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A global media storm hit the Catholic Church in 2014 when it was revealed that the bodies of up to 796 babies and children who had been residents of a children's home run by the sisters of the Bons Secours order in Tuam, Ireland may have been buried in a septic tank on site. With the newfound results of human remains in mass graves at the home, the media is once again focusing its spotlight on the tragedy.
The sensationalist headlines were bound to whip up anti-Catholic sentiment and indeed they did, with the world outraged by the notion of nuns neglecting and starving infants before callously flinging their mortal remains into a cesspit.
Dismayed and astonished by the rhetoric, aided by friends and colleagues in Ireland, I attempted to take a critical look at the established facts — and an altogether more nuanced, although equally tragic, picture began to emerge.
Many journalists and press agencies subsequently began rowing back on the story, either amending their original copy or issuing corrections. The woman behind the story, a local historian named Catherine Corless, was also reported as expressing dismay behind the lurid headlines. It was never her intention to imply that the bodies of babies and children had simply been "dumped," she told the Irish Times.
So what actually did happen? The story is one of atonement. Tuam resident and local historian Corless had some uncomfortable memories of her school, which was also attended by the children who were resident in the home. According to Corless, the sisters who ran her local convent school would openly humiliate the children from the home, singling out the fact that they were different, and used the threat of having to sit next to one of the children from the home as a punishment for bad behavior.
The nuns were, says Corless, cold and disrespectful. Corless herself recalls teasing one of the children by putting a stone in a candy wrapper and offering it to a girl from the home, who eagerly grabbed it and then dropped it in disappointment. In a classic scenario, Corless was the victim of bullies herself and had copied the "joke" from another girl.
Feeling remorse in later life and realizing quite what a mean trick that was to play on a child who had probably never had a treat in her life, and feeling hostility towards the sisters at her school, who had never told her that the children needed special care and who had modeled a policy of mainly ignoring the home residents, Corless then set about the arduous task of requesting and paying for all of the death certificates for the children who had died at the home, at a personal cost of almost $3,500.
She had heard several local stories and rumors about the bodies of children being discovered and interred on the site. Some bodies had been found by local boys in the 1970s, who had lifted up a slab and found about 20 skeletons roughly in the area where a septic tank had been located. A priest was called, who sealed and blessed the site. A makeshift grotto with a statue of Our Lady was also set up on the site, which was lovingly tended by local residents.
Alongside that discovery was one of a young girl who had been playing on the site of the former home (then a children's playground), when the ground suddenly gave in beneath her and she fell into a vault. She recalls seeing shelves stacked from wall to ceiling with the swaddled bodies of babies and children, or "parcleens," as they were called. She wasn't sure how many, but thought it was no more than a hundred. This matches with the testimony of a former resident and then-employee of the home, who recalled assisting nuns ferrying the bodies of babies down a tunnel and into an underground vault, where they would be stacked on shelves.
So in 2014, all of these narratives were fit together to formulate the shocking headlines about bodies in a septic tank, although it wasn't clear that the bodies found by the boys related to deaths at the home (which had formerly been a workhouse), or whether they were bodies of famine victims previously buried and then moved in subsequent building works, or whether they were adults or children.
What did seem likely, however, is that there was a vault with babies' bodies and that the children who did die at the home could well have been interred there somewhere.
Fast forward three years later, a commission has been set up, some excavations have taken place, and it has been confirmed that "significant numbers" of remains have been discovered. Two structures were found: One was indeed a former septic tank, which had been filled in with rubble and loosely covered with topsoil, and the second structure appeared to be a sewage or water treatment system concerned with the disposal of sewage. The Commission has stated that it's not clear whether it was ever used for this purpose. This second structure is comprised of 20 chambers, 17 of which appear to contain remains.
Tragically, the remains do appear to be those of infants aged between 35 weeks gestation and three years of age. A small number of these were recovered for testing, and these have been determined as dating from the 1950's. (The home was open between 1925 and 1961.)
We do not as yet have any more information than that, though the confirmation that bodies have been found on a known burial site has whipped up a renewed frenzy of anti-Catholicism in Ireland, with a repeat of the debunked headlines of 2014.
While there is plenty to say about the death rate in the Mother and Baby home and plenty that was abominable about Ireland — and indeed the United Kingdom and wider Western world's treatment of unmarried mothers at this time — what we don’t know is whether, as reported, the bodies of these poor babies and children were treated as callously as has been suggested.
The archbishop of Tuam has issued a statement expressing his horror and regret and has promised the Church's co-operation with the commission. This is as it should be.
But what ought to be remembered is that the practice of burying unbaptized infants in unconsecrated ground was common throughout Europe, until the Church revised Her dogma on limbo. Simply because a baby was not buried in consecrated ground does not mean there was the absence of all rites. Limbo simply taught that a baby would not enter into full knowledge of the Beatific vision, not that the soul would not experience happiness.
The other factor to bear in mind was that mass graves were not uncommon through Ireland and the rest of the world. Children's burial grounds abound in Ireland, and in these the baptized would be separated from the unbaptized. Unmarked graves were also common, as was the practice of putting an infant in the coffin of a sometimes unrelated deceased adult. Releasing infant bodies to parents is a relatively modern practice. Several maternity hospitals in Ireland had burial grounds to inter the remains of still or newborn babies and sometimes their mothers who died there.
We also know that during the years the home was open, the sisters put in tenders for coffins, which would indicate that older children were buried more traditionally. An examination of the plan of the children's home has revealed that the sewage system consisted of a large, brick-built tank, 9 foot high by 9 foot wide, with domed ceilings, rather similar to a burial vault. Stacking bodies on shelves may not be what we might wish for babies today, but neither does it fit the narrative of tossing them into a sewage or septic tank.
We know that the home was desperately short of money and the sisters frequently appealed for more resources for the children (the Mother Superior insisted they were vaccinated against diseases), for more trained staff and for repairs for the dilapidated building. Funerals and burial plots cost money, and the council and local population had frequently expressed at local meetings their reluctance to help.
These children and their mothers were society's forgotten outcasts. Repurposing these underground chambers as crypts or burying older children in the grounds, as is also thought to have happened, is not evidence of inherent evil or shocking neglect by the sisters of the Bons Secours, who handed all their records over to the state when the home closed in 1961.
These deaths were registered with the state, which saw fit not to ask further questions in terms of burials or causes of death. Apparently, nobody ever saw any funerals outside of the home, neither did they see fit to ask any questions.
There may well be 796 children buried in the grounds of Tuam's children's home, but further forensic investigation needs to be carried out to establish both numbers and places/methods of burial.
In the meantime, all of this anti-Catholic sentiment comes in handy in the run-up to Ireland's referendum on abortion, and also for the Ireland's first openly lesbian children's minister, Katherine Zappone, who is facing widespread criticism over her disproportionately high travel expense claims.
One wonders what those professing repulsion at the way babies were buried by the sisters in Tuam would make of the way unborn babies are commonly treated today — either chopped up for resale value or burnt in industrial incinerators to provide fuel.