by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on Wednesday June 11 2014
Last week there was news of the discovery of another mass grave. Amnesty International described “torture” and “inhuman and degrading” treatment by a dysfunctional system. There is no need to speculate about whether the LTTE, JVP or GOSL/SLA were responsible. This was not some deranged serial killer like Fred West. This grave was in Holy Ireland, Land of Saints and Scholars, the country from which monks journeyed to take Christianity to the rest of the world. The perpetrators here were not Tamil separatists, Muslim extremists, or Marxist revolutionaries. The culprits here were Catholic nuns.
The Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours is a Roman Catholic religious congregation for nursing whose stated object is to care for patients from all socio-economic groups. The congregation’s motto is “Good Help to Those in Need.” The congregation’s foundress, Josephine Potel, was born in 1799 in the small rural village of Becordel, France. In 1861, Ireland – which was still suffering the consequences of the Potato Famine – became the Sisters’ first foreign foundation. The Bon Secours Sisters ran the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway. The home has hit the international headlines following allegations that the bodies of up to 800 children were dumped in a septic tank.
The grave was discovered in 1975 by 12-year-old friends, Barry Sweeney and Francis Hopkins. Mr Sweeney said: “’It was a concrete slab and we used to play there but there was always something hollow underneath it so we decided to bust it open and it was full to the brim of skeletons. The priest came over and blessed it. I don’t know what they did with it after that. You could see all the skulls.” Local people believed the remains were mostly victims of the famine. Respectful of the unmarked grave, residents have kept the grass trimmed and built a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Research done by local historian Catherine Corless gave rise to the current scandal. With the help of the Births and Deaths Registrar in Galway, Mrs Corless researched all children whose place of death was marked “Children’s Home, Tuam”. Galway County Council has all the cemetery books for Mayo and Galway, and with the help of the archivist there, Mrs Corless crosschecked the grave records. Only one child from the Home was buried in a cemetery. Her conclusion, that the unmarked grave contains the remains of 796 children, was published by the Irish Mail on Sunday and has been taken up all over the world.
The home was operational from 1925 to 1961. Infant mortality in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s was 70 per 1,000 or seven per cent, as high as countries in sub-Saharan Africa today. The child mortality at the Home in Tuam reportedly averaged nearly two a week during certain periods. They died of malnutrition, neglect, and disease, 300 dying in one three-year span primarily of contagious diseases. Causes of death listed included “malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia. A 1944 local health board report described the children living at St Mary’s as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” and with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” In April that year, 271 children were listed as living there with 61 single mothers, The total of 333 was way over its capacity of 243.
One 13-month-old boy was described as a “miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions and probably mentally defective”. In the same room was a “delicate” ten-month-old baby who was a “child of itinerants”, while one five-year-old child was described as having ‘hands growing near shoulders’. Another 31 infants in the same room were as “poor babies, emaciated and not thriving”.
Suspicions arise in relation to at least three other large mother-and-baby homes, where mortality rates topped 56%, when the national average for legitimate children only reached 15%. Ireland’s first mother and baby home, at Bessborough, in Cork, had an infant mortality rate of around 82 percent. In the space of one year, some 57% of the deaths Bessborough were due to malnutrition. Mass graves have also been found at Castlepollard and Roscrea. The Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home, portrayed in the award winning film Philomena, opened in Roscrea, County Tipperary in 1930. In its first year of operation, 60 babies died out of a total of 120, a fifty percent infant mortality rate.
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland would like to distance itself from this. Ireland already has published four major investigations into child abuse and its cover-up in Catholic parishes and a network of children’s industrial schools, the last of which closed in the 1990s. Church leaders in Galway said they had no idea so many children who died at the orphanage had been buried there. The Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, said that the diocese had no part in running the home. A spokesman for the Archbishop said: “… this isn’t a diocesan matter. …There is nothing in our archives about this. The home closed in 1961 and all the records were handed over to the county council and the health board, I understand.”
Some say the Church is a scapegoat. Priests and nuns did not exist in isolation, they were Irish citizens handed power by the Irish people who thought and acted like them. “This should be Ireland on trial here, the state and its people, instead they’re being let off the hook and it’s all entirely the fault of the Church.” Maybe so, but did the church not create the mentality that stigmatised unwed mothers? Incidentally, reports show that 219 “illegitimate” infants died in the Protestant Bethany home in Rathgar, County Dublin between 1922 and 1949. Statistics show a quarter of all babies born outside marriage in the 1930’s in Ireland died before their first birthdays.
Dr Conn Ward, who was parliamentary secretary to the minister for local government and public health, said in 1934. “The illegitimate child being proof of the mother’s shame is, in most cases, sought to be hidden at all costs. What frequently happens is that … arrangements are often made, or connived at, by those who carry on the poorer class of maternity homes, and the results to the child can be read in the mortality rates. If a lump sum is paid or if the periodical payment lapses, the child becomes an encumbrance on the foster mother, who has no interest in keeping it alive.”
The Church operated as a quasi social service in the 20th century. There was simply no question of the birth mothers keeping their children. The punishment of the mothers was to work without wages for two or three years in atonement for their sins. In the homes, they wore uniforms at all times, they had their names changed and they had their letters censored. As Philomena shows, many of the children who survived were later forcibly adopted, most often to the USA. Between 1945 and 1965 more than 2,200 Irish infants were forcibly adopted, an average of 110 children every year, or more than two a week. The Church profited handsomely from the forced adoptions they transacted, which saw 97% of all illegitimate children taken for adoption in 1967.
Church officials have consistently denied that they ever received payments for these adoptions, insisting many of the papers and documents from that period were lost in a fire. The operators of these homes, were by and large congregations of female religious orders invited to Ireland by local archbishops (as was the case for the Bon Secours order of nuns who ran the home in Tuam), by the primate of Ireland, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, or by the Irish State itself to deal with the problem of unmarried mothers. The nuns tendered for the business of running these homes and received very generous government funding, equivalent to the average industrial wage, for each mother and child in their so-called care.
Critics contend that the ongoing reluctance of Irish religious orders to hand over their internal records or compensate past victims of mothers and babies homes, Magdalene laundries and reform schools, can be traced to their alarm over being compelled to offer mandatory payments or fear that further horrors could come to light.
These crimes were happening at the dawn of the Irish state. The oppression of the British Empire had been thrown off. From then on, the Irish people, particularly the most vulnerable, were oppressed by the dark and sinister power of the misogynistic Church.