Q&A: the Tuam babies and children who died

How the human remains were discovered in Co Galway and what will happen next

Engineers using ground-penetrating radar at the site of a mass grave of  children at the former Mother and Baby home in Tuam, Co Galway. Photograph from 2014: Aidan Crawley/EPA

Engineers using ground-penetrating radar at the site of a mass grave of children at the former Mother and Baby home in Tuam, Co Galway. Photograph from 2014: Aidan Crawley/EPA

 

What has been discovered in Tuam?

Last Friday, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes announced that “significant” quantities of human remains had been found buried under the site of a former institution for unmarried mothers run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours in Tuam, Co Galway. The remains belonged to children aged from about 35 foetal weeks to two to three years. The news was greeted with widespread revulsion. Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said it was “very sad and disturbing”, while the commission itself said it was shocked by its own discovery. On Sunday, Archbishop of Tuam Dr Michael Neary said he was “horrified and saddened” by the news.

What is the Commission of Investigation in to Mother and Baby Homes?

The commission, chaired by retired Circuit Court judge Yvonne Murphy, was set up in February 2015 after a Galway-based historian, Catherine Corless, published research that revealed death certificates for 796 children at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home with no indication of their burial places. The commission has been tasked with investigating 14 Mother and Baby Homes, as well as four so-called “County Homes”, that operated across the State at different times between 1922 to 1998. Under its broad terms of reference, the commission is looking at living conditions, care arrangements, infant mortality, burial arrangements, vaccine trials, illegal adoption, social attitudes and women’s pathways in and out of these institutions.

That’s a wide brief

The numbers are huge. It is estimated that at least 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in the 14 municipally funded Mother and Baby Homes run by religious orders in Ireland from the foundation of the State until the late 1990s. We know at least 796 infants died at Tuam, but other homes, such as Castlepollard in Co Westmeath, are thought to hold the remains of up to 3,200 babies.

What was found in Tuam?

Last Friday’s announcement follows an excavation of the Tuam site by archaeologists working for the commission. A stratigraphic survey in October 2015 identified a number of “sub-surface anomalies” that were considered worthy of further investigation, the commission said. These were further explored by a test excavation in November/December 2016 and in January/February this year.

Trenches dug by the commission revealed two large structures. According to the commission, one of these structures appears to be a large sewage containment system or septic tank that had been decommissioned and filled with rubble and debris and then covered with top soil. The second structure is long and divided into 20 chambers. “The commission has not yet determined what the purpose of this structure was but it appears to be related to the treatment/containment of sewage and/or waste water,” it said. “The commission has also not yet determined if it was ever used for this purpose.”

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In this second structure, “significant quantities” of human remains were found in at least 17 of the 20 underground chambers.

How many does ‘significant’ mean?

The commission has not yet given a number. Its work is continuing. We do know, thanks to Ms Corless’s research, that the General Registrar’s Office has records relating to the deaths of 796 children at the Tuam home during the 36 years in which it was open. The death certificates indicate the children died from a variety of natural causes. How many of these children’s remains may be buried on the site is still unknown.

When do the remains date from?

Radiocarbon dating suggests the remains date from the time in which the Mother and Baby Home operated (1925-1961). A number of the samples are likely to date from the 1950s, the commission says. Further scientific tests are being done.

Is the home still standing?

No. After it closed in 1961, the building – originally a workhouse built in famine times – lay derelict for several years, until it was demolished and a housing estate and playground built in its place. The site, owned by Galway County Council, also contains a memorial garden maintained by local residents. Ms Corless has called for further investigation of a green area and playground which she believes covered shallow graves.

How have the Bon Secours sisters reacted to the latest news?

The Bon Secours Sisters, the Catholic congregation that ran the Tuam institution, issued a statement on Friday saying it was “fully committed” to the work of the commission. “On the closing of the home in 1961, all the records for the home were returned to Galway County Council, who are the owners and occupiers of the lands of the home,” it stated. “We can therefore make no comment on today’s announcement, other than to confirm our continued cooperation with, and support for, the work of the commission in seeking the truth about the home.”

What will happen to the remains?

If there is reason to believe any deaths may have been violent or unnatural, it will be a matter for the North Galway Coroner and Garda Síochána to pursue. Separately, a decision will have to be taken on whether the remains should be reinterred elsewhere. Galway County Council plans to discuss the next steps with the commission, local residents and interested parties.

Could DNA testing be used to identify the remains?

That’s a possibility. If the authorities can extract DNA samples from the remains – a laborious process that could require the services of a specialist firm – it could assist people who believe their relatives may be buried at the site. Neither the commission nor the Government has said that the site will be fully excavated.

Will burial sites at other Mother and Baby homes be excavated?

On this, the Government points to the commission’s terms of reference, which require it to examine reporting of deaths and burial arrangements at 14 homes. The commission is due to report by February 2018, and Ms Zappone says she is satisfied it has “sufficient powers, expertise and resources” to do its work.