LONDON (RNS) The Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin, regarded as among the most influential church leaders in England and Ireland, has added his voice to those calling for an urgent inquiry into the discovery of nearly 800 babies and children buried in a septic tank at Tuam, a home for unwed mothers in western Ireland.

Video courtesy the Washington Post

The scandal is just the latest among many to come to light involving the suffering of children in Ireland’s history, and it may be among the factors that have contributed to a big fall in church attendance in recent years.

“If a public or state inquiry is not established into outstanding issues of concern surrounding the mother-and-baby homes, then it is important that a social history project be undertaken to get an accurate picture of these homes in our country’s history,” said Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

He also backed calls to excavate the site and set up a monument.

The archbishop is only the latest to respond to the international rage following the revelations. Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, has demanded to know the scale of the deaths and whether similar mass graves exist anywhere else in the country.

Amnesty International has also called for an inquiry into the scandal.

“A thorough investigation must be carried out into how these children died and if ill-treatment, neglect or other human rights abuses factored into their deaths,” said John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International. “We also need to know why these children were not afforded the respect of a proper and dignified burial.”

When the children’s remains were first found 40 years ago in the septic tank, they were thought to date from the 1850s famine.

Catherine Corless, a local historian who has been researching the Tuam mother-and-baby home run by the Sisters of Bon Secours discovered that nearly 800 children could have died there between 1925 and 1961. “Bon Secours” means “good help” in French.

Representatives of the Sisters of Bon Secours in Ireland are to meet Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary to discuss how best to honor all who died in the home. Neary said he was “greatly shocked” and that the church had no records of the children’s deaths or their burial.

The home was closed in 1961.

In all, as many as 35,000 unmarried pregnant women are thought to have been sent to 10 homes, including the one at Tuam. If their babies survived childbirth, they were kept separate from children born to married couples.

According to County Galway death records, most of the children buried in the unmarked graves died of sickness or malnutrition. Many “fallen women” were sent to Magdalene Laundries where they were punished by hard physical work as well as long, enforced periods of silence and prayer. Many died. The last of these laundries in Ireland closed in 1996.

The focus turned to the plight of unmarried mothers after last year’s hit film, “Philomena,” based on a book by journalist Martin Sixsmith, which tells the true story of a woman sent to work in a laundry after she became pregnant and her son was given up for adoption without her consent.

“The government has known about this since the 1960s,” said Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic. “There is just a new consciousness of it.”

The people of Ireland generally took pride in how “friendly” and “great” the country is, he added.

“Our 20th century history shows that for a large part of that century, this was not a very nice place to live, particularly if you did not fit in, like unmarried mothers or gay people,” he said. “One thing that gets forgotten is the connivance of families and communities. The impression is given that the nuns behaved like the child catcher in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’ But it was a community thing. If their daughter became pregnant, parents were quite happy to send her off to a laundry with the firm intention of never seeing her again. Sometimes we forget that the nuns and religious who did these things did not come from Rome. They were our neighbors.”

(Ruth Gledhill is a London-based  freelance journalist writing about religion. She can be reached on Twitter.)

YS/AMB END GLENHILL

14 Comments

  1. A related Story in the Daily Mail suggests that children were used as “guinea pigs” for drugs trails carried out by an International Drugs ( 1930-36 )and may be part of this tragic and shameful story that is emerging.It’s in the early stages of the estimated timeline that the tragedy occurred.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2650475/More-mass-baby-graves-Ireland-Prime-Minister-Enda-Kenny-orders-investigation-memorial-800-dead-babies-planned.html

    • However, that story also contains this line:

      “However, the fact that reports of these trials were published in the most prestigious medical journals suggests that this type of human experimentation was largely accepted by medical practitioners and facilitated by authorities in charge of children’s residential institutions.’”

      Get that? “Facilitated by Authorities.

      The government approved of this course of action.

      How do you have a “secret” trial of something when the government approves of it and it is published in a medical journal?

      The article only says that the diptheria shot was not yet approved for use in the UK. It does not say it was not approved for use in Ireland.

      However, we have other stories where the head nun of the place is begging for diptheria medication. Perhaps there was an outbreak, and they used the only thing they had.

      Everyone wants to judge what happened in a rather backward country in the thirties by todays standards.

