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How a 'surprising' lack of burial records impacted the work of the mother and baby home commission

Ahead of the commission’s final report being published tomorrow, we’re taking a look back at its interim reports.

Toys and flowers pictured at the 'Little Angels' memorial plot in the grounds of Bessborough House in Blackrock, Cork, in 2014.
Toys and flowers pictured at the 'Little Angels' memorial plot in the grounds of Bessborough House in Blackrock, Cork, in 2014.
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

THE COMMISSION OF Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes is due to publish its long-awaited final report tomorrow.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, whose department is overseeing the release of the report, has previously flagged that some of the contents are harrowing. Taoiseach Micheál Martin is due to deliver an apology on behalf of the State to those placed in the homes on Wednesday. 

The document, spanning just under 3,000 pages, will detail the experiences of women and children who lived in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes – a sample of the overall number of homes – between 1922 and 1998.

Some of the details of the report were published yesterday by the Sunday Independent – including that 9,000 children died in the 18 institutions investigated. 

Minister O’Gorman has said he is “deeply angered” about the fact that the details were leaked in advance. In correspondence seen by TheJournal.ie, O’Gorman said that it was always his intention that survivors should hear the conclusions of the Commission’s report first.

“My Department will be engaging colleagues across Government to ensure that no further information becomes public until the official publication on Tuesday,” he wrote.

The commission was tasked with looking into a number of issues such as how women and children entered and left the homes; living conditions in the homes; burial practices; and the prevalence of abuse; forced labour; forced adoptions; forced participation in vaccine trials; and providing bodies of residents who died for medical research.

The final report was submitted to the government on 30 October, after a number of deadline extensions due to the volume of work involved, and the full report will be shared with survivors before being published tomorrow.

In recent days some people have questioned why the report is just under 3,000 pages long, rather than around 4,000 pages, as previously indicated by the government.

When asked about the length of the report, a spokesperson for the Department of Children said the final report “was formatted for publication by the commission and it is just under 3,000 pages long”.

“The minister intends to publish the full report as submitted by the commission, and it will not be edited or redacted in any way.

“Minister O’Gorman had previously referenced the report as being circa 4,000 pages on the basis of preliminary indications by the commission while it was finalising the report. He had not had sight of the report and was merely relaying a high-level figure which had been provided to him by the commission to give some sense of the scale of the report.”

O’Gorman is set to bring a memo on the final report to Cabinet tomorrow morning, paving the way for its release on the department’s website in the afternoon.

An online briefing between O’Gorman, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and survivors will take place prior to the report’s publication.

The commission produced seven interim reports – which can be read here – since it was set up in 2015.

These reports contained updates on the commission’s work and detailed issues it was encountering. Difficulties locating documents related to burial practices proved to be a major stumbling block.

Burials at Bessborough and Tuam

The commission 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 on from extensive research carried out by amateur historian Catherine 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.

Burial practices at the homes were among the topics examined by the commission and some of its interim reports noted difficulties in locating burial records from certain homes.

Its fifth interim report, which was submitted in March 2019, was particularly significant in this regard.

This report referred to “major issues” in relation to burials at homes in Bessborough in Cork and Tuam in Galway, and a lack of relevant documents.

More than 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from the home in question.

The report stated: “It is not known where the vast majority of the children who died in Bessborough are buried…

“Despite very extensive inquiries and searches, the Commission has been able to establish the burial place of only 64 children.

“The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who owned and ran Bessborough do not know where the other children are buried.

“The burials of children who died in the three Sacred Heart Homes (Bessborough, Castlepollard and Sean Ross) are not recorded at all. More importantly, there is no certainty about where they are buried.”

‘Inaccurate and misleading’

The report noted that the congregation “provided the Commission with an affidavit about burials generally and specifically about the Castlepollard and Sean Ross child burials but very little evidence was provided to support the statements in it”.

“The affidavit was, in many respects, speculative, inaccurate and misleading,” the report added.

It also noted that a small burial ground in the grounds of Bessborough was opened in 1956 for members of the congregation.

“It seems to have been assumed by former residents and advocacy groups that this is also where the children who died in Bessborough are buried as there are occasional meetings and commemoration ceremonies held there.”

However, the report stated that the “vast majority of children who died in Bessborough are not buried there; it seems that only one child is buried there”.

mother-and-baby-homes-vigil People at a candlelit vigil at the gates of Dáil Éireann in memory of the Tuam babies in 2014. Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

In the report, the commission said it finds it difficult to understand how or why certain records do not appear to exist.

