In 1975 human baby bones were found in an underground chamber believed to be a septic tank on the grounds of a Catholic Mother and Baby home in Tuam, Ireland. A priest said prayers over the pit and it was re-sealed.
In 2012 a local historian Catherine Corless published an article revealing records of 796 babies who died between 1925 and 1961 at this Mother and Baby home without a registered burial place. She concluded then, that there was likely a mass grave at the location where the bones had been found in 1975.
It was only two years later, in May 2014, that her story received press coverage in Ireland after being picked up by the international press. Some news outlets ran articles suggesting that the report was an anti-Catholic hoax. The Irish police released a statement: “These are historical burials going back to famine times. There is no suggestion of any impropriety and there is no garda investigation. Also, there is no confirmation from any source that there are between 750 and 800 bodies present.” Following an online petition and international outrage, an investigation was set up. However, it is not a criminal investigation, but one of historical interest meaning the site is not being treated as a crime scene.
Today we heard the first report of this investigation and it has confirmed our darkest fears. The ache in my mother heart and the disgust in the pit of my stomach pushed me to do the only positive thing I can. To write. To shed light on this horror story.
The Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home was an institution in Ireland where thousands of unmarried pregnant women gave birth between 1925 and 1961. The running of these homes was paid for by the Irish government. This was just one of the approximately 140 institutions around Ireland that “cared for” unmarried mothers & their babies.
Women and girls who became pregnant without having a marriage licence in those times were cast out of their homes. There was no place for them in society. Their only crime was being an ‘unmarried mother’. The circumstances of the conception were of no relevance, nor was the identity of the father. Whether it was rape, incest, or romance, the consequence was the same. These women were forced by their parents to join a “Mother and Baby home” to hide their pregnancy and give birth. This was done secretly in the night, those women vanished and no one mentioned them in public again.
After being left behind by their parents, the women were stripped of their names and clothes. Their hair cut short, they were forced to wear rough uniforms, heavy clogs and given a ‘house name’. They were not allowed to talk to the other women in the home. They were subjected to heavy manual work and suffered emotional and physical abuse by the nuns. Women who managed to escape the homes were arrested by the police and brought back to the nuns.
These women gave birth without doctors, nurses, pain relief or after-care. The nuns verbally abused the women throughout the whole birth, telling them that they needed to atone for their sins and deserved being torn. After the birth, if the mother could pay £100 she was allowed to leave 10 days later. If not, she had to work in the home for three years to pay back the cost of the birth and to make amends for her pregnancy. In most cases, these women had nowhere to go, as they were not welcome back to their town or family. They were sent to England or other faraway places, never to see their families again and never to know the fate of their babies.
The mothers were then separated from their babies and forced to breastfeed all of the babies in the home, to prevent them building up a bond. The babies were starved, beaten, neglected, received no medical attention, (or any attention for that matter). The mortality rate for these children was significantly higher than the national rate of infant mortality at the time. The main cause of death was Marasmus, which is the medical term for malnutrition. The nuns who carried out this torture and abuse, believed that these mothers and babies were less than human, they referred to the babies as ‘bastards’, ‘illegitimate’ and ’the Spawn of Satan’. Stillborn babies were not registered.
Most of the babies who survived were adopted illegally for money (sold). The new adoptive parents often spoke of the children’s underdevelopment. The children were months behind in speech and walking skills due to lack of attention. Many were sold to families in America and became known as ‘banished babies’. It is estimated that the church earned $30 to $50 million in today’s money from the trade in babies. It was child trafficking on an industrial scale.
Other babies were sold to vaccine trials. “For thirteen years, the state and the Borris-Wellcome foundation (now part of GlaxoSmithKline) conspired to turn between 200 and 300 babies and young children into human lab rats in the three Sacred Heart Mother & Baby homes and other institutions and orphanages.” Dead babies were ‘donated’ for routine dissection practice by medical students and/or research. “In both the vaccine trials and the ‘donations’ of bodies, consent was neither sought from, nor granted by, either natural or adoptive parents. Nor were they even told the truth about their children, living or dead.”
Today the first results of the excavation in Tuam were released. It confirms the presence of “significant quantities of human remains” in at least 17 of the 20 underground chambers. The structure is thought to be related to the “containment of sewage and/or waste water”. The skeletons they tested indicate the age of death to be between 35 foetal weeks and 2-3 years old. The bones date from the 1950s. The investigation is ongoing.
I repeat, this was just one of the approximately 140 Mother and Baby homes around Ireland.
Writing this I was interrupted by my son who was crying because he did not want to go to sleep. I spent a while by his bedside, stroking his hair, telling him to breathe calmly, telling him that his baby doll (that I handmade) was also going to have a little rest. Back downstairs I sobbed uncontrollably thinking about those thousands of babies who had no love, no one to calm them and tell them that everything would be OK. No toys, no food, only fear, sadness and cruelty. I am overwhelmed by how UNFAIR it is. Those mothers and babies were punished for breaking an imagined rule, a rule criminalising the victim, a rule made by people who had no business telling us what to do in the bedroom.
Knowing the ache in my heart I felt leaving my baby at crèche the first time, I can’t imagine the heartbreak these women have felt every day for the rest of their lives. It must be unbearable. Why were they being punished? What crime did they commit that was SO bad that they were not even seen as human, but as monsters to be sold, used as slaves or destroyed and disposed of?
We need to show the world that we do not condone what happened. Imagine these things happening to your child or grandchild. It is time to stand up and say NO. Say that we no longer support an organisation that to this day continue to treat children and mothers so badly. (Child sex abuse, influencing abortion law and marriage equality to mention but a few)
It is difficult to break from tradition but it is high time to create new traditions. Get married on a beach, in a castle, in a forest. Surround yourself with people you love and imagine your own rituals. We are no longer slaves to the church, and we need to let the world know that. Believe what you want, talk to loved ones in the sky if it gives you peace, but walk away from the men on earth who use the power of the church to perpetrate such unimaginable evil. We do not need the church to tell us right from wrong. They have proven time and time again that they are not on the side of good.
Listen to your heart and realise that you don’t need their piece of paper to validate your life choices. And realise, that piece of paper comes with a great price, the lives of innocent babies. Do you still want to be a part of that?
I hope that the broken mother hearts who are still living get the chance to learn the truth of what happened to their babies, to know if they are alive or dead, to maybe even meet their grandchildren and cherish them in the way they would have cherished their own children given the chance.
- The true story of a little girl who ran away in 1960s Ireland by Donal O’Keeffe
- ‘You became so frightened eventually you toed the line‘ by Claire O’Sullivan
- If you don’t approve of the church then don’t take part in its rituals by Donald Clarke
- Report into the History of Adoption in Ireland Since 1922 by Adoption Rights Now!
- Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves by Emer O’Toole
- Mother and baby scandal hidden in plain sight by Conall Ó Fátharta
- Midwife’s memoir reveals the horror of Bessborough by Claire O’Sullivan
- ‘We can offer a better class of baby with a good background‘: The 1961 letter from nuns to adoptive parents By Alison O’Reilly