John Waters attacks media ‘hoax’ over Tuam scandal

Writer criticises the use of ‘Holocaust’ to describe mother-and-baby home deaths

Writer and commentator John Waters has told an audience in the United States that he doesn't object to the work of Galway-based historian Catherine Corless or the story of the children of the Tuam mother-and-baby home.

However, he said he did object to how some media outlets in Ireland and internationally had reported the story, calling their journalism a "hoax".

Speaking on Saturday at the University of Notre Dame, Waters denounced the use of the word “Holocaust” in relation to the deaths of children at the mother-and-baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.

“Of course there’s a story of Ireland, of these women and of these children. It’s just not a story of slaughter and murder. That’s my point,” he said.


About 200 people gathered to hear Waters give one of the presentations at the 18th annual Fall Conference of the university’s Centre for Ethics and Culture. The title of his talk was “When Evil Becomes Virtual: Cyberspace, Failing Media, and the Hoax of the ‘Holocaust of Tuam’”.

Waters claimed the story would not have received as much attention if media outlets had not claimed skeletons were found in a septic tank.

“I want to stop this story from doing the rounds as it has been doing,” he said.

Criticising media reporting of the Tuam story, he said the hoax “resides on the word ‘journalism’, which used to be associated with truth and facts and has now become a byword for the poisonous propaganda”.

Referring to commentary in some media in the lead-up to his lecture, he said: “In a certain sense my thesis has already been proven by the behaviour of the media over the last 48 hours.”

He said he had intended to speak about “how the media had taken and twisted this story that began with the work of a local historian in Tuam, Co Galway, in my country Ireland, concerning events that occurred in the local children’s home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961 and put around the world a story that a Holocaust had occurred in Tuam”.

‘Exceptionally hurtful’

Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development Ciarán Cannon was among those who criticised the nature of Waters’s talk in advance, saying last Friday that the use of the word “hoax” in the title was “exceptionally hurtful to the survivors” of the home.

Addressing the audience on Saturday, Waters said at least two newspapers had used the word “Holocaust” while reporting on the deaths. He said this was not merited because what happened in Tuam was not murder, driven by hatred or done to eliminate a class of people.

“There was no Holocaust in Tuam. Nothing happened in Tuam that remotely invites the description Holocaust. There was no mass murder. There is no evidence of a single murder. No section of the population of people was targeted by another or by anyone for the purposes of extermination,” he said.

“No criminal acts are known to have been perpetrated. Nothing resembling a slaughter took place. There is no evidence that a single human being was killed either unlawfully or otherwise.”

Waters said he had no criticism of the work of Ms Corless, whose research unearthed the story of the nearly 800 death certificates of children at the home.

“As far as I can see, she’s a very diligent, capable, sincere and dedicated local historian who has done significant work in gathering together facts concerning the deaths of children in the Tuam children’s home,” he said.

He praised her work in discovering the identities of the children and writing down their names as “an important and admirable piece of work”. He said she had not claimed anyone was murdered in the Tuam home, nor had she used the words “slaughter” or “Holocaust”.

His issue was with the media, he said.

“The media have told a massive lie to the greater world in which the word Tuam is now a byword for the murder of children, for torture and genocide,” he said.

“The internet has spread a myth around the world about what happened in Tuam.

“I’d intended in this lecture to use the coverage of the story of Tuam children’s home to look at this aspect of the modern media to describe how the reckless and fact-deficient culture of the world wide web has come to infect the once great newspapers of Ireland and the world so that they have ceased to be reliable as conduits of fact and truth,” he said.

He cited other stories in the past three years, including the recent story in the New York Times on the Tuam children, as having inaccuracies and insinuations.

Catholic Church

He defended the Catholic Church in Ireland and the good people from it he had met in his life, including nuns, priests and brothers in the church.

He spent about half of his 40-minute lecture talking about the facts of the Tuam story, citing his own experience and research and that of Ms Corless.

“It has never been revealed that 796 babies were buried in the septic tank in Tuam,” he said.

Only a small quantity of bones, comprising about 20 bodies, has been found and they were not in a septic tank but in “a tunnel which was the equivalent of a crypt”.

He added: "Remember this: without the septic tank there would be no story. This story would have never gotten to the New York Times without the septic tank."

Waters said that while some had asserted that the mortality rate of the home was double the national average of the time, it was close to the contemporary rate in urban areas.

“Ireland was a grim place in those years, but it was not a grim place without cause,” he said.

He said children died at a higher rate in urban areas, and although Co Galway was more rural than Dublin, the conditions were similar to those of an urban setting, with tenement buildings and people living in close quarters, sharing sanitation and with no medication.

During a question and answer portion, Sara Maurer, a Notre Dame professor who teaches literature in the university's Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, challenged how pervasive the word "Holocaust" was in coverage of the Tuam story and asked whether Mr Waters – by provocatively titling his talk – was "not accidentally perpetuating" the view he was challenging.

Patrick Deneen, the David A Potenziani memorial associate professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame, who moderated the lecture, said its goal was education and a frank, but respectful, exchange of ideas.

“The history of the mother-and-baby home at Tuam is a source of great pain for many people both in Ireland and throughout the world. We recognise and share that pain,” he said.