The Disappeared – Call for International Investigation

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday June 18 2014


In Ireland, an alliance of mother- and-baby home survivors has called for a full statutory inquiry chaired by an international judicial figure. A wide coalition of groups representing former residents, came together to highlight the injustices affecting them. The Adoption Rights Alliance highlighted the fact that those adopted have no right under law to access their own records. They called for legislation to allow adoptees access to their birth information and biological family health history, as is the norm in other EU countries.

Last week, I wrote about the story of an alleged mass grave in Tuam, County Galway in the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Mail on Sunday was published the story and the Irish American website Irish Central gave it a further push.

This week, I examine further developments.

Ruth Dudley Edwards is a distinguished Irish historian. She also writes entertaining and literate crime novels and is a tireless blogger. She has written many columns for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and the Irish Independent. She commented on Facebook: “My professional trade is that of historian. I think we should suspend judgement until we know what happened.” This was in response to an article in the Irish Times. Catherine Corless, the local historian, whose research was the basis for the Mail story, told Rosita Boland: “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.”

Arch-contrarian ,Brendan O’Neill , addressed the topic on the Spiked website. The mission of Spiked is to challenge received wisdom. O’Neill scolded: “Courtesy of a modern media that seems more interested in titillating readers …than giving us cool facts, and thanks to a Twittermob constantly on the hunt for things it might feel ostentatiously outraged by, the story about babies being dumped in an old, out-of-use septic tank by nuns at a home for ‘fallen women’ in Tuam in Galway made waves in every corner of the globe.”

Despite his over-heated prose, O’Neill makes some good points. I myself have drawn attention to the way western media distort facts when dealing with Sri Lanka. No UK journalist can write about Sri Lanka, even about holidays or cricket, without the mantra of “40,000 civilians killed”. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story is passed around and is treated as legal currency. BBC journalist Waseem Zakir coined the neologism “churnalism”: “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

I responded to Ruth on Facebook: “I suppose that Mrs Corless is finding that if you sup with the Mail you need a long spoon. … The constant mantra of “800 babies dumped in mass grave” by Irish Central made me suspicious…”

Perhaps a proper investigation will clarify the “facts”. One thing is beyond doubt. The Irish State and the Irish Church would not have been interested had Mrs Corless not spent her own money comparing death certificates with burial records. Also beyond doubt is that many children died unnecessarily.

O’Neill writes: “Clearly this isn’t about news anymore; it isn’t a desire for facts or truth that elevated the crazed claims about Tuam up the agenda; rather, a mishmash of anti-Catholic prejudice, Irish self-hatred and the modern thirst for horror stories involving children turned Tuam into one of the worst reported stories of 2014 so far.”

Up to a point, Brendan. I cannot speak for anyone else, but my own views about the Catholic Church have nothing to do with prejudice or self-hatred. I was never sexually abused as a child and most of the priests I encountered were decent men. I was a good Catholic boy, playing as a toddler as a priest saying mass. In my early adolescence, I read a lot of Catholic literature. What made me lose the faith was the arrogance combined with ignorance that allowed the priesthood to tell me what to think about politics as well as theology. If I can pinpoint the moment when I lost it – my parish priest giving a sermon saying there was nothing wrong with apartheid because people should have the choice to live separately.

I feared that I might upset some of my Catholic friends with last week’s article. Here is how one commented: “As you noted, these mothers and children were meant to suffer to atone for their sins…as we all know, it takes only one instance of romance (or rape) to change forever a woman’s life with an unplanned ( or unwanted) pregnancy. Labelling a person’s life worthless due to the outcome of a few minutes time is too harsh, too judgmental, but oh so Catholic….”

An 85-year-old woman who survived the children’s home in Tuam has told of the miserable conditions at the home in 1932. She recalled that the children were “rarely washed”, and often wore the same clothes for weeks at a time. She said: ‘We were filthy dirty. I remember one time when I soiled myself, the nuns ducked me down into a big cold bath and I never liked nuns after that.’

Catherine Corless may not like being misquoted but she has not recanted this statement: “They were always segregated to the side of regular classrooms. By doing this, the nuns telegraphed the message that they were different and that we should keep away from them. They didn’t suggest we be nice to them. In fact, if you acted up in class some nuns would threaten to seat you next to the Home Babies. That was the message we got in our young years”.

The son of a widower, who lived in the Tuam house for many years when his father worked at the home, recalls no brutality and can remember gifts brought to him by Santa Claus. The nuns did not lack the training or knowledge of how to care for children; they deliberately chose to ignore the humanity of the “illegitimate” children in their care, which Irish society, Church and State collectively, despised.

Eoin O’Sullivan, associate professor at Trinity College Dublin, is co-author of the 2001 book Suffer the Little Children: the inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools. He said that the practice of mass burial, often with just one headstone marking the site, was not uncommon in many mother and baby homes and psychiatric hospitals at the time. “Remember that the children went in there so the families could conceal their shame, and the kids were often adopted. The nuns were not going around grabbing pregnant women; the women were taken there by their families who knew what conditions were like.”

Whatever about the sensationalism of the Mail and Irish Central the salient issue was always the deaths of these children. The Mail article quotes from a Health Board report of 1944, which paints a gruesome picture of horrific conditions at the home in Tuam. June Goulding, a midwife who worked at the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork for a year from 1951, describes in her 1998 book The Light in the Window how women were not allowed pain relief during labour or stitches after birth, and when they developed abscesses from breast-feeding they were denied penicillin. Survivors from these homes report mothers and children being denied medication and mothers getting septicaemia from dirty needles.

Dr. James Feeney, the health board’s Chief Medical Officer, visited Bessborough in 1951 to investigate the horrific death rate in the home, where 100 out of 180 babies born had died. “Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up. There was obviously a staphylococcus infection about. Without any legal authority, I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer. The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing.”

Is it sensationalism or scapegoating of the church to be concerned if there are suspicions that children may have died due to a deliberately low standard of care? Defenders of the church cannot claim that the press is sensationalising the stuff of nightmares when there is plenty of evidence that nightmares were real.

Many of the commenters on Irish Central are angry about the Church being attacked. Some say the Irish people are to blame. Maybe so, but did the church not create the mentality that stigmatised unwed mothers? The Church was allowed to run a totalitarian system. If you did not submit, you would be ostracised. Family as well as parish and state policed the system.

There is a chain message doing the rounds. “Our goal is to reach ten million Hail Marys for Pope Francis. This campaign started today. Send this message to all Catholic friends or even to those who dislike him. We pray for the Holy Father that the heavenly Mother intercedes for him and protects him in his ministry”.

The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, announced that Pope Francis would be visiting Sri Lanka next year from January 13-15. In February, Pope Francis received members of the Sri Lankan community at the Vatican following a mass held by the Archbishop of Colombo. He said to them, “I thank Cardinal Ranjith for the invitation to visit Sri Lanka. I welcome this invitation and I think the Lord will give us grace.” We might expect His Holiness to bring a message of reconciliation to us so that we can heal the wounds of our long conflict.

Will he call for an international inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka?