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the missing children

'Four years on and still no action': Call for Tuam mother and baby home site to be excavated

A test excavation found a “significant” quantity of human remains, but a full excavation has still not happened – to the frustration of survivors and archaeologists.

SURVIVORS, RELATIVES AND archaeologists have called for the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam to be excavated as a matter of urgency.

The archaeologists involved in a test excavation in 2016 and 2017 have said a full excavation of the site needs to happen as soon as possible so DNA can be used to identify the remains.

In a documentary set to air this week, archaeologist Dr Niamh McCullagh states: “As a forensic archaeologist, I have never walked away from human remains in that context.

“The measures that were put in place to protect the site and protect the remains were temporary measures, they were not designed to last longer than six months.”

Screenshot 2021-11-03 15.06.01 Dr Niamh McCullagh The Missing Children The Missing Children

Over four years later, a full excavation of the site has still not happened but related legislation is making its way through the Oireachtas.

The documentary, The Missing Children, is due to air on ITV tonight and RTÉ on Tuesday night. It tells the stories of people who spent time at the institution in Tuam – and the search for the truth about what happened to those who disappeared.

Many people have been unable to get records or death certificates for their missing relatives. It is believed that a number of children in the institution may have been erroneously listed as dead but actually illegally adopted.

Adoption was not legal in Ireland until 1953 but thousands of children were adopted prior to this and many of them were sent to the US or UK.

The Commission of Investigation was set up following claims that 796 babies were interred in an unmarked mass grave at a former Bon Secours institution in Tuam – following extensive research by local historian Catherine Corless.

Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 found a significant quantity of human remains interred in a vault on the site.

Corless also believes that children’s remains were buried in the ground underneath an area that is now a playground. She too has called for the excavation of the site to happen without further delays.

Speaking to The Journal earlier this year, Corless recalled how the discovery of remains at Tuam over four years ago was “heartbreaking”, saying the issue needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“The babies should have been taken out of there in 2017 when they were found. It was heartbreaking at the time that the whole site was closed in again and returned to exactly the same way as it was, and nobody knew what was happening.

“I’m also pressing to ensure that the other areas on the Tuam site, under the playground and around the Grotto area, are excavated or test-excavated as well. Because there has been a ground survey done and it pointed out many, many graves around the area.”

The Commission’s final report was published in January and concluded that approximately 9,000 children died in the 18 institutions under investigation.

‘The babies have a right to an identity’

In The Missing Children, McCullagh notes: “At the moment, no crime has been established. But because the site has only been subjected to a test excavation and not a full excavation, a full excavation and a full post-mortem examination might reveal something else. We shouldn’t be sitting here four years later, with the remains still in the chambers.”

She said the objective of the test excavation “was not to recover the remains, it was to establish if they were present or not”, adding: “the exact figures are not possible to say at the moment”.

THE_MISSING_CHILDREN_05 Patrick Naughton The Missing Children The Missing Children

A number of survivors and relatives are also interviewed in the documentary. Patrick Naughton was born in the institution in 1954 and adopted. He has been unable to find records related to his brother and wants to know what happened to him:

Where is he? They’re going to have to excavate and get all those babies out to see if he’s one of the many babies in that pit so that that child, my brother and my mother’s son, can be buried with her when the time comes.

Annette McKay, whose sister Mary Margaret is listed as one of the 796 children who died in Tuam, wants to know where her sister is buried.

“The only thing they can do, the only thing, is to dig the whole site up. The babies have a right to an identity, they need their own identity. Excavate that site, take our DNA and identify them,” McKay says.

Other well-known campaigners such as Anna Corrigan, whose two brothers are reported to have died in the Tuam insustion, and a number of survivors have also called for the site to be excavated.

Corrigan has been unable to get a death certificate for her brother William and she believes he may have actually been adopted.

DNA identification

Speaking in the documentary about the test excavation, McCullagh said the area of land excavated in 2016 and 2017 included a “19th century stone-built structure that we know was a sewage tank used for the treatment of sewage”.

“It was possible to report that there were multiple sets of remains of juveniles at this location, and that these were potentially in significant quantities,” she added.

McCullagh believes that at least some of the remains can be identified using DNA.

“It would be possible to recover these remains with forensic protocol and procedure in place, it would absolutely be possible.”

She adds that the “best case scenario … would be that all of the remains are recovered, that they are individualised as much as possible, and that those individuals are given respectful burial”.

Fellow archaeologists Dr Linda Lynch and Aidan Harte are also interviewed in the programme.

Lynch says of the test excavation: “The identification of the human remains was all done visually from the surface of the chambers. So it involved taking literally hundreds and hundreds of photographs.

“We were able to estimate an age of death profile from those skeletal remains. And the age ranges spanned from approximately 35 foetal weeks, right up to possibly between four to six years of age.”

Screenshot 2021-11-03 15.01.52 Photo from the test excavation The Missing Children The Missing Children

Discussing the urgent need to act, Harte states: “We underlined the fact that had to be dealt with urgently. It was a challenge, sure, but it could be excavated and it should be excavated. Subsequent reports and delays have meant that it’s now over four years (later) and there’s still no action.”

Legislation that would allow excavations, exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby homes is currently making its way through the Oireachtas.

However, many survivors and relatives have criticised the slow pace of the process.

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.

During the week Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said he is “acutely conscious of the urgent need to pass legislation in order to allow exhumation at the site in Tuam”. O’Gorman added that he “hopes to bring it through the legislative process as quickly as possible to allow exhumation of the site in 2022″.

The Missing Children is due to air on ITV at 10.20pm today and on RTÉ One on Tuesday, 9 November, at 10.15pm.

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