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'Is she dead or alive?': Call for inquests into deaths at mother and baby homes

One Tuam survivor told the Oireachtas Children’s Committee he wants to know if his sister is buried at the site, or still alive.

Updated Apr 14th 2021, 6:00 PM

bon-secure-sisters-statement-of-apology List of the names of dead children at the grotto at the site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home (file photo from January 2021). Source: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

INQUESTS MUST BE carried out into all deaths at mother and baby homes and similar inquisitions, the Oireachtas Children’s Committee has heard.

The Burials Bill being debated today would allow excavations, exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby homes.

The general scheme of the Burials Bill provides for the creation of an agency which would oversee the excavation, exhumation, identification and reburial of any remains found at sites where “manifestly inappropriate burials have taken place”.

The Bill would also permit excavations and exhumations from these sites and provide a basis for identification using DNA samples from unidentified bodies exhumed and from people who are or may be close relatives of those unidentified persons.

Addressing the committee, historian and campaigner Catherine Corless said DNA testing of the remains at sites of former institutions is “crucial” and she called for a DNA database to be set up.

“The babies’ remains are in an excellent condition and although mingled because of seeping rainfall have little sign of erosion or fragmentation, including even delicate infant skull bones,” she said of the remains found at Tuam.

Corless said DNA testing should also search for evidence as “we see in the death report that there is evidence of starvation and look for any possible evidence in the little remains”.

She called for a DNA database to be set up as soon as possible from families “who wish to give their DNA with the hope of retrieving their babies’ remains.”

Dr Maeve O’Rourke, human rights lawyer and co-director of the Clann Project, told the hearing: “We would argue that every single one of the deaths in the mother and baby institutions requires an inquest … All deaths require inquest, so the question is where to begin and how.”

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was set up following claims that up to 800 babies were interred in an unmarked mass grave at a former Bon Secours home in Tuam, Co Galway – following extensive research done by Corless.

Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 found a significant quantity of human remains, aged from 35 foetal weeks to two to three years, interred in a vault on the site.

The Commission’s final report, published in January, confirmed that about 9,000 children died in the 18 homes under investigation.

‘Where is my sister?’

Peter Mulryan, a Tuam survivor, later told the committee he wants to know if his sister, Marian, is dead or alive.

“I’d like to know where my sister is at this moment,” he said.

Every time I go to bed at night I think of her. Why am I left this way? Is she dead or alive? I do not know. The information I got is so scant. It’s unbelievable they would do it to a human being.

Mulryan said his sister was listed as among the dead in Tuam but he’s not sure if that’s correct.

“I’m hoping (she’s out there) and not down there in some septic tank.”

He believes she may have been sent to America as a child and illegally adopted. He said he hopes she might see him in the media one day and come forward.

“They’re trying to stop us finding out anything about where she is. And we’re denied and denied, it’s inhumane,” Mulryan said.

“I am so, so disheartened with it, there’s still trying to make those babies suffer.”

Inquests without bodies

O’Rourke noted that, in some cases, inquests can take place without the presence of a body.

She told the committee that so-called Article 2 inquests, set out under the European Convention of Human Rights, go beyond “the immediate cause of death to include contextual causes and circumstances as well, so there’s evidence that can be gained that doesn’t just come from the body”.

O’Rourke added that Section 22 of the Coroner’s Act 1962, states: “Where the body of any person upon which it is necessary to hold an inquest has been buried and it is known to the coroner that no good purpose will be affected by exhuming the body for the purposes of an inquest, he may proceed to hold an inquest without having exhumed the body.”

She said the fact inquests can happen in cases where a body may be irrecoverable is “important because of course we have hundreds of bodies with no known location”. 

O’Rourke questioned why inquests have not taken place to date, under the existing legislation.

“We need real answers to that. What are the civil servants saying as to why the coroner has been disapplied in this law, do they think it’s too expensive?”

A number of TDs and Senators agreed that inquests should take place.

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns said the Minister for Justice and Attorney General must ensure that inquests be held into all deaths that occurred in mother and baby homes and similar institutional settings.

Cairns said the proposed legislation “allows for the Coroners Act – which mandates an inquest – to be disapplied while an agency is set up to oversee the exhumation and re-internment of the remains of infants and children at these sites”.

“This is a disgraceful dereliction of duty. If this element of the Bill is not taken out, then the the Minister for Justice and the Attorney General should use their powers to direct the coroner to act.

“Survivors and their families have endured decades of injustice and disgraceful delays. This will also require the proper resource of coroners to enable effective and efficient inquests.”

‘Rodents gnawing’

Speaking about the remains found at the site of a former institution in Tuam, Corless stated: “Once the babies were interred there, from the late 1930s onwards, heavy rain has flooded the area and the seeping water has caused some mingling of the little remains, and this is evident by water marks in the chambers.”

She noted how photographs taken at the site showed “a little finger attached to a chamber wall” and “any of the little remains also have evidence of rodent gnawing”.

Corless called for the legislation to be passed and enacted as a matter of urgency. She said the people who died were Irish citizens and should be treated with respect, not dismissed as “illegitimate children”.

Corless continued: “In March 2017, statements of shock and horror were proclaimed by our Government and President on all national media, and by the announcement by then Minister Katherine Zappone, regarding the discovery of multiple babies remains in a sewage facility in Tuam on the grounds of the old home which was run by the Bon Secours.

