Tuam mother and baby home: the trouble with the septic tank story

Catherine Corless’s research revealed that 796 children died at St Mary’s. She now says the nature of their burial has been widely misrepresented

'I never used that word 'dumped'," Catherine Corless, a local historian in Co Galway, tells The Irish Times. "I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words."

The story that emerged from her work was reported this week in dramatic headlines around the world.

"Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway's mass graves" – The Guardian.

"Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers" – The Washington Post.


“Nearly 800 dead babies found in septic tank in Ireland” – Al Jazeera.

"800 skeletons of babies found inside tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers" – New York Daily News.

“Almost 800 ‘forgotten’ Irish children dumped in septic tank mass grave at Catholic home” – ABC News, Australia.

Corless, who lives outside Tuam, has been working for several years on records associated with the former St Mary’s mother-and-baby home in the town. Her research has revealed that 796 children, most of them infants, died between 1925 and 1961, the 36 years that the home, run by Bon Secours, existed.

Between 2011 and 2013 Corless paid €4 each time to get the children’s publicly available death certificates. She says the total cost was €3,184. “If I didn’t do it, nobody else would have done it. I had them all by last September.”

The children's names, ages, places of birth and causes of death were recorded. The average number of deaths over the 36-year period was just over 22 a year. The information recorded on these State- issued certificates has been seen by The Irish Times; the children are marked as having died variously of tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis, among other illnesses.

The deaths of these 796 children are not in doubt. Their numbers are a stark reflection of a period in Ireland when infant mortality in general was very much higher than today, particularly in institutions, where infection spread rapidly. At times during those 36 years the Tuam home housed more than 200 children and 100 mothers, plus those who worked there, according to records Corless has found.

What has upset, confused and dismayed her in recent days is the speculative nature of much of the reporting around the story, particularly about what happened to the children after they died. “I never used that word ‘dumped’,” she says again, with distress. “I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own.”

In 2012 Corless published an article entitled "The Home" in the annual Journal of the Old Tuam Society. By then she had discovered that the 796 children had died while at St Mary's, although she did not yet have all of their death certificates.

She also discovered that there were no burial records for the children and that they had not been interred in any of the local public cemeteries. In her article she concludes that many of the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of the former home. This small grassy space has been attended for decades by local people, who have planted roses and other flowers there, and put up a grotto in one corner.

In light of Corless’s article a Children’s Home Graveyard committee was established last year. In recent months its secretary, Teresa Killeen Kelly, addressed the congregation after Mass at Tuam Cathedral, explaining the work of the committee and asking for donations towards a plaque. Copies of Corless’s article were handed out.

As John Lowe, another member of the committee, explained this week at the site of the former home, the group’s aim is to raise €15,000 for a plaque with all the names of the children on it. So far they have raised €7,000, and €2,000 has been paid for initial drawings of the plaque.

In 1840 a workhouse was built on a site off what is now Dublin Road. When the workhouse closed, the building was taken over, and from 1925 until 1961 it was used as the mother-and-baby home. After that it lay derelict for several years, until it was demolished and a new housing estate and playground built in its place. In the years that it was falling into disrepair, the large building and surrounding land became a natural magnet for curious local children.

Corless writes in her article about hearing of boys who “came upon a sort of crypt in the ground, and on peering in they saw several small skulls. I’m told they ran for their lives and relayed their find to their parents.”

On St Patrick's Day this year Barry Sweeney was drinking in Brownes bar, on the Square in Tuam. He fell into conversation with someone who was familiar with Corless's research, and who repeated the story of boys finding bones. "I told her that I was one of those boys," Sweeney tells The Irish Times in his home, on the outskirts of Tuam. "I got a phonecall from Catherine a couple of weeks later."

Sweeney was 10 in 1975, and the friend he was with on that day, Frannie Hopkins, was 12. They dropped down from the two-and-a-half-metre boundary wall as usual, into the part of the former grounds that Corless and local people believe is the unofficial burial place for those who died in the home. “We used to be in there playing regular. There was always this slab of concrete there,” he says.

In his kitchen, Sweeney demonstrates the size of this concrete flag as he recalls it: it’s an area a little bigger than his coffee table, about 120cm long and 60cm wide. He says he does not recall seeing any other similar flags in their many visits to the area.

Between them the boys levered up the slab. “There were skeletons thrown in there. They were all this way and that way. They weren’t wrapped in anything, and there were no coffins,” he says. “But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that.” How many skeletons does he believe there were? “About 20.”

When Corless was researching the home she looked at old maps of Tuam. One was an 1840 Ordnance Survey map that shows the then workhouse. At the rear of the site is a space she believes to be the sewage tank for the workhouse, although it is not labelled as such. Later maps have “sewage tank” written in the same space.

But there is confusion about what dates these maps relate to. One map Corless shows The Irish Times is dated 1892. It describes the building on the site as "Children's Home", but in 1892 the building was a workhouse. It did not become a home until 1925. Corless had not noticed this until her attention was drawn to it.

She is sure that a sewage tank operated on the site in the early part of the 20th century because minutes of the workhouse's board meetings published at the time by the Tuam Herald report problems of overflowing.

Would it have taken up the entire space of what is now known as the unofficial graveyard for the babies who died at the home? “No,” she says. “Maybe a third of the area.” She believes that what Sweeney and Hopkins found was the former sewage tank, which she had previously referred to in her article as a crypt. It seems this is where the story of “800 skeletons dumped in a septic tank” has subsequently come from.

