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

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

Sweeney was 10 in 1975, and the friend he was with on that day, Frannie Hopkins, was 12. They dropped down from the two-and-a-half-metre boundary wall as usual, into the part of the former grounds that Corless and local people believe is the unofficial burial place for those who died in the home. “We used to be in there playing regular. There was always this slab of concrete there,” he says.

In his kitchen, Sweeney demonstrates the size of this concrete flag as he recalls it: it’s an area a little bigger than his coffee table, about 120cm long and 60cm wide. He says he does not recall seeing any other similar flags in their many visits to the area.

Between them the boys levered up the slab. “There were skeletons thrown in there. They were all this way and that way. They weren’t wrapped in anything, and there were no coffins,” he says. “But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that.” How many skeletons does he believe there were? “About 20.”

When Corless was researching the home she looked at old maps of Tuam. One was an 1840 Ordnance Survey map that shows the then workhouse. At the rear of the site is a space she believes to be the sewage tank for the workhouse, although it is not labelled as such. Later maps have “sewage tank” written in the same space.

But there is confusion about what dates these maps relate to. One map Corless shows The Irish Times is dated 1892. It describes the building on the site as “Children’s Home”, but in 1892 the building was a workhouse. It did not become a home until 1925. Corless had not noticed this until her attention was drawn to it.

She is sure that a sewage tank operated on the site in the early part of the 20th century because minutes of the workhouse’s board meetings published at the time by the Tuam Herald report problems of overflowing.

Would it have taken up the entire space of what is now known as the unofficial graveyard for the babies who died at the home? “No,” she says. “Maybe a third of the area.” She believes that what Sweeney and Hopkins found was the former sewage tank, which she had previously referred to in her article as a crypt. It seems this is where the story of “800 skeletons dumped in a septic tank” has subsequently come from.

Even if a number of children are indeed interred in what was once a sewage tank, horrific as that thought is, there cannot be 796 of them. The public water scheme came to Tuam in 1937. Between 1925, when the home opened, and 1937 the tank remained in use. During that period 204 children died at the home. Corless admits that it now seems impossible to her that more than 200 bodies could have been put in a working sewage tank.

Corless has not been contacted by anyone from any State department, asking to have access to her research. Nor has her work been corroborated by anyone else. “I would definitely be willing to share my research,” she says.

In response to Corless’s story, Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan confirmed this week that there will be a Government inquiry into all mother-and-baby homes.

Corless has proved that 796 children died while at St Mary’s in Tuam – a shameful statistic that would not have been known without her years of dedicated work. It seems clear that at least some of these children lie in the small plot of land at the back of the Dublin Road housing estate. Excavation might be the only way to be sure. “Our intention in setting up this committee was not excavation,” she says, “but I would welcome the truth.”

EDITORIAL NOTE:

Since this article was published, Adrienne Corless, daughter of Catherine Corless, has written a post on her blog (http://kettleontherange.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/an-international-publicity-frenzy-and-my-mother/) saying that Rosita Boland’s article misquoted her mother. Rosita Boland wrote to Ms Corless on July 4th pointing out that she had quoted her mother correctly and offering audio proof. For the information of readers, this is the letter sent by Rosita Boland to Ms Corless.

Conor Goodman, Irish Times Features Editor

LETTER STARTS

4 July 2014

Features Department, The Irish Times, 24-28 Tara Street, Dublin 2

Dear Ms Corless,

As you know, I interviewed your mother, Catherine Corless, on June 5th at her home in Tuam. I also spoke to her by phone twice more later that same day.

Your mother has done an amazing public service by bringing international attention to the deaths of 796 children in the former Tuam Mother and Baby Home. The inquiry that has been subsequently ordered is all down to her tireless, unselfish and admirable work over many years.

I have read your recent blog post, “An international publicity frenzy and my mother.”

After reading it, my colleague Eoin McVey this week phoned your mother to ask if she wished to issue a complaint about my article. I also phoned her, and invited her to do the same. On Thursday, 3 July, she left a message on my mobile phone saying “I won’t be making a complaint.”

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