The Real Scandal Behind the Tuam Home for Unwed Mothers

While the media rushed to exaggeration, misinformation, and fabrication, the real societal ills behind the deaths of 800 Irish children were largely overlooked.

For a month now, sections of the Irish and international media have been convulsed by reports of shockingly high mortality rates at a state-funded, Church-run mother and baby home in the west of Ireland. It has been difficult to separate fact from fiction and too few commentators have sought to get to the bottom of the story, with many instead choosing to focus on salacious exaggerations, misinformation, and untruths.

Yes, there was a shockingly high infant mortality rate in the Tuam mother and baby home run by the Bon Secours congregation of nuns. Between 1925 and 1961, 796 infants died. Many of the children, it appears, were buried at an unmarked grave, which was lovingly tended by local Catholic families for decades. Now, the tragic deaths of so many youngsters should be devastating enough in itself to warrant further investigation. But some media commentators and seasoned campaigners immediately sought to exaggerate the story in the most appalling fashion. The children were soon forgotten in the dash to hang their deaths as a crime around the neck of Catholic Ireland.

In media reports, the common grave soon became a “mass grave” and then a “septic tank.” The nuns were accused of “dumping” the children in the grave, and there have been suggestions that police should open up a criminal investigation into the deaths despite absolutely no evidence that any of the tragic deaths were in untoward circumstances. The government has promised a Commission of Inquiry to look at the issue. However, some are wary that the terms of reference may be set so narrowly as to include only Catholic-run institutions, leaving out so-called “county homes” where many unmarried mothers lived with their newborn babies. Former residents of a Protestant-run home in Dublin have also complained that their plight has been ignored.

The world’s media soon arrived, inevitably adding more heat than light. A Washington Times headline screamed, “Catholic Church Tossed 800 Irish Orphans into Septic Tank”; Salon’s stated: “An Irish Catholic Orphanage Hid the Bodies of 800 Children.” More fuel was added to the fire by Father Brian D’arcy, a liberal priest and darling of the Irish media, who likened the nuns’ behavior to that of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

So quick has been the rush to judgment that an eminent media outlet has been forced to roll back on earlier versions of the story. The Associated Press has issued a correction to earlier stories which included claims that were demonstrably untrue. In a response issued at the weekend, the AP admitted that

in stories published June 3 and June 8 about young children buried in unmarked graves after dying at a former Irish orphanage for the children of unwed mothers, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that the children had not received Roman Catholic baptisms; documents show that many children at the orphanage were baptized. The AP also incorrectly reported that Catholic teaching at the time was to deny baptism and Christian burial to the children of unwed mothers; although that may have occurred in practice at times it was not Church teaching. In addition, in the June 3 story, the AP quoted a researcher who said she believed that most of the remains of children who died there were interred in a disused septic tank; the researcher has since clarified that without excavation and forensic analysis it is impossible to know how many sets of remains the tank contains, if any. The June 3 story also contained an incorrect reference to the year that the orphanage opened; it was 1925, not 1926.

Despite the misreporting, it’s important to be clear: the Tuam mother and baby home was a terrible place with awful conditions that reflected a society build on petty snobbery; “illegitimate” children and unmarried mothers were treated in a very unchristian fashion by a country that professed to be a bastion of Catholic virtue. It is unlikely that other, similar homes—whether run by the Church, state, or another religious denomination—were any less harsh.

According to Sarah Carey, a media commentator and radio presenter, “the wild exaggerations piled onto these stories annoy me because the truth is horrible enough as it is.”

“The story here is the appalling death rate. While I was as familiar as anyone with the existence of mother and baby homes, I had no idea the mortality rate was so high—three times the national average, which was dismal in itself,” she said.

There was a rush to believe the worst about the nuns and about Catholic Ireland. Of course, many Catholics are unwilling to challenge a dominant media narrative, because so much of the awful wrongdoing members of the Church have been accused of in the past has turned out to be true. But, according to David Quinn, director of the pro-religious think-tank the Iona Institute: “The fact that some terrible things did happen in Church-run institutions is no excuse whatsoever. Journalists are supposed to check facts. That is absolutely basic to journalism. Mistakes will obviously be made from time to time, but when a whole plethora of various serious mistakes are made in the one story, and I’m not just talking about AP here, then we’ve got a problem.”

