by Dualta Roughneen


TuamMotherAndBabyShrine largeReport of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries was released in 2013. Its content received little coverage as it failed to flow with the expedient current of derisory commentary towards religion, religious and religious institutions that is favoured at the present time. Senator McAleese opens with the summary introduction ‘There is no single or simple story of the Magdalen Laundries’. No greater headline-killing statement could have been derived, thus it was quickly ignored, to be substituted with simplistic, hysterical, and derogatory statements.


A familiar narrative is being generated in relation to the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam with the news of a discovery of a mass grave of 800 children, secretly buried in a septic tank, unceremoniously cast aside, after being maltreated by the Bon Secours nuns. That is the headline, that is the story that is being told. But is there any truth behind the headline?


The facts at the time of writing are: there were 796 deaths of infants in the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam between 1921 and 1965. These were recorded as deaths in the normal manner and filed with the local authority. They were not hidden. A tank with bones was discovered in 1975. The Gardai were notified and it was considered that there was nothing suspicious. The tank was covered over and since then, the area has been maintained by locals as a burial site, gently tendered and looked after.

Very recently, with the investigations by Catherine Corless, a local Galway historian, who has put the two sets of facts together, the story has now become the headline. As of yet, there is nothing new in terms of facts. It is difficult to understand how these two old facts have been able to become international news, and another international embarrassment to Ireland. TV3, on the Tonight with Vincent Browne story, the Irish Independent and the Irish Times all provided headline news on what the international media was saying about Ireland. Only Tom McGurk pointed out that all international media outlets were drawing conclusions and fabricating headlines in relation to the issue- that 800 babies were put in a mass grave by the Bon Secours nuns. These are speculations yet very few in the Irish establishment are willing to say ‘hold on now, wait until we establish the facts’. The New York Times reported that ‘the government and police are coming under increased pressure to open an investigations that a Roman Catholic religious order secretly buried up to 796 babies and toddlers’. BBC  website states ‘almost 800 infants buried in unmarked graves’. Al Jazeera says ‘nearly 800 babies found dead in septic tank’, identical almost to an ABC News headline. ‘Church-run orphanages often buried their dead in unmarked graves, reflecting how unmarried mothers were ostracised,” writes the New York Times. The New York Daily News writes that “800 skeletons of babies” were “unceremoniously dumped in a septic tank and forgotten for decades”. Emer O’Toole (the Guardian) writes “We know about the abuse women and children suffered at the hands of the clergy, abuse funded by a theocratic Irish State. What we didn’t know is that they threw dead children into unmarked mass graves.”

In response and in defence of Ireland and of fact, Minister for Children, Charlie Flanagan called the discovery of an unmarked grave as ‘deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland’ while Enda Kenny admitted that more mass baby graves – other than the one found at Tuam, Co Galway – could possibly exist throughout Ireland. Our leading politicians, rather than calling for consideration, jump on the bandwagon of supposition and conclusions drawn. The stated position of  Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, calling for a much wider investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, including adoption and medical experiments is difficult to understand. The Archbishop may rightly favour full disclosure in order to be able to avoid repeated scandals, yet the approach taken by the Archbishop, as with the political establishment, seems to presume wide-ranging malfeasance in the homes before any facts are established.

Apparently there are people outraged and they are not just the misinformed international media or the deferent Irish politicians who are quick to assume the worst of the country they grew up in. Outraged at what? That children died in the Mother and Baby Home at significantly higher levels than in general society? This has been known for years so why the outrage now? Why the sudden concern? That babies were buried in unmarked graves in Ireland past? There are graves of unmarked children in every town and city in the country, in the countryside, on the side of hills. Where was the outrage before? That 800 babies were unceremoniously dumped in a septic tank? Martina Devlin writes ‘The dead children were thrown aside, the way a piece of rubbish is scrapped. Dumped in a septic tank…treated carelessly, as though best forgotten. As inconvenient in death as in life.’ This is not fact, and any supposed outrage is presumptuous. Outrage that there are a significant number of bodies in a tank at the edge of the Bon Secours Home? This has been known since 1975, though it seems impossible that 796 bodies are there. One eye-witness who found the tank in 1975 said the number was around 20. The tank was part of an operating sewage scheme up to 1936, during the period when over 200 of the children in the home died. Even if it is proven as fact that the 796 infants are all or mostly in that septic tank, what is the outrage? Yes, it is unacceptable and horrible. Yes, Ireland should have been better than this but Ireland of today should be better than it is. An incoherent cacophonic rage seems to manifest  whenever anything religious- and in particular Catholic (see below in relation to Bethany Homes)- can be associated with the failings of Ireland past.