“The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary do not know where the children who died in Bessborough are buried. The Commission finds this very difficult to comprehend as Bessborough was a mother and baby home for the duration of the period covered by the Commission (1922 – 1998) and the congregation was involved with it for all of this time.

“The Commission finds it very difficult to understand that no member of the congregation was able to say where the children who died in Bessborough are buried.”

The report noted that the commission tried to establish where the Bessborough children were buried in a number of different ways, including via a cartographic and landscape assessment of the site. A site survey was also conducted.

The commission said it is “clear that there are a number of locations within the grounds where burials could have taken place”.

However, there is no significant surface evidence of systematic burial anywhere except for the congregation burial ground.”

The commission “considers that it is likely that some of the children are buried in the grounds but has been unable to find any physical or documentary evidence of this”.

“In particular, during the 1940s (when many of the deaths occurred) and when petrol was scarce, it would have been very expensive to arrange off-site burials. However, as no physical evidence of possible locations was found, the Commission did not consider it feasible to excavate 60 acres not to mention the rest of the former 200
acre estate.”

In December, campaigners and a number of TDs called on Taoiseach Micheál Martin to intervene and stop a development on the Bessborough site.

Campaigners have expressed outrage over plans to build 246 apartments on land they believe could include a burial site.

Martin told the Dáil the planning application relates to land “close to, if not on, the burial site itself” which he said is “unacceptable”. However, he added that he cannot intervene with a planning authority.

Tomorrow is the final day that objections to the development can be submitted.

‘Inaccurate commentary’ on Tuam

As mentioned above, the commission 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.

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 on the site.

In relation to site of the former Bon Secours home in Tuam, the fifth interim report stated that there has been “a great deal of inaccurate commentary” and the commission “considers it important to emphasise what it has established and what it has not established”.

The report noted the following about the Tuam site:

“The memorial garden site contains human remains which date from the period of the operation of the Tuam Children’s Home so it is likely that a large number of the children who died in the Tuam Home are buried there.

“The human remains found by the Commission are not in a sewage tank but in a second structure with 20 chambers which was built within the decommissioned large sewage tank…

“The Commission does not consider that any of its features suggest that it was deliberately formed as a crypt or formal burial chamber.”

The commission established that a total of 973 children from the home died either in the Tuam home itself, in a nearby workhouse in Glenamaddy, or in a hospital or institution soon after they were transferred there from Tuam.

Of these, 79 children died in the workhouse in Glenamaddy, which had its own burial ground – where it is “likely” these children were buried.

However, the commission added that “there is no burial register available for the period in question so this cannot be verified”.

The vast majority of these children, 802, died in the Tuam home itself.

The commission stated that this number “includes a significant number of so-called “legitimate” children” (that is, born within marriage – a former legal term no longer used) who are within its terms of reference – because they were not accompanied by a parent at the home. The figure also includes a small number of “legitimate” children who are outside the commission’s remit because they were accompanied by a parent.

The commission noted that the children who were accompanied by a parent “are less likely to be buried in the Tuam burial ground and are more likely to have been buried by their parents”.

The details of the deaths of the children were established by the commission from the records compiled in the home and from a list provided by the General Register Office (GRO) and already in the public domain.

There are six children whose deaths are recorded in the records compiled within the home who are not on the GRO list.

‘Surprised by the lack of knowledge’

The report stated that both the Sisters of Bon Secours, the order which ran the home, and Galway County Council, which owned the home, were unable to provide any information about the burials.

The report noted that as the Tuam  homewas owned by Galway County Council, there was a legal requirement to keep a register of burials. However, “there is no evidence that such a register was compiled”.

“The Commission is surprised by the lack of knowledge about the burials on the part of Galway County Council and the Sisters of Bon Secours.

“Galway County Council members and staff must have known something about the manner of burial when the Home was in operation. The Board of Health and its sub-committees their meetings in the Home.

“Employees of Galway County Council must have known about the burials. County Council employees would have been in the grounds of the Home quite frequently as they carried out repairs to the building and possibly also maintained the grounds.

“It seems very likely that Galway County Council must have been aware of the existence of burials when they were planning the Athenry Road housing scheme in 1969.”

PA-38118217 The burial site at the former home in Tuam, Co Galway. Source: PA Images

When analysing the records, the commission noted that a significant number of children who were resident in the Tuam home were transferred to the Central Hospital in Galway when they became seriously ill.