      • The Daily Mail is so sloppy, that the picture that yesterday said “children in the tea room at Tuam home for girls ” now says “Children at Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary are thought to have been used in secret drug trials in the 1930s”

        So which is it? Tuam or Sean Ross Abbey?

        • And then there is this gem:
          “There is no evidence that consent was ever sought, nor any records of how many may have died or suffered debilitating side-effects as a result.”

          So there is no evidence that consent was NOT sought either. And NONE may have died or suffered ill effects, since there are no records. However, even this is inconsistent. If there were articles published in medical journals about all of this, wouldn’t those articles have mentioned whether the triels were successful and how many kids suffered side effects?

          The whole thing stinks like a made up story

        • You know what else does not make sense. The story about Tuam says there were 796 babies buried in a mass grave.

          Yet, they did not dig the place up to see how many kids are buried there. They just found 796 death certificates in the county office, sitting right out in the open. No one has checked to see if all of those were interred in the “mass grave”

          Something really stinks about this story

  2. How many errors can one article have?

    “Many “fallen women” were sent to Magdalene Laundries where they were punished by hard physical work as well as long, enforced periods of silence and prayer. Many died. The last of these laundries in Ireland closed in 1996.”

    The government ordered an inquiry into the Magdalene laundries. It found:

    “ii. Physical abuse
    33. A large majority of the women who shared their stories with the Committee said that they had neither experienced nor seen other girls or women suffer physical abuse in the Magdalen Laundries.
    34. In this regard, women who had in their earlier lives been in an industrial or reformatory school drew a clear distinction between their experiences there and in the Magdalen Laundries, stating clearly that the widespread brutality which they had witnessed and been subjected to in industrial and reformatory schools was not a feature of the Magdalen Laundries.”

    The article also states:

    “The focus turned to the plight of unmarried mothers after last year’s hit film, “Philomena,” based on a book by journalist Martin Sixsmith, which tells the true story of a woman sent to work in a laundry after she became pregnant and her son was given up for adoption without her consent.”

    But in fact the movie itself, Philomena says ” No, I gave him up of my own free will”

    Religion News service is so very sloppy

    • Hi Bendarneya, thank you for taking the time to comment on the article and I read it with interest.

      There is much debate going on still about what happened in the laundries. Contrast this report
      http://www.thejournal.ie/magdalene-laundry-true-story-margaret-bullen-samantha-long-614350-Sep2012/
      With this
      http://www.themediareport.com/2013/02/19/truth-about-irelands-magdalene-laundries/

      Likewise over the extent to which Philomena’s decision had any element of coercion in it. Many other media however have reported that she was ‘forced’ to give up the child, including the Wiki entry on the film, for what it is worth.

      http://abcnews.go.com/International/real-life-woman-philomena-audience-pope-francis/story?id=22370079

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philomena_(film)

    • Again the excuses come for the brutal inhuman practices undertaken by these “religious orders”, are you on commission from the Vatican or just blind to the suffering?

  3. Ruth, today’s Irish Times includes significant revisions of the story. The local historian denies ever saying that the children were dumped in a septic tank and it is not clear where this claim comes from – it might even be media invention. Another element also make a very different story:
    – the average death rate of 22 a year was during a period, when as she admits, Irish infant mortality rates were higher and there were infant epidemics.

    Will you, and the RNS, give as much publicity to this significant revision of the story as you did to the original claims? See:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/tuam-mother-and-baby-home-the-trouble-with-the-septic-tank-story-1.1823393?page=1

    • Its not a significant change to the facts of the story whatsoever.

      “The deaths of these 796 children are not in doubt”.

      “She also discovered that there were no burial records for the children and that they had not been interred in any of the local public cemeteries. In her article she concludes that many of the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of the former home.”

    • Terry, thank you for the comment. This is the intro I originally filed in my story for RNS.

      ‘The Archbishop of Dublin, regarded as among the most infuential Church leaders in the UK and Ireland, has added his voice to those calling for an urgent inquiry into the burial of nearly 800 babies and children at the Tuam mother-and-baby home in the Republic of Ireland.’

      I did later on in my original story mention however that bones had been found in a septic tank.

      In researching the story, I found that both the BBC and AP had reported this previously. I also sent the story as it first appeared on RNS – the rewritten version – to the historian responsible for making the discoveries in the first place. She did correct one fact, which had also appeared in the BBC and AP stories and which RNS and I took immediate action on, but at that stage she did not query the septic tank claims.

      Ruth

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