Why is there such a willingness to believe the very worst about Catholic Ireland? Why is there such an obsessive focus on the terrible things that sometimes happened here when terrible things, often of a similar nature, happened in almost every country, many of them neither Catholic nor Christian?

The government Commission of Inquiry is expected to begin work within weeks. But what are the “known unknowns” in a sea of misinformation?

“I never used that word ‘dumped,’” says Catherine Corless, the local historian who painstakingly compiled the infants’ death certificates. “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.”

Mrs. Corless, who lives near the site of the Tuam mother and baby home, has been working for several years on records associated with the institution. Her research has revealed that 796 children, most of them infants, died between 1925 and 1961, the 36 years that the home, run by Bon Secours Sisters, was in operation.

The children’s names, ages, places of birth, and causes of death were recorded. The average number of deaths during the 36-year period was just over 22 a year. The information recorded on these state-issued certificates shows that the children died variously of tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis, and meningitis, among other illnesses.

The deaths of these 796 children are not in doubt. Their numbers are a stark reflection of a period in Ireland when infant mortality in general was much higher than today, particularly in institutions, where infection spread rapidly. At times during those 36 years, the Bon Secours Sisters housed more than 200 children and 100 mothers, as well as those who worked at the home, according to records Mrs. Corless has found.

Mrs. Corless has been upset, confused, and dismayed in recent months by what she describes as the speculative nature of much of the reporting around the story, particularly about what happened to the children after they died. “I never used that word ‘dumped,’” she says again. “I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own.”

Mrs. Corless believes that many of the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of the former home. This small, grassy space has been attended for decades by local people, who have planted roses and other flowers there, and put up a grotto in one corner. Mrs. Corless was keen that a memorial with the children’s names should be erected. Local Mass-goers were soon alerted and parishioners began taking up a collection for such a memorial.

If the commission is to paint a complete picture of what happened at the home, it will have to base its work on what is actually known and what can be uncovered. It will also have to focus on the wider context of post-independence Ireland.

According to Shane Dunphy, a social worker and expert on child protection, the commission should have a wide remit. He believes that religious orders can “answer very pertinent questions about why exactly the death rates in the homes were so at odds with that of the rest of the population, and if adoptions that occurred were forced and illegal.” However, he questions whether the nuns should be the only ones in the frame. “The Irish government must be viewed with a cold eye, as they specifically asked the religious orders to take the leading role in child care and protection in the newly founded Irish state.”

Mr. Dunphy said that concerns were raised in Parliament in 1938 relating to reports of neglect in care institutions, “yet absolutely no action was taken until the late 1970s, when an investigation was launched and its findings then roundly ignored.”

He believes that “the truth is that the Irish government did not want to know what was being done with the ‘illegitimate’ children of Ireland’s poor. And neither did the average person in the street.” Mr. Dunphy thinks that the spotlight must also fall on wider Irish society. “By the 1940s, Irish society already had a long history of marginalizing its most vulnerable members. Medieval attitudes toward the poor prevailed in the land of Saints and Scholars until the mid-18th Century, rooted in the belief that poverty was visited upon children primarily due to the sins of their parents—alcoholism, slothfulness, and moral degradation were seen as genetic inheritances.”

Mr. Dunphy insists that accepted wisdom dictated that “street urchins were not a group who needed to be protected and cared for, but a demographic from which the better among us—the upper classes—need to be protected.”

He believes that many Irish people simply wanted the problem of the vulnerable poor to disappear. “This was achieved by placing it behind the high walls of institutions vested with the necessary moral authority to deal with the problems presented by the lumpen poor and their progeny, a group, it was believed, so debased as to have nothing to offer their communities other than shame, squalor, and disease.”

“It must be acknowledged that this is a complex matter, and none of us are wholly innocent of blame. Any investigation must give this truth grave consideration,” Mr. Dunphy said.

Historian Dr. Finola Kennedy feels that the investigation must concentrate on facts and not lurid headlines. “If the full story proves true, that would be savagery. But I, no more than anyone else, don’t know the full facts.”

Dr. Kennedy, who is the author of Cottage to Creche: Family Change in Ireland (Institute of Public Administration, 2001), contends that the national soul-searching now underway has underestimated the overarching fact of crushing poverty as it existed in the early years of the fledgling state.

