Tuam mother and baby home: the trouble with the septic tank story

Catherine Corless’s research revealed that 796 children died at St Mary’s. She now says the nature of their burial has been widely misrepresented

Catherine Corless, the Tuam local historian who claims that there are nearly 800 babies buried in a grave site on land previously occupied by a Sisters of Bons Secours mother and baby home speaks to Rosita Boland. Video: Bryan O'Brien

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

‘I never used that word ‘dumped’,” Catherine Corless, a local historian in Co Galway, tells The Irish Times. “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.”

The story that emerged from her work was reported this week in dramatic headlines around the world.

“Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves” – The Guardian.

“Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” – The Washington Post.

“Nearly 800 dead babies found in septic tank in Ireland” – Al Jazeera.

“800 skeletons of babies found inside tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” – New York Daily News.

“Almost 800 ‘forgotten’ Irish children dumped in septic tank mass grave at Catholic home” – ABC News, Australia.

Corless, who lives outside Tuam, has been working for several years on records associated with the former St Mary’s mother-and-baby home in the town. 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, existed.

Between 2011 and 2013 Corless paid €4 each time to get the children’s publicly available death certificates. She says the total cost was €3,184. “If I didn’t do it, nobody else would have done it. I had them all by last September.”

The children’s names, ages, places of birth and causes of death were recorded. The average number of deaths over the 36-year period was just over 22 a year. The information recorded on these State- issued certificates has been seen by The Irish Times; the children are marked as having 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 very much higher than today, particularly in institutions, where infection spread rapidly. At times during those 36 years the Tuam home housed more than 200 children and 100 mothers, plus those who worked there, according to records Corless has found.

What has upset, confused and dismayed her in recent days is 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, with distress. “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.”

In 2012 Corless published an article entitled “The Home” in the annual Journal of the Old Tuam Society. By then she had discovered that the 796 children had died while at St Mary’s, although she did not yet have all of their death certificates.

She also discovered that there were no burial records for the children and that they had not been interred in any of the local public cemeteries. In her article she concludes 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.

In light of Corless’s article a Children’s Home Graveyard committee was established last year. In recent months its secretary, Teresa Killeen Kelly, addressed the congregation after Mass at Tuam Cathedral, explaining the work of the committee and asking for donations towards a plaque. Copies of Corless’s article were handed out.

As John Lowe, another member of the committee, explained this week at the site of the former home, the group’s aim is to raise €15,000 for a plaque with all the names of the children on it. So far they have raised €7,000, and €2,000 has been paid for initial drawings of the plaque.

In 1840 a workhouse was built on a site off what is now Dublin Road. When the workhouse closed, the building was taken over, and from 1925 until 1961 it was used as the mother-and-baby home. After that it lay derelict for several years, until it was demolished and a new housing estate and playground built in its place. In the years that it was falling into disrepair, the large building and surrounding land became a natural magnet for curious local children.

Corless writes in her article about hearing of boys who “came upon a sort of crypt in the ground, and on peering in they saw several small skulls. I’m told they ran for their lives and relayed their find to their parents.”

On St Patrick’s Day this year Barry Sweeney was drinking in Brownes bar, on the Square in Tuam. He fell into conversation with someone who was familiar with Corless’s research, and who repeated the story of boys finding bones. “I told her that I was one of those boys,” Sweeney tells The Irish Times in his home, on the outskirts of Tuam. “I got a phonecall from Catherine a couple of weeks later.”

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