Who is the outrage directed at? Susan Lohan, co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance, commenting on Tonight with Vincent Browne, repeatedly refers to ‘these nuns’, as though the sole blame and responsibility falls on ‘these nuns’, despite repeatedly admitting having no information, though it seems (to her) ‘inconceivable that a child could die from malnutrition’, and ‘is a continuation of the general contempt Irish society had for the women and children … ultimately because Irish society agreed with ‘Church doctrine’…’. Lohan, like many, is happy to continue the narrative, without any evidence, that there was a crime of neglect, even ‘wilful neglect’. This reflects the story being propagated of the Magdalen laundries, despite the McAleese report. contrary to Martina Devlin who acknowledges ‘[i]t is convenient to blame the nuns in Tuam, and elsewhere, for what happened in such homes. Condemnation has been shrill. But at least the Bon Secours sisters put a roof over the heads of mothers and their children when they ran the home between 1926 and 1961.’ Lohan, and other attempt to counter this by claiming that the nuns tendered for the ‘business’, that they made a profit out of it, that a capitation grant per child was more than the average industrial wage provided to a man at the time. Rather than wasting time refuting in detail these contemptible slanders, it should be noted that hospitals of today can tender for state services and can be not-for-profit at the same time (St Vincent’s an example- and it is the non-profit element that can make them more efficient), and the cost of maintaining children in institutions today, or prisoners in correctional facilities, is far higher than the average industrial wage. Institutional care is not cheap, yet, it was for this very reason, in 1926, that the Sisters of Charity were asked- rather than tendered- to take over the running of the home. There is no story of how it must have felt to be a Sister in these homes being called upon by God and Society, to be the salve to society’s ills. Perhaps the pressure was too much. Possibly individual nuns were cruel and uncaring. Probably these untrained Sister’s failed to provide care to a level that is expected. Were they doing less or worse than the rest of society that said and did nothing? What is the yardstick by which they are being measured?

Notwithstanding the lack of facts that link the 796 deaths, the septic tank, wilful neglect, and the attitude of the Catholic Church, the clamour to associate this new-found horror with the Catholic Church and some inherent malevolence within it, is telling. Independent TD Catherine Murphy said if the discovery had been made anywhere else other than near a religious institution, it would have been described as a “crime scene”. This is incorrect. If the discovery (though there was no discovery), was made anywhere else, likelihood is that there would be a reasonable discussion and analysis of the facts at hand. A calm decision to carry out forensic analysis of whether the bones in the septic tank actually came from the era under question or whether they came from famine times, as is the current understanding of the Gardai, or from the era of the workhouse. Perhaps there would be a calm and balanced rebuttal of the suppositions disconnected to fact, rather than a panicked reaction resembling a child who had forgotten to do his homework and blaming the dog for eating it, from our elected representatives. It should be expected that they would seek to provide comment to the international media that presents some form of respect and understanding of our common heritage, rather than joining in the ill-founded condemnation before fact has been established. Commenting on the Bethany Home in the Dail in late 2013, Labour party TD and Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Kathleen Lynch said: "The number of children who died at Bethany Home is quite shocking. Unfortunately poverty and disease were commonplace in Ireland up to the 1950s and this was reflected in infant mortality rates. Infant mortality rates in the 1940s were at a level that are hard to comprehend today, about 20 times higher than now and that figure applies across the entire population. For those who were malnourished and subject to disease and a lack of hygiene the figures would have been higher still." None of our elected elite are making such statements in relation to Catholic institutes, that have provided the foil for Statal and societal responsibility in the distant past, and continue to do so today.

John Waters reminds us, on TV3, that the famine in Ireland was as recent at the median year of the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, as that median year is for us now. Ireland was a country, not that long ago, where 25% of the population perished. Another 25% left the country. People lived in dirt. In squalor. Kathleen Lynch acknowledges that we cannot look at the past with the easy eyes of modern life. Many of us don’t even understand it yet we judge, rather than attempt to understand. Martina Devlin says remembering is a form of justice. Understanding is much more just, yet when it comes to certain institutions and certain groups, there is no room or interest in understanding. Do we put ourselves in the shoes of different people of that time, embroiled in the context, tied to community, to family, to relationships, to dependency, to expectation or do we remain standing in the wings, looking at the shoes as something we wouldn’t touch, never mind walk in?

