Irish Church under pressure over mass grave
DUBLIN — The Catholic Church in Ireland is facing renewed accusations of child neglect after a local historian found records for 796 young children believed to be buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers.
The dead included babies and toddlers, some as young as three-months-old.
The Irish Church has been rocked by a series of scandals over the abuse and neglect of the young, and the government said yesterday it would consider launching an inquiry, concerned that the “deeply disturbing” fresh research has revealed another dark chapter of the country’s past.
The graveyard was discovered in the former grounds of one of Ireland’s “mother-and-baby homes” run by the Bon Secours order of nuns. Researcher Catherine Corless said her research indicates that most, if not all the bodies were buried in a sewage tank on the grounds of the home in Tuam, County Galway.
Church leaders in the western Ireland city said they had no idea so many children who died at the orphanage had been buried there, and said they would support local efforts to mark the spot with a plaque listing the names all 796 children.
Children’s Minister Charlie Flanagan said yesterday the government was considering how to address the “harrowing details.”
“Many of the revelations are deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been,” Flanagan said in a statement.
County Galway death records show that the children, mostly babies and toddlers, died often of sickness or disease in the orphanage during the 35 years it operated from 1926 to 1961.
The building, which had previously been a workhouse for homeless adults, was torn down decades ago to make way for new houses.
A 1944 government inspection recorded evidence of malnutrition among some of the 271 children then living in the Tuam orphanage alongside 61 unwed mothers. The death records cite sicknesses, diseases, deformities and premature births as causes. In the first half of the 20th century, Ireland had one of the worst infant mortality rates in Europe, with tuberculosis rife.
Elderly locals recalled that the children attended a local school — but were segregated from other pupils — until they were adopted or placed, when seven or eight years old, into church-run industrial schools that featured unpaid labour and abuse. In keeping with Catholic teaching, such out-of-wedlock children were denied baptism and, if they died at such facilities, Christian burial.
It is well documented that throughout Ireland in the first half of the 20th century, Church-run orphanages and workhouses often buried their dead in unmarked graves and unconsecrated ground, reflecting how unmarried mothers — derided as “fallen women” in the culture of the day — typically were ostracized by society, even their own families.
Records indicate that the former Tuam workhouse’s septic tank was converted specifically to serve as the body disposal site for the orphanage.
The Adoption Rights Alliance, which campaigns for greater access to adoption records in Ireland, particularly for those born in Catholic-run institutions, said there could be mass graves in other homes.
“This has got to be a national inquiry, it’s got to take in all of the mother and baby homes, all of which have mapped children’s graveyards on site,” the group’s co-founder Susan Lohan told RTE. “We’re looking at the very big mother-and-baby homes we know about but there are also smaller ones.”
In a synopsis of the research, Corless said some mothers who gave birth in the Western Ireland home told her of long unattended labours, mostly without help from a sister or midwife, and that they were examined only once by a doctor when first admitted.
Speaking to thejournal.ie last month, Corless said she was surprised that people weren’t more shocked.
“People aren’t really talking about the discovery,” she said. “People don’t seem shocked, I don’t understand.
“If two children were discovered in an unmarked grave, the news would be everywhere. We have almost 800 here.”
Two Tuam children discovered the bone repository in 1975 after cement covering the buried tank was broken away.
Before Corless’ research this year, they believed the remains were mostly victims of the mid-19th century famine that decimated the population of western Ireland.
Respectful of the unmarked grave, local residents have kept the grass trimmed and built a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary.
The Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary has said he would meet leaders of the religious order that ran the orphanage, the Bon Secours Sisters, to organize fund-raising for a plaque listing the 796 names and to hold a memorial service there.
Corless and other Tuam activists have organized a Children’s Home Graveyard Committee that wants not just a lasting monument to the dead, but a state-funded investigation and excavation of the site.
Fundraising has has been difficult — last month Corless said they were having difficultly raising the 5,000-euro target for a memorial.
The Bon Secours order which ran the home was not available for comment yesterday.
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin was quoted by the Irish Examiner newspaper as saying that work was needed to get an accurate picture of what happened at the homes.
Speaking on RTE last week, Secretary of the Tuam archediocese, Father Fintan Monaghan said: “I suppose we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens. All we can do is mark it appropriately and make sure there is a suitable place here where people can come and remember the babies that died.”
Opposition parties and government members of Parliament said an immediate inquiry was required.
“How can we show in Ireland that we have matured as a society if we cannot call out these horrific acts of the past for what they were?” Junior Minister for Education Ciaran Cannon said.
“They were wilful and deliberate neglect of children, who were the most vulnerable of all,”
Herald with AP, Reuters, online media