Even if a number of children are indeed interred in what was once a sewage tank, horrific as that thought is, there cannot be 796 of them. The public water scheme came to Tuam in 1937. Between 1925, when the home opened, and 1937 the tank remained in use. During that period 204 children died at the home. Corless admits that it now seems impossible to her that more than 200 bodies could have been put in a working sewage tank.

Corless has not been contacted by anyone from any State department, asking to have access to her research. Nor has her work been corroborated by anyone else. “I would definitely be willing to share my research,” she says.

In response to Corless's story, Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan confirmed this week that there will be a Government inquiry into all mother-and-baby homes.

Corless has proved that 796 children died while at St Mary’s in Tuam – a shameful statistic that would not have been known without her years of dedicated work. It seems clear that at least some of these children lie in the small plot of land at the back of the Dublin Road housing estate. Excavation might be the only way to be sure. “Our intention in setting up this committee was not excavation,” she says, “but I would welcome the truth.”


Since this article was published, Adrienne Corless, daughter of Catherine Corless, has written a post on her blog (http://kettleontherange.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/an-international-publicity-frenzy-and-my-mother/) saying that Rosita Boland's article misquoted her mother. Rosita Boland wrote to Ms Corless on July 4th pointing out that she had quoted her mother correctly and offering audio proof. For the information of readers, this is the letter sent by Rosita Boland to Ms Corless.

Conor Goodman, Irish Times Features Editor


4 July 2014

Features Department, The Irish Times, 24-28 Tara Street, Dublin 2

Dear Ms Corless,

As you know, I interviewed your mother, Catherine Corless, on June 5th at her home in Tuam. I also spoke to her by phone twice more later that same day.

Your mother has done an amazing public service by bringing international attention to the deaths of 796 children in the former Tuam Mother and Baby Home. The inquiry that has been subsequently ordered is all down to her tireless, unselfish and admirable work over many years.

I have read your recent blog post, “An international publicity frenzy and my mother.”

After reading it, my colleague Eoin McVey this week phoned your mother to ask if she wished to issue a complaint about my article. I also phoned her, and invited her to do the same. On Thursday, 3 July, she left a message on my mobile phone saying “I won’t be making a complaint.”

I must point out to you that there are a number of inaccuracies in your blog post, and I hope that this letter will explain clearly why they are inaccuracies.

Your mother did in fact say to me on June 5th that it "seemed impossible" that 204 bodies of the children registered as having died between 1925 and 1937, could have been put in a working sewage tank. However, you maintain in your blog that "this is false."

This is the timeline of my reporting, which I hope you find useful, since you were not present at any of the interviews I conducted with your mother. My colleague Bryan O’Brien and I arrived at 9.30am, and he set up the video. I am aware that there is some confusion about the video footage appearing to contradict my written report, specifically of your mother saying “I think it’s quite possible” that 796 bodies could be in the sewage tank. She said that, as was recorded on video, in the morning, when I interviewed her in person at her home.

Before leaving her home that morning, I took your mother’s mobile number, as I explained I would need to call her later to check a few things, before I filed my story.

I called her about 5pm, and asked if she would check the number of deaths registered between 1925 and 1937. She phoned me back some minutes later, and told me it was 204.

I had carefully read and reread her article, The Home, which was first published in the Journal of the Old Tuam Society. In it, your mother states "the new sewage and drainage scheme was brought into Tuam in late 1930." Your mother had earlier qualified that date as being 1937.

We then had a conversation about the fact the sewage tank was clearly still in use at the Home until the arrival of the new public water system. It was then that your mother stated to me on the phone that given the tank was in operation between 1925 and 1937, it thus now “seemed impossible” to her that bodies would have been put in a working tank during those years.

I put it to her that it could not then be the case that all 796 bodies could be in the tank, as other media outlets were reporting. She agreed. I have my notes of that phonecall. She also thanked me for taking the trouble to call her to check the facts with her. It is incorrect of you to describe my reporting on this as “false.” My written report was based on all the interviews I conducted with her that day, not just the one at her home.

I also have an audio recording of the interview I conducted with your mother in her home that morning. You write about “confusion” with maps. I have read the transcript of that part of the interview down the phone to your mother and it does indicate some confusion about the date of the map she showed me. Your mother did not clarify anything about this map to me while in my presence

I would be happy to forward you an audio clip of the interview.

It is clear from the interview that the particular map I was being shown was dated 1892, yet had “Children’s Home” marked on the building. As the Children’s Home did not exist as such until 1925, this is why I reported the “confusion” about this map. As I said already, your mother did not clarify anything to me about this map, either during the 36 minute interview I conducted with her that morning, and which I have the recording of, or later, in either of our two subsequent phonecalls that day, of which I have notes. It is incorrect of you to suggest otherwise in your blog post.

As to how other international media outlets responded to my reporting of the story, I have no control over how any other media organisation interprets a story carried elsewhere. This includes the Associated Press and Forbes, which you mention in your blog post.

My reputation as a journalist has been damaged as a result of public accusations of inaccuracies in my reporting. I stand over every aspect of my reporting, as do The Irish Times.

What we have in common is that we wish the record to be set straight re the incredibly important work your mother has done, and I hope this letter has done this for you.

I would much appreciate it if you would review your blog as my article is an accurate representation of my interviews with your mother.

Yours sincerely,

Rosita Boland