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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Brian Farrell Historian Catherine Corless placing a baby coffin at a shrine for the Tuam babies last year.

'Those who were denied a voice for too long will continue to fight for justice for the lost children of Tuam'

Family members of the 796 babies who died and survivors of the home held a peaceful protest last month.

‘WHY CAN’T THEY just move on?’

It is a question which sometimes surfaces after the survivors of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home and the families of the 796 Tuam babies who died there come together to call for justice and the truth to emerge about the missing children. 

Some people claim that it would be too costly and too painful to carry out a thorough investigation and exhumation of the bodies at the site to find out how many children are really buried there and to give them dignified burials.

The families and survivors are often told that the pains of the past should be left in the past, and that the children of today should be prioritised, in the midst of what many see as healthcare and homelessness crises.

They heard and read those comments again when they staged a peaceful protest earlier this month.

But can they really move on?

When you talk to the families of the 796, who may or may not be buried in a septic tank, the most important thing of all is that the truth should emerge and that there should be some sort of belated justice for the children and their mothers.

The people who have had their lives turned upside down over the past five years – many by discovering they had siblings they knew nothing about before 2014 – believe they deserve some answers.

Otherwise, for all they really know, they and people like them could have brothers and sisters alive and well in the United States and Canada, completely unaware that they may have been adopted illegally from institutions across Ireland in the 20th century.

This story is not just the story of Tuam. An estimated 10,000 women were locked up in institutions across Ireland until the 1980s and nobody knows the true horrors of their stories and those of their so-called illegitimate children.

Only some of them were single mothers who were taken away from their families to cover up their pregnancy. Others were just locked up for being destitute or too much of a burden on their families in hard times.

Everyone deserves to know where they came from, to find out what happened to their missing siblings and a chance to heal.

Defeated, institutionalised 

Take Peter Mulryan.

He was 70 years old when he received a call from historian Catherine Corless, whose painstaking trawl through the records from the Tuam home showed that he had a little sister among the 796 children.

Her death was recorded, but her body has never been found.

Nobody had ever told him about his younger sister and he still has no proof that she was buried in the vicinity of that infamous septic tank in Tuam.

He had tracked his mother down to the Magdalene Laundry in Galway before he married in 1975, discovering that she had been locked up in institutions for all of her adult life.

Even when he brought her on day trips to the seaside with her grandchildren, the sparkle had gone from her eyes. She was defeated, institutionalised.

Peter’s mother was buried in a common grave with other ‘fallen’ women from the Magdalene Laundry at Bohermore Cemetery in Galway in 1989.

After finding out about his little sister for the first time 25 years after his mother’s death, how could he just shrug and move on?

Now 75, he is hoping that his sister is still alive. Only a full exhumation of the site will tell him whether she is buried among the bodies in Tuam.

When he went to New York and Boston for screenings of a documentary about the Tuam babies last year, he kept hoping an American woman would approach him and solve the mystery.

A tiny part of him clings to the hope that his younger sister is still out there in the US, blissfully unaware of where she came from.

Peter believes passionately that the Irish authorities are stonewalling him, that they see him and other family members as an inconvenience, and that they would prefer to seal up the site and mark it with a memorial stone.

It would certainly be the cheaper option.

He does not want any politician or official to put a price on his efforts to find out the truth about the younger sister he never knew he had.

Another example is Anna Corrigan. Growing up in Dublin as the only child of a Galway woman, Anna had no idea that she had two older brothers, John and William, until after her mother Bridget passed away.

Her mother’s first son died in a horrendous state of neglect, two years after he was born, and her second son was taken from her arms, never to be seen by her again.

Anna’s childhood was a happy one after her mother married a man from Dublin, but she cannot accept that the Irish State will not tell her and the other family members the full truth about the children who lived and died in institutions across Ireland.

She has written to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone to insist that no cover-up takes place at the Tuam site.

papal-visit-to-ireland-2018 Tributes to the Tuam babies at the Stand4Truth march last year.

Dark secrets of youth

Take Annette McKay, who grew up in the UK.

She considers her late mother one of the “lucky” ones, because she escaped to the UK after being locked up in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

One of eight children, Margie O’Connor was detained in an institution in Galway City, aged 11, when she was found destitute after her own mother had died. 

Margie became pregnant after being raped by a caretaker when she was 17.

After Tuam, she was moved to another institution in Loughrea, Co Galway. It was there she was told “the child of her sin” was dead.

After moving to England, Annette’s mother never told her family about the dark secrets of her youth. Consumed by grief, perhaps haunted by the memories of her first child, she spent a year in bed after one of her sons drowned in an accident, aged 25.

Although she went on to have six children in England, Margie only spoke once – on the day her first great-grandchild was born – about the child she lost in Tuam. Until then, Annette always thought she was the oldest sibling in the family.

Annette, an elected member of Bury Council near Manchester, travelled to Tuam last month to be with other family members and survivors.

She wanted to mark the first anniversary of the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland and to highlight how little has been done for the families of the 796.

She has accused the Irish State, the Catholic Church and the religious orders of abdicating their responsibilities to Irish citizens by refusing to face up to the human rights abuses in institutions all across Ireland, not just in Tuam.

She believes that the women provided slave labour in the Magdalene Laundries and the mother and baby homes, that the institutions were run like concentration camps and that the site of the Tuam home should be preserved as a crime scene.

Annette says the children who were branded as illegitimate used to walk around like ghosts in their own country and were never expected to have the confidence to speak up for themselves.

For Peter, Anna, Annette, and the other family members, there is too much truth to be uncovered for them to forget about the past and simply move on.

Only a full exhumation of the site and dignified burials for their siblings, if they are actually buried in those unmarked graves in Tuam at all, will allow them to let go of the past and start some much-needed healing.

Until then, those who were denied a voice for too long will continue to fight for justice for the lost children of Tuam.

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