They were known as the “home babies”, and Kevin O’Dwyer says he can still hear the clatter of their hobnail boots on the way to primary school.
O'Dwyer, a retired school principal and longtime resident of Tuam, was reared on the old Athenry road close to the Bon Secours institution.
“We’d hear the boots on the road in the morning,” he says.
”They were always kept back so they wouldn’t arrive at school the same time as the rest of us. That also meant they got a slap for being late – every single day.”
“They had to wear uniforms when the rest of us didn’t, they were put into separate lines, they had a separate area in the playground, and we never even got to know their names,” he says.
“At age six or seven, they would be taken out and sent to foster homes or industrial school. There were no ‘home babies’ in any Holy Communion or Confirmation photos. They were looked upon as children of sin.
"One day when I was only about four, I was being bullied in the yard, and one of the 'babies', a buxom girl named Mary Curran, stepped out and told them to stop and leave me alone," O'Dwyer recalls.
“Every day after that, I played as close as I could to Mary Curran, because she was my saviour . . .”
O’Dwyer is among many children of the 1950s who grew up in the shadow of a church or State institution where high walls were built to conceal instances of horrific abuse.
“People knew about the home, maybe even knew about a graveyard, but never realised the full extent of what has now been found now,” O’Dwyer says. “There were individual kindnesses shown by families to those children that survived, and that is something that may be forgotten today.”
Bucketing rain, drowning town and county, captured the mood in Tuam yesterday morning, with no one having the heart to complain about the elements as reports confirmed how remains of infants up to three years old had been found.
“And it’s where they were found, in structures built for sewerage,” one resident who did not want to be named said. “If you were burying your dog, you’d find a nice tree in your garden.”
"Even the cillini or graveyards for unbaptised children reflect a community's efforts to show respect when the Catholic Church wouldn't," the resident continued. "But it is so horrific, and I think we need a lot more information now."
In the Town Hall, with its imposing clock tower, a handful of people arrived into a hastily convened meeting. Galway County Council community wardens had distributed 200 invitations earlier in the morning to houses in the Dublin road and Tubberjarlath estates, which were built on and around the former home after it closed in 1961.
The meeting was closed to the press, but the county council had issued a statement explaining that it was engaging with the estate residents, and would continue to do so “as they come to terms with the confirmation by the commission of investigation”.
“This is a difficult time for local residents, and the council requests that their right to privacy is respected,” the statement read. “The council recognises that there are varying views as to the most appropriate approach to the site in the future.”
Local historian Catherine Corless, whose tracing of records into the deaths of almost 800 children in the home led to the commission's excavations, was not at the meeting. Fielding phone calls throughout the day, she expressed a mixture of relief and sadness at the findings.
“It is an enormous relief to have the truth come out about what I knew,” she said. “I can only imagine what the survivors of those who died there must feel, and those who had family connections to the home. The Church and State owes them all an apology,” she said.
“ Minister Zappone phoned me this morning to brief me and she was very emotional – she said that she realised now that when she met me at the excavation site last year, we would have been standing on the top of burials,” Ms Corless said.
One of the home's survivors, Menlough farmer and Eircom employee P J Haverty, said his thoughts were with his late mother, Eileen.
“I was there for 6½ years before being fostered out, and my mother had spent 12 months there working as a slave for the Bon Secours order,” he said.
"For 5½ years afterwards she was in and out of the town on foot to the mother and babies home, begging for me to be returned to her . . . Eventually she went to England – which broke her heart – and I met her in Brixton in 2010 after my foster parents had passed away.
“I am so happy this is all now coming out in the open, and my three sons feel the same,” he said.
"Deeply traumatised" was how Fine Gael county councillor Peter Roche described the atmosphere at the Town Hall meeting, which he had attended. Notice had been short, and people had been offered the opportunity to be briefed at home, he explained.
“The north Galway coroner will be working very closely with the various agencies, and a decision will be taken on whether to leave the burial site untouched or to have bodies exhumed,” he said.
“There will be a lot of dialogue and consultation with every affected community first, as it is far too complex for any one institution to deal with in isolation.
“It’s like there is a huge death in the town today. It’s a calamity when you think of such large numbers, but people in Tuam and hinterland had a close attachment to the home,” he said.
“The children whose remains have now been found there were victims of a very dark time in Irish society.”