THE STATE-RUN investigation into mother and baby homes has been underway for just over two years, after being set up by the Fine Gael-Labour government at the start of 2015.
The three-person commission was set up following press reports about a possible mass children’s grave in Tuam. It is examining 14 mother and baby homes around the country, in addition to four ‘county homes’.
Yesterday, a major announcement about the commission’s progress was made, as it was confirmed a significant number of human remains – of children aged up to two and three years – had been found at the site of the former mother and baby home, run by the Bon Secours sisters, in Tuam.
It was announced that the commission had completed two test excavations of the Galway site and confirmed “significant quantities of human remains have been discovered” in a structure which appears to be “related to the treatment/containment of sewerage and/or wastewater”.
The Irish Mail on Sunday’s story about children’s remains being buried in a septic tank – based on research by local historian Catherine Corless – was published in May of 2014.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, it’s planned, will make its final report in February of next year.
Here’s what’s been happening in the years since those initial revelations:
The Irish Mail on Sunday reports that the bodies of nearly 800 young children are believed to have been interred beside the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
The revelations, based on the research by Corless, are met with shock and anger in Ireland. International news outlets pick up the story.
Here’s how newswire AFP reported it at the time:
Almost 800 babies and children were buried in a mass grave in Ireland near a home for unmarried mothers run by nuns, according to new research Wednesday which throws more light on the Irish Catholic Church’s troubled past.
Death records suggest 796 children, from newborns to eight-year-olds, were deposited in a grave near a Catholic-run home for unmarried mothers during the 35 years it operated from 1925 to 1961.
Historian Catherine Corless, who made the discovery, says her study of death records for the St Mary’s home in Tuam in County Galway suggests that a former septic tank near the home was a mass grave.
The septic tank, full to the brim with bones, was discovered in 1975 by locals when concrete slabs covering the tank broke up.
Until now, locals believed the bones mainly stemmed from the Great Irish famine of the 1840s when hundreds of thousands perished.
St Mary’s, run by the Bons Secours Sisters, was one of several such ‘mother and baby’ homes in early 20th century Ireland.
Thousands of unmarried pregnant women – labelled at the time as ‘fallen women’ – were sent to the homes to have their babies.
The women were ostracised by the conservative-Catholic society and were often forced to hand over their children for adoption.
Health issues and problems associated with the homes have long been documented. As far back as 1944, a government inspection report of the Tuam home described some of the children as “fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated.”
The recently discovered death records for St Mary’s show the 796 children died from malnutrition and infectious diseases, such as measles and TB.
Conservative Catholic teaching at the time denied children of unmarried parents baptism and therefore burial in consecrated lands.
The home was knocked down many years ago to make way for new houses, but the area around the unmarked mass grave has been maintained by locals.
Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan describes the revelations as “appalling” and says that the full facts need to be established.
On 4 June, he issues the first official response from the government on the allegations:
Many of the revelations are deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been. I am particularly mindful of the relatives of those involved and of local communities. There are a number of Government departments involved in this process. The cross-departmental initiative underway will examine these matters and report to Government on how they might be addressed.
Relevant Government departments have been tasked with working together in preparation for the Government’s early consideration and determination of the best course of action.
The issue of mother and baby homes comes under intense media and public scrutiny in the following months. In July, it’s revealed that the death rate of babies at the Tuam mother and baby home was almost double the rate of other homes around the country.
Figures from National Archives published by TheJournal.ie show that 31.6% of babies under the age of one in Tuam died over the course of one year.
A series of meetings take place as the government works towards setting up a large-scale inquiry into the mother-and-baby homes. Interest groups, survivors, academics with expertise in the area, and politicians from both sides of the aisle meet with Flanagan. He is succeeded by James Reilly as minister in July.
The inter-departmental group set up to examine the homes gathers information showing almost 800 children died at the Tuam home run by the Bon Secours Sisters from the 1920s to the 1960s.
‘Debility from birth’ was recorded as the biggest cause of death. ‘Respiratory diseases’ was recorded as the second biggest killer.
The UN Human Rights Committee says Ireland must launch a wide-ranging, independent probe into the past abuse of women and children in State and Catholic Church-run institutions.
“Very important steps have been taken by the Irish government,” Cees Flinterman of the UN watchdog body says.
