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THE IRISH CONFRONT A PAST TRAUMA

Ruins of a Nunnery on island of Iona, Scotland

Ruins of a Nunnery on island of Iona, Scotland

The rewarding part of writing a blog is when you read something that overwhelms you with emotion, you can share it with others.  The New York Sunday Times, October 29, 2017, published a Special Report on “The Lost Children of Tuam” (“Tuam” is pronounced “Chewn”). 

The following is a summary of this report.

Tuam is located in the ancient town of Galway; the name means “burial mound”.  A building known as the Children’s Home housed unwed mothers and babies and has a sordid history. Run by nuns, the Children’s Home opened in 1846 for victims of the famine and later became a workhouse for the poor. After it was abandoned in 1961, housing and a playground were built on top of the ruins.

This story is surprising because the Irish have a long tradition of honoring the dead. “Even today, the Irish say that ‘they do death well’”. The Catholic Church has a series of rituals for death. On All Souls Day, the dead are believed to return briefly to their loved ones. There is great reverence for gravesites.

The heroine of this story was a 6-year-old girl who went to Sisters of Mercy, a primary school. The ragged children from the Children’s Home also attended Mercy School.  They were called “the home babies” and were basically untouchables, having been born to unwed mothers.  The nuns at Mercy School would punish unruly children by making them sit at the back of the class with the emaciated “home babies”.  Catherine, at 6 years, joined the other children in taunting them. She gave one little girl wrapped paper that looked like gum, saw her pleasure and then the look of despair when she opened it and it was empty.  This memory haunted her until she was 63 years old when she decided to take a history course at a community college.  She was taught: “If you don’t find something, you don’t leave it.  You ask why it is not there.  You use ‘why’ a lot.”

Catherine was also haunted by her mother’s low self-esteem and unspoken sadness.  She was never given a satisfactory answer as to why this was the case. Already a grandmother and curious to learn the history of the Children’s Home, Catherine started to ask questions to church and state officials and studied public records.  There was no documentation of what went on in the halls of the Children’s Home run by the Bon Secours sisters. She then went to the local people who often whispered: “the poor babies”.  No more was said and she wondered if residents were still disdainful of unwed mothers and their babies.

Finally, a few neighbors said that a couple of boys were playing around the site. “Jumping into some overgrowth …they landed on a concrete slab that echoed in answer.  Curious, they pushed the slab aside the lid to reveal a shallow, tank-like space containing a gruesome jumble of skulls and bones…County workers soon arrived to level that corner of the property.  The police said they were only famine bones.  A priest said a prayer.  And that was that.”

Catherine put together a map of the property.  The old home’s septic system was exactly where the boys were playing and found the bones.  She searched historical documents for the names of babies who died in the Home. There were 200 death certificates. No matter how far she searched, she could not find their gravesites. This was curious since the babies were baptized and thus required and were entitled to a formal burial. In an essay for Tuam’s historical journal, Catherine wrote: “Is it possible that a large number of those little children were buried in that little plot at the rear of the former Home?...And if so, why is it not acknowledged as a proper cemetery?” 

“Her daring essay implicitly raised a provocative question: Had Catholic nuns, working in service of the state, buried the bodies of hundreds of children in the septic system?” She got no response to her essay. This indifference propelled her to dig deeper into all the deaths of illegitimate children in the Home during the 36 years of its existence; the number was 796.

As she became angrier, she felt a greater responsibility to “the poor little souls” crying out for recognition that they never received in their “little short lives.”  She wrote an article for the national newspaper: The Irish Mail’s Sunday edition. This time, she got the attention of the nation.  Many, however, dismissed her research because she was only a housewife.

A woman named Mary came forward and shared a story.  In 1975, a young woman who was living in the subsidized housing built on the site heard that on Halloween a boy was running around with a skull on a stick.  The boy said that he found it in the overgrown muck and there were loads more. “Mary and a couple of neighbors followed the boy through the weeds and rubble, across the soft wet ground. Suddenly, the earth beneath her feet began to give, and down she fell into some cave or tunnel, with just enough light to illuminate the subterranean scene. As far as she could see, were little bundles stacked one on top of another, like packets in a grocery, each about the size of a large soda bottle and wrapped tight in graying cloth,”

Mary asked around for anyone that could help her understand. A woman who worked in the home said: “Ah, yeah, that’s where the little babies is…Many a little one I carried out in the nighttime.”   Mary assumed the babies were stillborns and thus unbaptized.  The truth became shockingly clear when she gave birth to an infant and the infant was brought to her wrapped in the same manner and the same cloth that she saw in the septic tank.  Mary agreed to tell her story on national radio.

In response to Catherine’s research, the government formed the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes “to examine a once-accepted way of Irish life in all its social and historical complexity”.  From 1934 to 1953, the death rate at 18 institutions located throughout Ireland was about one death every two weeks, or 478 children.

The Magdalen Laundries forced unmarried mothers to give up their illegitimate children.  Catherine learned of one mother who lived and worked near the Home so that she could visit and claim her child; despite her vehement protests, her requests were always refused.

Survivors of the Home started to appear at Catherine’s house.  They told their stories and wanted to find out if they had siblings, dead or alive.  “They all have a kind of low self-esteem,” she said. ‘They feel inadequate.  They feel a bit inferior to other people. It mirrored, really, the way my mother was.”

One man told Catherine he thought he was an animal and dreamt that he had horns.  It was very real.  When he woke up, he kept feeling his head to make sure they weren’t there.

As the truth came out, the Church and State had to decide how to honor the dead.  “The government is grappling with many complexities, including the sad fact that the remains of infants and children…are co-mingled. One option is to leave everything as is.  Another is to disinter the remains for possible identification and proper burial.” Other options are compensation to survivors, suing the Bon Secours sisters who still run a vast health-care network, and/or removal of the playground.

The New York Times made a video to accompany this special report. It  shows an excerpt of a speech made by Enda Kenny, former Prime Minister of Ireland: “We took babies and we gifted them and sold them and we trafficked them and we starved them and we denied them to the point of their disappearance from our hearts and from our sights and from our country, and in the case of Tuam and possibly other places, from life itself.” 

One of the survivors on the video said soberly: “You cannot right wrongs but things need to be recognized for what they were like.”

REFERENCES

Barry, Dan, “The Lost Children of Tuam,” New York Times, Special Report, October 29, 2017.

Bracken, Kassie, “796 Irish Children Vanished.  Why?”, N.Y. Times Documentaries, 2017.

© 2017 Elaine Jean Cooper All Rights Reserved