovered them. The skeletons were not counted and the area has not been dug up since.
However, Catherine Corless says the evidence points to only one answer. “Where would they be if they’re not in that pit? Have they just vanished into thin air?”
Were some children at Mother and Baby Homes used for medical research?
This is a contentious issue. There was some evidence that the bodies of some children from Mother and Baby Homes were given to anatomy departments in Irish universities for medical research. A Prime Time documentary from three years ago covered this issue.
If this did happen – and there’s no evidence either way as of yet – then it could explain what happened to some of the 796 children.
How did the children die? Were they killed? Poorly treated? Died naturally?
Some of the certificates Catherine Corless received showed the cause of death for the children mainly involved illnesses – such as measles and gastroenteritis which spread quickly in the cramped conditions – or malnutrition.
What about the reports of medical trials carried out on the children?
A researcher at UCC has found evidence that more than 3,000 children in 24 residential institutions were subjected to experimental vaccine trials in the 1930s. Historian Michael Dwyer said no record of the trials can be found in Government files from the time, but that the details instead were published in medical journals.
“This suggests that vaccine trials would not have been acceptable to government, municipal authorities or the general public,” he said.
However the fact that reports of these trials were published in the most prestigious medical journals suggest that this type of human experimentation was largely accepted by medical practitioners and facilitated by authorities in charge of children’s residential institutions.
Given the seriousness of the issue, Government Minister Kathleen Lynch has said that the vaccine trials should form part of any forthcoming inquiry.
Was the mortality rate really that much higher at The Home than for other children?
An average of 22 children died every year at The Home, meaning one died every 2.3 weeks on average. This rate is significantly higher than Ireland’s infant mortality rates at the time.
A Dáil debate in 1934 noted that one in three children who were born outside of marriage died within one year of their birth – a rate which was about five times higher than for other children.
“From the abnormally high death rate amongst this class of children one must come to the conclusion that they are not looked after with the same care and attention as that given to ordinary children,” Fianna Fáil TD Dr Conn Ward told the Dáil.
What do the nuns involved have to say?
The Bon Secours nuns released a statement through a PR company on Thursday.
In it, they said that they were “shocked and deeply saddened” about the reports, and said that they would co-operate with plans for a memorial. They stressed that the records were all handed over to the local authority – now within the HSE – when The Home closed in 1961.
The statement was notable in that it did not confirm or deny the existence of the mass grave – in fact, it didn’t give any detail at all about it.
Did the State know about it?
The excellent 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.
The children also attended local schools, where they were segregated from other students, and would have been treated by local medical staff.
So is there a garda investigation?
Good question. The Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has ordered a report from An Garda Síochána about how much information it has about the mass grave allegation.
So that’s a good first step, isn’t it?
Some would say that the Minister had to step in. For more than one week, the gardaí had repeatedly said that there was nothing for them to investigate.
CNN summed up the confusion well, quoting a garda press officer who said there was nothing to suggest any impropriety.
The repeated we-know-nothing stance by the gardaí is especially strange given that the original article in the Irish Mail on Sunday reported that the family of one of the children who died at the home had already reported it to the gardaí.
When a reporter from TheJournal.ie asked them last week about this, the gardaí simply never responded.
It is possible that the gardaí were confused by this excavation of a site near The Home which found the bodies of 48 famine victims who had been buried there.
So is there an inquiry? An investigation?
The newly-appointed Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan has said that a number of Government departments are carrying out a review to work out how best to investigate the matter.
It is most likely that this will lead to a statutory inquiry into Tuam, and possibly into other Mother and Baby homes.
Is there any chance that this could be a one-off?
No. UCD historian Lindsey Earner-Byrne who has researched this area extensively has said that Tuam was not exceptional.
“That 800 number will be replicated, and [be] higher in other homes,” she said on RTE.
She said she was surprised by the mass grave but not by the numbers, noting that all the mother-and-baby homes shared the common trait of very high infant mortality rates, “significantly higher than the mortality rates for ‘legitimate’ babies”.
In her book, she noted the death rates at some of these unmarried mother’s homes:
- Bessboro home in Cork had an infant mortality rate of 61 per cent in 1943
- Shan Ross Abbey in Roscrea had a rate of 35 per cent in the same year
- The Home in Tuam had a rate of 35 per cent in the same year
What happened to The Home?
When the home closed in 1961, 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.
Meanwhile, the fundraising efforts are continuing by the committee of local historians. Speaking to TheJournal.ie last week, Catherine Corless said she was surprised how long it had taken for people to talk about the discovery.
“People don’t seem shocked, I don’t understand,” she said.
“If two children were discovered in an unmarked grave, the news would be everywhere. We have almost 800 here”.
This article was originally published at 8.15am on Saturday 7 June.