Galway historian Catherine Corless has called for a full investigation into the buildings and land around a former Sisters of Mercy orphanage before it is converted into a children's cultural hub by Galway City Council.
Former inmates of the orphanage, including musician Seamus Ruttledge, have separately appealed to Galway City Council to review its plans for the former orphanage at Lenaboy Castle and establish a national centre there for all survivors of religious institutions.
Ms Corless, whose research into death certificates for almost 800 infants and young children at the former Bon Secours mother and babies home in Tuam led to a State commission for investigation, said that it was imperative that archaeological work be conducted at Lenaboy Castle.
"We need to establish if children were buried there, though there is no graveyard," Ms Corless said. She told The Irish Times she had been contacted by three former inmates of the orphanage, two of them living abroad, who contended there had been infant fatalities.
One of the survivors told her that 10-year-old girls were placed to mind infants, and recounted to Ms Corless how she had witnessed one dead infant being “removed in a cardboard box”.
The mid-19th century castle on Taylor’s Hill road in Galway, which is a listed building, has been offered by the Sisters of Mercy to Galway City Council as part of the redress scheme for clerical child sex abuse claims.
The order, which first made the offer to the Department of Education as one of a number of properties, has also offered a sum of €750,000 to the city council for renovation and development of the building.
City manager Brendan McGrath has been in preliminary discussions with arts groups – including Baboro international festival for children, which opens this week – about converting it into a creative "hub" for young people.
Singer and songwriter Seamus Ruttledge, who spent the first seven years of his life in the orphanage, said he and other survivors of religious institutions had been disappointed to hear through the press of the transfer of the orphanage and grounds to Galway City Council.
“Survivors feel that they were totally disregarded and disrespected in all of this,” he said. “We are now seeking to have a say in the new proposed future of this former orphanage.”
“We are seeking to have a resource centre for survivors accommodated on the Lenaboy site to contribute to the new era of hope that may be about to be born at the former orphanage,” he said. This would incorporate contributing to its artistic future, he said.
The city council has said it is well aware of the building’s history, including the presence of a grotto on the grounds, and the significance to former residents. A spokesman said there would be further consultation as plans progress. It hopes to draw down European funding to cover refurbishment.
The castle, built in 1859, has had a chequered history, having been used by the Black and Tans, who are said to have tortured Fr Michael Griffin there before he was shot dead in November 1920 during the War of Independence. It was run as an orphanage for children born in the city's Magdalen laundry from 1925, and was latterly leased to the HSE for use as a social care centre for children and adolescents.
The Sisters of Mercy made several unsuccessful attempts to build a nursing home, and sheltered accommodation and residential units – with applications turned down on appeal to Bord Pleanála.
Ms Corless said that a report from an expert group set up by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone on the future of the former Tuam home site was still awaited, but she was confident that Ms Zappone was committed to dealing with the issue.
The expert group, which is separate to the State’s commission of inquiry into mother and babies homes, includes forensic archaeological expertise. It has been asked by Ms Zappone to determine whether a full excavation and potential identification is possible, following confirmation of “significant remains” by the commission earlier this year.