The commission checked the Register of Deaths and found that 86 children who had been transferred there died soon after the transfer. Six other children died soon after leaving the Tuam home: two children died in the County Home, Castlebar; one died in Crumlin Children’s Hospital; one in St Brigid’s Industrial School for Girls, Loughrea; one in Clifden District Hospital and one died at home.

The report noted that the old Galway workhouse became the Galway Central Hospital in the period 1922 – 1924. It was subsequently rebuilt and renamed the Regional Hospital. It is now Galway University Hospital.

The commission found burial records for 50 of the children who died in the Central Hospital – they are recorded as being buried in Bohermore Cemetery.

Twelve mothers who were resident in the Tuam home died, the majority from complications of childbirth; some died in the home itself and some in the Central Hospital.

“It is not known who took responsibility for the burial of these mothers. If the Central Hospital took responsibility for the burials it would be expected that they would be recorded in Bohermore cemetery but the Commission did not find any record of these burials there,” the report noted.

The records of admissions, births, discharges and deaths which were compiled in the Tuam home by the operators were left with Galway County Council when the home was closed in 1961. The County Council was probably the owner of the records anyway, the commission stated.

These notes then became the property of the Western Health Board when it was established in 1970. Subsequently they became the property of the HSE in 2005 and then the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) in 2013.

The commission made digital copies of these records and analysed them. These records include details about the deaths of children and the causes of death in many cases but do not include any information about burials.

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‘Shocked and devastated’

Soon after its establishment in 2015, the commission asked the Sisters of Bon Secours for any information or documentation they held on the Tuam home.

In 2015, the Sisters “provided a small number of documents which were largely concerned with the plans to close the Home in the period 1959 – 1961″.

They stated that they had left all relevant documents in Tuam when the Children’s Home closed in 1961 and they believed that these documents were now in the possession of Tusla.

In March 2016, they provided some further documentation but this was “largely concerned with correspondence after the closure of the Home” and “none of the documentation had any reference to burials”.

“The Sisters told the Commission that there is only one Sister alive who actually served in the Home. She served for only a few months and is now unable to assist,” the report noted.

The country leader of the Sisters of Bon Secours in Ireland provided an affidavit to the commission in February 2018. This dealt with a range of issues including burial arrangements.

She told the commission that she did not know what the actual burial arrangements were. She said that the present Sisters are “shocked and devastated by what has come to light to date in relation to burials in the subsurface structure”.

The country leader said that she understood that mother and baby homes “commonly had burial areas within their confines commonly referred to as ‘angels’ plots’” and she would not have been surprised to learn there was such a burial situation in Tuam.

She also said that she understood that it was common practice for such burial areas not to be publicly marked.

The commission said it is “aware that the plot in Glasnevin Cemetery has been known as the angels’ plot since the 1960s”, but “it is not aware that any other similar plot was so named”.

“There is no evidence that the burial plots in Castlepollard and Sean Ross were ever known as ‘angels plots’.”

The country leader in 2018 apologised for the failure to provide a proper burial: “It is the view of the Sisters that the children who died at St Mary’s deserved a proper burial and this did not happen. For this we express our deep sorrow and apologise unreservedly.”

‘Survivors will hear first’

The final report is expected to include new information about burial practices on certain sites.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie last month, O’Gorman said the government would ensure that survivors will get the report before it’s publicly released.

“We are ensuring that they’ll hear about it at first. That was something they asked for, they don’t want to be reading details in the media. We’d be very clear about that, that won’t happen.”

Many survivors were distressed and angered by yesterday’s leak, but some said they were “not surprised”.

An online briefing between O’Gorman, the Taoiseach and survivors will take place prior to the report’s publication on Tuesday.

When asked about the process last week, a spokesperson for the Department of Children said the minister “recognises how important it is that former residents and their families are the first to hear about the report and to know how to access it”.

“Immediately following the Cabinet meeting, the minister and An Taoiseach will host an online presentation exclusively for former residents. In this way, survivors will be the first to hear key findings of the report and details of the initial government response.”

Counselling supports have also been put in place for survivors.

The National Counselling Service will provide therapy for survivors, either face-to-face, by telephone or online through secure video. Former residents may arrange counselling sessions by direct self-referral or by written referrals from health care professionals such as GPs.

An out-of-hours service, Connect Counselling, is also available to provide support and is currently providing an enhanced service from 6pm to 10pm seven days a week.

More information on the services can be read here.

We’ll be covering what’s in the final report on Tuesday – on the site and on Twitter (follow @orlaryan  and @conalthomas for updates). If you spent time in a mother and baby home or county home and would like to share your experience, please email orla@thejournal.ie or conal@thejournal.ie.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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