Mother and baby homes: it ‘may be impossible’ to identify all remains

Oireachtas committee hears proposed Bill is ‘full of ambiguity’ and ‘ripe for interference’

The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/ PA Wire

The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/ PA Wire

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The identification of remains buried at mother and baby homes will be “particularly difficult” and it cannot be assumed that all of the individuals buried in these locations will be identified, an Oireachtas committee heard on Wednesday.

The committee on children and equality is examining a Bill to legislate for the examination and possible exhumation of mass graves at mother and baby homes, such as at Tuam in Co Galway and Bessborough in Co Cork.

Dr Niamh McCullagh, the consultant forensic archaeologist who led the forensic investigation team on behalf of the Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation at a number of locations, said the sites would prove challenging to manage.

“There is evidence here of some commingling of skeletal remains in the subsurface chambers,” she said. “This means the mixing of the remains of two or more individuals. The remains here are of infants and young juveniles.

“A full-term infant skeleton comprises over 300 bones, with the cranium alone consisting of 34 individual pieces of bone. It appears that many of these bones will have separated on skeletonisation and have mixed with others making individualisation, and subsequent identification particularly difficult.

“It cannot be assumed that all of the individuals buried here will be identified, whether through DNA or other identification processes.”

She added that the re-association of individual bones to one set of remains “will create challenges for identification and reburial”.

“Every effort should be made to re-associate bones to an individual prior to DNA,” she said. “This will be a significant investment of time and expertise and may not be completely successful in every case.

“We must bear in mind that we have a duty of care to all of the remains interred, not just those we can identify. The Bill does not address the post-mortem management of remains prior to identification nor does it address what will happen to remains that cannot be identified.”

Personal story

The committee also heard from Anna Corrigan, spokeswoman of the Tuam Babies Family Group, whose mother entered the home.

“My mother, Bridget Dolan, was forced to enter the home, and my two brothers, who I didn’t know even existed until relatively recently, were born in that home,” she said. “One of my brothers is recorded as having died in Tuam, the whereabouts of my second brother still remains, to this day, unknown.”

She said it was “essential that there be no further prevarication, no further procrastination, and no further obfuscation of the truth and that which occurred at Tuam, and, for that matter, every other mother and baby home across the country”.

She added that the legislation must not be used as “an opportunity for the grass to remain undisturbed on that which happened in the past, and it ought not be used as a tool to continue the opacity over this period in Irish history”.

Later, barrister Carl Buckley was critical of the legislation, and called for it be abandoned in favour of granting greater powers to coroners.

“The biggest problem with this legislation is that it is entirely full of ambiguity,” he said. “It needs so much more certainty. It isn’t victim-centric whatsoever.

“There is a very real risk that the numerous loopholes within the legislation can be exercised in favour of those other than victims. There is a distinct sense that it is ripe for political interference.”