“I naively thought then, that my work was done, now surely there would be immediate action by State, Church and Galway Co Council to do the right thing, to exhume the babies from this sewage site.

“Within a month, to my dismay, the Tuam home tragedy fell silent, the site was restored to its original condition, the chambers were closed in, soil was put back, grass seed sown.

“Can you imagine the pain that this caused to the families of those in that sewage tank? What would your reaction be if you had a baby brother or sister within those infested chambers?”

Doireann Ansbro, Head of Legal and Policy at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), said it was “incredible” that remains were only found in Tuam in 2017, saying similar mass graves are likely to be uncovered in the future.

“Who knows what we’ll discover in the next 5, 10, 15 years? So potentially, this work is going to go on for a very long time.”

Ansbro noted that some families want excavations of sites, but not exhumations of remains, and that people’s views must be respected.

“It’s important to remember that there are different options,” she said, adding that records may also make up “pieces of the puzzle to solve the question of how these babies died”.

‘How did these children die?’

Susan Lohan, co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance, stated: “How did these children die? The family members – obviously they’re horrified by the conditions in which the children were buried – but they certainly want to know if the children died of natural causes or if it was in suspicious circumstances.”

Lohan told the committee that the Burials Bill, in its current form, “fails utterly to deliver on truth for mothers, children, survivors and families”.

“It operates on the basis that the deaths are a fait accompli, requiring neither investigation, explanation, accountability nor compensation.

“As the death rates at the various institutions have been shown to have exceeded national death rates of children in the general population by several factors, legally and morally, they require the most thorough analysis, to deliver at the very least, basic truth for the 9,000-plus victims recognised so far.

“Without this basic step, Ireland should rightly be defined as a pariah state with regard to it’s non-compliance with human rights legislation.

“In the normal course of events, a discovery of a previously unknown individual or mass grave, would involve the Coroners’ Service, to establish the “who, when, where and how” of the deaths for each unidentified set of remains.”

Professor Ray Murphy of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission (IHREC) said: “What happened in Mother and Baby Homes is a permanent stain on our society.

“The fact that we need legislation to set out how to deal with mass graves in rural Ireland is testament to that.”

Bessborough

A number of contributors said that proposals for apartments on the Bessborough estate should not be granted planning permission – at least until proper excavation at the site takes place.

Martin Parfrey, a Bessborough survivor from the Know My Own group, noted that over 900 children died at Bessborough over the years, but the burial place of only 64 is known.

“The current fear is that these infants are buried in the ground intended for the apartment block planned for Bessborough,” he said.

David Dodd BL, speaking on behalf of Cork Survivors & Supporters Alliance, noted the group’s strong opposition to a proposal to build apartments on the Bessborough estate.

“As a country and a people, we do not build apartment blocks on children’s burial grounds, though that is what is proposed now.”

He added that the CSSA does not want the remains buried at Bessborough “to be excavated, exhumed or otherwise removed”, saying this would be “re-traumatising” for the mothers involved.

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“What may be right for one site like Tuam is different to what may be right for another site like Bessborough…

“The CSSA seeks the maintenance, preservation and memorialisation of the children’s burial ground on the site of the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Institution, and in the absence of legislative intervention the issue remains unsettled.”

Role of coroner

Professor Phil Scraton, of Queen’s University Belfast, earlier told the committee that the proposed legislation “would disapply existing powers of the Coroner”.

He stated: “The Bill implies that families of infants and mothers who died in institutional custody will be compelled to make a choice: between exhumation and identification of their relative’s remains followed by reinterment; or the Coroner retaining the power to hold an inquest to confirm the deceased’s identity, approximately when they died, where they died and, most importantly, ‘how’ they died.”

Scraton headed the research for the Independent Panel into the Hillsborough disaster extensive report in 2012 led to new inquests which reversed the findings of the initial inquest, a new police investigation and criminal prosecutions.

He is also the principal author of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties’ research report Death Investigation, Coroners’ Inquests and the Rights of the Bereaved, which will be published later this month

Scraton told the committee that, as mother and baby institutions were the responsibility of the State – either directly or indirectly – Ireland has both domestic and international obligations regarding inquests.

He said Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights requiries “an effective investigation wherever a person dies in circumstances engaging state responsibility, not least in the context of inhumane treatment”.

Scraton said he agrees with a commitment to overhauling the coronial system in Ireland, adding that “such reform should prioritise deaths in Mother and Baby Institutions and other related settings”.

“We can’t wait for reform of the coronial process. We have to be able to deal with this with some urgency. So what we’re proposing is an agency, if it’s set up, has dedicated coronial practice within that is exclusively dealing with these settings. The funding has to be found.”

In relation to cost, Scraton said: “The important issue for me here is that it will cost what it takes. I don’t think we can put a price on truth and we cannot put a price on accountability.

“So whilst I acknowledge this will be unprecedented in its costs and organisation, it is a price that will have to be paid.”

Ansbro echoed these sentiments, telling the committee: “From a human rights perspective, institutional burials and mass grave sites imply violations of different human rights, including the right to life.

“Survivors and families have the right to an effective remedy, which includes the right to equal and effective access to justice, reparation for harm suffered, and access to relevant information concerning the violations and reparation mechanisms.

“The State has an obligation to effectively investigate unlawful or suspicious deaths. Taking reasonable steps to identify the deceased person and to determine the cause of death where appropriate are key components of this obligation.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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