The Sisters in the Bon Secours Home were women of Ireland too. They were at one stage children of Ireland, from rural homes, from large families, and from poverty. They were part of a group that stepped in when society and state had nothing to offer these ‘fallen’ women. The Sisters are disparaged and discounted for doing something, yet those that remained idle, are guilt and blame free. The Sisters lived in difficult times. They worked long and hard with the women and children. The impression that they received some form of satisfaction out of the difficulties in these homes, that there was wilful neglect, that they sat and counted their money, is refuted in the Magdalen report, and the evidence from the Mother and Baby homes does not support these caricatures. A simplistic and moralising review of the past, where latter-day commentators, speaking from their ivory towers, pass judgement on a people and a time gone-by, in order to further their own dogma that everything about Ireland past is a poison ivy will not lead to understanding and truth. The homes were not just run by Catholics. They existed before becoming Church run, but there were no non-denominational or secular groups willing or able to take them on. The state and the tax-payer did not want the burden. They did not just exist in Ireland and a country that did not stigmatise single motherhood prior to the contraceptive pill and the welfare state (and modern wealth), did not exist. The views of the time were not just Irish, not just Catholic, and certainly not solely Irish Catholic, as many would have us believe today. Whether they were as toxic, given the time and the conditions, that is a discussion for another day. In a society that could offer very little for unmarried mothers, would it not be prudential for the Church to warn against (while still providing some form or succour in a cold and uninviting society, where everyone else turned their backs?) risking falling into single parenthood?

Making some comparisons: The Irish economy in 1936 was one twelfth the size it was in 2007. We were as poor as an African country today. Life expectancy and mortality was similar. Look at conditions for children in many of the poorest countries today. Look under the bridges in the cities; under cardboard boxes and along the railway lines. Look at the conditions in some of the institutions that the State in these countries offer (by contrast look at some of the homes for the disabled run by Irish (and non-Irish) Sisters across the country and realise the services, love and care they offer to children and mothers who society has abandoned). Read about the malnutrition, the rickets, the TB and gastroenteritis across the developing, if you can’t travel there. Are these judged as harshly as we judge our own past? Will the Sisters in Zambia who provide compassion and care one day be judged through the lens of modernity for failing those children? Will denominational and non-denominational NGOs who ask for the public’s money to support their work for justice and charity in the third world be looked back upon as malevolent, cold and uncaring for their failures? It is easy to be an armchair critic sitting at distance from the action. It is easy to criticise without providing solutions or getting involved. It is easy to offer rhetorical statements about justice and structural inequality and root causes. It is easy to demand that more money be thrown at the problem. It is easy to tweet and hashtag.

Take a look at Ireland today. Traveller children die at a higher rate than sedentary children. Who is to blame? There are more children now, than in 2007, that go cold and hungry. Children in lone parent families are less well off than those in two-parent yet policy to promote the family is frowned upon. Children are still being treated in adult psychiatric units. Asylum seekers spend years in direct provision, their children confined to a life of uncertainty. Yet as a society we disagree on how to address this. We bemoan the government for not providing, yet, as individuals, as the society of the Mother and Baby era, we are happy to have a salve to ease our conscience of doing anything ourselves. We debate the solution to poverty and we debate how to resolve welfare dependency. Some commentators, looking back in scorn at the mother and baby homes, refer to the rumour that there were ‘dying rooms’, where children are said to have been left to die. At the same time, we know that for the past thirty years, that children born with severe ‘deficiencies’ are left to die in a form of unreported infant euthanasia (see Linacre report: Euthanasia, Clinical Practice and the Law). For many, these children are equally inconvenient to society as those of unmarried mothers were 70 or 80 years ago. Barack Obama, who has achieved almost cult status here in Ireland,  has been a vocal supporter, and voter, of a policy that requires children born alive after failed abortion be left to die.  Undoubtedly, history will look back and say we could have addressed these much better and/or differently. It is not unreasonable to have this view in respect to unmarried mothers and illegitimate children in early-mid 20th century Ireland, but it is disingenuous and unjust to castigate those, many who are still alive, who were on the front-line, for their perceived failings and shortcomings. 





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