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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 24 November, 2014

Opinion: Mass grave ‘filled to the brim with tiny bones and skulls’ shows how we cherish children

The bodies of 800 “illegitimate” children, ranging in age from nine years to two days, have been uncovered in Tuam. But do people care any more now than they did then?

Donal O'Keeffe

“CHERISH ALL THE children equally” is a defining Irish shibboleth, enshrined in the Proclamation of Independence. It is one of our highest aspirations and, like most of the things we Irish hold dearest, it is build on a solid foundation of utter hypocrisy.

Cherish all the children? By all available evidence, we Irish don’t even like children.

In the past week, a horror story has unfolded. Eight hundred children are buried in an unmarked mass grave in Tuam, Co Galway, in a disused septic tank on the former grounds of an institution known locally as “The Home”. The Bon Secours nuns operated “The Home” between 1926 and 1961 and over the years housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their “illegitimate” children.

The tireless work of historian Catherine Corless has revealed that 796 children, the oldest nine years, the youngest two days old, are in that tank. Causes of death include “malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia”. The tank is described as “filled to the brim with tiny bones and skulls”.

On Liveline during the week, a clear picture emerged. Unmarried mothers incarcerated until they signed over their babies, healthy children sold to be adopted by wealthy Americans and disabled infants, who had no sale value, abandoned in “Dying Rooms”, and their bodies dumped by the brides of Christ in a septic tank.

This was a nationwide industry founded on human suffering. In a country utterly corrupted by its own twisted version of Catholicism and run by a complicit elite, young women who “fell pregnant” were condemned. They had sinned and were left to the mercy of perverts and brutes. Their children were a tainted commodity to be sold or discarded at the whim of people considered “religious”.

A further horror is that it seems highly unlikely Tuam was the only mother and baby home which starved infants and crammed their tiny bodies into unmarked graves. The dead children must number in the thousands.

To quote Bob Dylan, “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do”.

What was once “The Home” is now a housing estate. There are real homes there now, proper homes where families live and children play. I hope it’s a happy place.

Expect the usual Defenders of the Faith to trot out their well-practised ”few bad apples” lines. ”The vast majority of Catholic institutions did great good for Irish children,” they’ll tell us. They’ll wring their hands and drip sincerely that times were different then and nobody knew how bad it was, but the simple truth is they’ll be wrong, perhaps wilfully wrong, to say nobody knew.

We knew. We just didn’t care.

In 1946, Ireland’s culture of cruelty and indifference to the most vulnerable was condemned by the most famous priest in the world and we ignored him.

The internationally-acclaimed hero of “Boys Town”, Roscommon-born Father Edward Flanagan, visited the land of his birth and was horrified by what he saw here, denouncing Ireland’s treatment of children in Church and State care as “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong”.

Flanagan, a reluctant celebrity since the 1938 film starring Spencer Tracey had immortalised him, had founded Boys Town in 1917 as a centre of education and shelter for poor and neglected boys in Omaha, Nebraska. His philosophy was simple and powerful: “There is no such thing as a bad boy”.

Father Flanagan treated those in his care with compassion and respect and his kindness showed such success that he became known as “the world’s foremost expert on boys’ training and youth care.”

Flanagan told a public meeting in Cork’s Savoy Cinema: “You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go into these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it.” Calling Ireland’s institutions “a disgrace to the nation,” he said “I do not believe that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character.”

Nobody listened.

In the Dáil, the then Minister for Justice, Gerald Boland, dismissed Flanagan’s reports of children beaten with “the cat o’ nine tails, the rod, and the fist”.

“I was not disposed to take any notice of what Monsignor Flanagan said while he was in this country,” Boland told said, “because his statements were so exaggerated that I did not think people would attach any importance to them.”

Nobody listened.

But of course we’ve changed now, 70 years later. We’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and we really do cherish all the children now, don’t we?

Well, we’ve just had the European and Local Elections and turnout was good, by our standards: 57% of the electorate went to the polls to administer a kicking to the Government. Compare that to the 2012 Children’s Rights Referendum. For all our guff about cherishing children, when we were offered the chance to enshrine their rights in the Constitution, only 33.5% of us could be bothered to vote.

On his return to the US, Father Flanagan addressed his Irish countrymen and women:

“What you need over there is to have someone shake you loose from your smugness and satisfaction and set an example by punishing those who are guilty of cruelty, ignorance and neglect of their duties in high places… I wonder what God’s judgment will be with reference to those who hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their God-given stewardship of little children.”

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer and artist who sometimes contributes to the Evening Echo. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe

Read: ‘It’s time to do something’ – The forgotten mass grave of 800 babies in Galway

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