But what is lacking is an independent, thorough investigation which would lead to bringing those who perpetrated those acts to justice.
An email from public relations guru Terry Prone, representing the Bon Secours sisters, emerges, claiming there is “no mass grave, no evidence that children were ever so buried, and a local police force casting their eyes to heaven” in the area.
The email was sent in response to a request for an interview with Sr Marie Ryan of the Bon Secours nuns by French documentary maker Saskia Weber.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Prone confirms she sent the email, but says there’s “absolutely no difference” between the substance of it and public pronouncements made by the Bon Secours sisters.
“The sisters never knew anything about it,” she says.
In November news emerges that a second burial ground has been found at the Tuam mother and baby home. The site was also found by Corless, who tells Morning Ireland that it is a “continuation” of the first site.
The work of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes gets underway, as the makeup of the panel is confirmed by Minister James Reilly.
The three commissioners are:
- Judge Yvonne Murphy (Commission Chairperson)
- International legal expert on child protection and adoption Dr William Duncan
- Historian Professor Mary E Daly
The establishment of the commission had to be approved by the Dáil and the Seanad, before it was announced.
This is a significant moment as the Commission can now start the process to ensure that what was once hidden and covered up in these Homes, and in wider society, can be revealed and openly acknowledged.
This investigation is an opportunity for Irish society to address the often harrowing manner in which vulnerable women and children were treated in mother and baby homes, how they came to be there in the first place and the circumstances of their departure from the homes.
He encourages anyone with information relevant to the investigation to come forward.
The commission, it’s announced, will hear evidence in private except in exceptional circumstances. Its powers extend to private and public records.
- Related: This is the commission’s website >
An interim report is released in the summer of 2016. Further time is needed to compile some of its reporting, the commission says.
According to Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone:
Importantly, the extension of time will serve to accommodate the large number of witnesses coming forward and to ensure that new information being discovered can be fully analysed to give a complete understanding of the social history involved.
As the commission continues its work, campaign groups raise concerns that more outreach work needs to be done by the panel.
“We are concerned about the lack of awareness of the committee’s procedures that seems to be out there,” a spokesperson for survivor advocacy group the Adoption Rights Alliance tells TheJournal.ie in August.
We are very concerned and we’ve called on the commission both here and abroad to increase advertising.
By August 500 people have expressed an interest in meeting with the committee and over 150 hearings have been held at the commission’s office in Dublin and in people’s homes in areas as diverse as Galway, Cork, Donegal, Limerick and London.
In September, it’s announced that an excavation will be carried out on the site of the Tuam home.
“The purpose of the excavation is to resolve a number of queries that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission has in relation to the interment of human remains at this location,” a statement says.
Zappone travels to the site to meet former residents of mother and baby homes. She says the stories she’s heard are “very distressing”.
A press conference is announced on the morning of Friday 3 March. The Minister speaks to the media, confirming that:
- Human remains were found at site of Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam
- They were discovered in what appears to be some type of sewage chamber
- Scientific analysis has put the age of death at between 35 foetal weeks and 2 to 3 years
- Radiocarbon dating has confirmed the remains are from the time the home was in operation – many are likely to be from the 1950s.
In a statement, the Commission says it is “shocked by the discovery” and its investigation is continuing “into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way”.
State authorities are asked to take responsibility for the appropriate treatment of the remains and the Minister confirms the North Galway Coroner has been informed. He will determine if there is to be any Garda involvement in further investigations.
Zappone tells reporters:
Today is about remembering and respecting the dignity of the children who lived their short lives in this Home. We will honour their memory and make sure that we take the right actions now to treat their remains appropriately.
Decisions have yet to be taken on whether more excavations will be required at other mother and baby home sites, she says.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie Catherine Corless says she has spoken to relatives “who have come to me looking for help, trying to find a burial place”.
The women are few and far between. It’s mainly brothers and sisters of the babies [who died] because the mothers have passed on. They’re often very emotional – it’s so sad to bring them to the site and not being able to show them where they [the babies] are.
The survivors I’ve spoken to, they don’t want their loved ones left in a septic tank. They would want whatever’s left to be put into the main Tuam graveyard, 100 yards away, to have a proper burial.
- With reporting by Aoife Barry and Christine Bohan