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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 21 June, 2018
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Opinion: Questions remain unanswered over the Tuam mother-and-baby home

To understand what happened, it is vital to hold inquests into the deaths of all those buried at the site of the former home.

Donal O'Keeffe

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL is expected to announce whether or not she intends to convene an inquest into the death of at least one of the babies who died in the Tuam mother-and-baby home. Some members of the Tuam Children’s Graveyard Committee say they are vehemently opposed to any excavation of the site where at least some of the 796 babies who died in the care of the Bon Secours nuns are believed to be buried.

Where next for the horror story that catapulted Tuam to international infamy?

Questions remain unanswered

In the face of some persistent deniers, it is worth reiterating what is known at this point:

Catherine Corless, the tireless and (though she’d be mortified by such praise) heroic historian who has given a voice to the children of the Tuam Home, accessed the death certificates of those 796 babies. What we do not have is their burial records. We know they died in the nuns’ alleged care. We do not know for certain where their bodies are, but there is a powerful amount of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence to suggest they may be buried in what was the Home’s disused sewage system.

Thanks to some pretty impressive detective work by Izzy Kamikaze, we now know that (to borrow a phrase) the trouble with the septic tank story turns out to be that, according to the original plans, there was actually a series of cesspits on the grounds – a Victorian system of up to nine interlinked and vaulted chambers, some of them up to seven feet in height.

Solicitor Kevin Higgins, who is helping a number of women and children who stayed in “The Home”, recently called for the Attorney General to exercise her powers of absolute discretion in the public interest under Section 24 of the 1962 Coroner’s Act and order inquests into the deaths of all those buried in the grave in Tuam. Theresa Killeen-Kelly of the Children’s Graveyard Committee opposes this, telling RTÉ’s Drivetime: “The babies were born here, they died here and they’ll stay here.”

Higgins says there is legal argument and overwhelming evidence to justify seeing if the children’s remains can be exhumed and inquests held. Section 24 of the Coroner’s Act states that if the Attorney General has reason to believe a person died in circumstances which may warrant the holding of an inquest, then they can direct any coroner to conduct such an inquiry.

Higgins told RTÉ recently that he believes it “almost inevitable” that exhumations will have to take place. Despite some attempts to suggest houses might have to be knocked, the burial area is believed most sensibly (by Catherine Corless and others) to be likely under the green area at the centre of the current housing estate.

“Excavating a nice area like this? I don’t think that should happen,” insists Killeen-Kelly.

The people behind the headlines

Perhaps it might help to put a human face to the argument. Alison O’Reilly of the Irish Mail on Sunday first broke this story nationally. She reports that a little boy called John Desmond Dolan was born, a healthy baby, in the Tuam home on 22 February, 1946. He died on 11 June, 1947, not yet one year and four months. He was described in the inspection report for that year as “a congenital idiot” and, before he died, “emaciated, with a voracious appetite”.

John, God rest him, has an ally on this Earth now. His sister, who until recently never knew about him, has written to the Attorney General asking that the Tuam site be excavated to see if John is buried there. If he is there, she asks that an autopsy be performed to establish how he died. The difficulty with this request is that, if John is to be identified, then all of the other bodies will have to be exhumed too.

In 2012, Sister Marie Ryan, Country Leader of the Sisters of Bon Secours Ireland, told John’s sister: “As I understand it there would… be a strong possibility that his remains are buried at the small cemetery at the Home itself. This is located at the back of the Home and was operated as a general grave.”

John had a brother, William Joseph, born a healthy baby on 21 May, 1950. The record of his date of birth was altered – something commonly done with babies sent to the US for adoption – in his case to 20 April, 1950. William is registered in the Tuam Home as having died on 3 February, 1951 but no cause of death is given and he is not recorded on the national death register. His sister believes he could well be alive. She understands that her mother believed he was sent to the US.

She needs to know. She wants her brother (or brothers) given a Christian burial and reuinited with their mother, Bridget, in Glasnevin Cemetery.

These were real children 

Catherine Corless, who is also a member of the Children’s Graveyard Committee, believes that a memorial without a full investigation is akin to “putting a sticking plaster on a boil”. She feels that, at the very least, the site should be probed by forensic archaeologists. That said, she is not hopeful that the Attorney General will easily grant an inquest.

The people of Tuam have raised €35,000 for a memorial and nobody could doubt their sincerity. I think a memorial would be a very fitting tribute to the Tuam Babies – if they were of the past, if they were beyond living memory, if they were long-forgotten ghosts. They are not. They are real children, they are the real brothers and sisters, the real sons and daughters, of real Irish people who are still alive today.

Some in Tuam feel they have been unfairly tainted for what happened in “The Home” but Tuam now has a golden opportunity to reclaim its own good name. Here’s how: become the champion of those poor children. Tell the world: ‘Look at what happened here. Look at what happens when you look down on anyone. Look at what happens when you look the other way. It’s the least we can do and it’s not enough but we are celebrating the brief, painful lives of these poor little children and we are begging you: make sure that it doesn’t happen in your town.’

Tuam is not ancient history. It is living memory.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

Here’s the latest information about the Tuam mother-and-baby home

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