For her, the cold reality of economics played a major part in the scandal now re-emerging in 2014. (The national record shows clearly that this is a “re-emerging,” as opposed to the dramatic “uncovering” portrayed in media both national and international.)

“We had the Civil War and the cost of damages on top of poverty as the new state began,” Dr. Kennedy points out. “What funds we had were spent on rebuilding.”

It was into such a reality that the nuns were so warmly received, “including, let’s not forget, those nuns who started the health services still benefitting Ireland today,” she says. “Mother and babies homes were part of a whole system of containment at the time and look sad and painful places now.”

“Now cast your mind back 50, 60 years—the challenges faced were incredible,” she adds. “People today don’t realize how poor we were then.”

Dr. Lindsey Earner-Byrne is lecturer in history at University College Dublin and the author of Mother and Child: Maternity and Child Welfare in Ireland 1920s-1960s (Manchester University Press, 2007). She is emphatic that “Tuam did not happen in a vacuum.”

Dr. Earner-Byrne is also uncomfortable with the story being spun as Ireland’s “hidden history.” She maintains that “the discussion was being had at the time” regarding the treatment of single mothers and their children. For example, every year in the 1930s and 1940s the number of deaths of “illegitimate” children was published, she said.

Crucially, Dr. Earner-Byrne reveals that when challenged by Britain to deal with the phenomenon of Irish single mothers reaching its shores, Ireland’s Department of External Affairs decided that the Church should take on the necessary remedial role, with the department’s Secretary Joseph Walshe (1923-1946) quoted as stating: “We need to place it on their [the Church’s] shoulders.”

Echoing Dr. Kennedy’s contention regarding the characterization of Catholic Ireland, Dr. Earner-Byrnes argues, “This was not just a Catholic consensus. It was societal.”

For Peter Costello, chief librarian at the Catholic Central Library in Dublin, it’s not credible to present the facts of the Tuam case as if they were unknown until this point. In fact, rates of death were extremely high among “illegitimate” children in general, and this was “well-known to officials from the earliest days of the Irish state,” he insists.

One of every three “illegitimate” infants born alive in 1923 died before the completion of their first year of life, according to the annual report of the Registrar-General for Births, Deaths, and Marriages for that year. This was “about six times the mortality rate among legitimate infants,” the report found.

“These historical figures place current concerns about baby-home death rates from the past in a new perspective,” according to Mr. Costello. “They reveal a far more complex situation in which the whole of Irish society was aware of these figures, but accepted them.”

Mr. Costello believes that the traumatic founding of the Irish state must also be considered. “Ireland in the 1920s, the Ireland of the Troubles and the Civil War, was a violent place where murder was common. In 1921 there were some 1,096 male homicides from gunshot wounds. In addition 37 women died of gunshot wounds.”

The annual report not only noted that these rates were excessive, and that they were higher than those in England and Wales. They suggest there was a problem specific to Ireland.

“But,” as Mr. Costello points out, “the heavy mortality rates registered for ‘illegitimate’ children were officially published and formally known to the local authorities and the government. They show that post-revolutionary Irish society as a whole knew, and accepted, that ‘illegitimate’ children, whether in institutions, with their mothers, or boarded out with others, were in greater danger of early death than legitimate children.”

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has welcomed the setting up of an inquiry.

“The only way we will come out of this particular period of our history is when the truth comes out,” he said.

“The indications are that if something happened in Tuam, it probably happened in other mother and baby homes around the country. That is why I believe that we need a full-bodied investigation. There is no point in investigating just what happened in Tuam and then next year finding out more,” Archbishop Martin said.

For David Quinn of the Iona Institute, there are vital questions that the Church has to reflect on with regard to the mother and baby homes. “There was something completely unacceptable about many of these places, which is that for all of their ostensible Christianity, they were rarely Christian,” he says. “Why didn’t the children and adults encounter a proper Christian witness, real love, when they walked through their doors? Why was it impersonal rules and regulations on a good day and cruelty of a sometimes very extreme kind on other days?”

These and other questions cast a long shadow over Ireland. A Commission of Inquiry can answer some of them. Anyone interested in knowing the full truth must hope that the inquiry will be far more sober and balanced than much of the appalling reporting on this story that has taken place.

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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.