Mass baby grave in Tuam, Galway: Laid to rest in septic tank, shameful fate of 800 little children
Published 05/06/2014 | 00:00
For more than half-a-century it has hidden a terrible secret, a horrifying and sinister reminder of a shameful chapter in Irish history.
At the site of a former home run by the Catholic Church in Tuam, a small town west of the Irish midlands, lies a mass grave filled with the bodies of almost 800 children.
Locals have known about it since 1975, when two boys broke apart a concrete slab and discovered a tomb filled with small skeletons. The remains, interred in a concrete septic tank, were initially thought to be from the Great Famine era of the 1840s.
A parish priest said prayers and the site was sealed once more, the number of bodies below unknown, their names forgotten.
Little more was thought about the grave until about 10 years ago when a historian, Catherine Corless, began investigating children's deaths at the home. What she discovered has shocked her, appalled the Irish State and made headlines around the world.
This is a story rooted in early 20th century Ireland, an era when the Catholic Church held enormous power and influence.
It engaged in social engineering, trying to create a "Catholic Ireland". Unmarried women who fell pregnant were incarcerated in Magdalen laundries – State-funded, Church-run institutions where they worked to atone for their "sins".
The Tuam home was one of 10 institutions in which about 35,000 unmarried pregnant women – so-called fallen women – are thought to have been sent.
Their children were often taken away, some sent abroad to countries such as the US through closed, secret adoption practices run by the Church. Children who died at the facilities were generally denied a Christian burial.
The Tuam Mother and Baby Home was run by the Sisters of Bon Secours between 1925 and 1961. During that time, the bodies of 796 babies, toddlers and children, aged from two days to nine years, were buried in the unmarked grave. They were buried without a coffin or memorial, in many cases wrapped in a simple shroud.
Hildergarde Naughton, a Fine Gael senator from Galway, said what happened at Tuam amounts to "manslaughter".
Official causes of death include malnutrition and infectious diseases, such as TB, measles and pneumonia. Death rates for children in the Tuam home were believed to be up to five times that of the general population.
A 1944 health board report described emaciated children, mentally ill mothers and appalling overcrowding.
The report records evidence of malnutrition among some of the 271 children then living alongside 61 unwed mothers.
The Tuam home was handed over to Galway County Council and the health authorities in 1961. It was later torn down to make way for houses.
Funds are now being raised to erect a permanent memorial.