Confirmation that the remains of a significant number of babies and infants up to three years of age, probably in their hundreds, have been found on the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, has prompted profound upset.
It follows an investigation by the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes which carried out planned excavations there in 2015. The commission’s admission that it was “shocked” by the scale of the discovery reflects the disturbing circumstances of what has the hallmarks of inhuman burial.
Test trenches were dug revealing two large structures. The fact that one structure appears to be a sewage containment system or septic tank that had been decommissioned and filled with rubble adds to the distress of those trying to come to terms with this dark episode. The second connected structure is divided into 20 chambers; 17 of which contained remains.
These related to individuals with age-at-death ranges from approximately 35 foetal weeks to two to three years. Radiocarbon testing suggests they date from the timeframe relevant to the operation of the home, from 1925 to 1961. This was not (as suggested by some) a Famine grave from the mid 19th century when mass burial became the norm in desperate times.
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone has acknowledged the "very sad and disturbing" but not unexpected news. Her department has brought together key departments and agencies to seek greater accountability. The Commission is also correctly focusing on postmortem practices and procedures, and reporting and burial arrangements for residents of mother and baby homes. Unacceptably high mortality rates in these homes tells its own story of poor care.
There is a collective responsibility for an inhuman regime conducted for decades in secrecy behind high walls and not talked about by a submissive society. Culpability lies with the State; the Catholic Church, notably the Sisters of the Bon Secours order which ran the institution and at one point denied the existence of a mass grave, and those in the wider community who facilitated burials in such an undignified manner.
There is every likelihood of many more locations where the marginalised were buried in similar circumstances; not just from mother and baby homes and county homes but also Magdalene laundries, orphanages, industrial schools and workhouses.
The Commission is tasked with investigating allegations of abuse at 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes between 1922 and 1998. Given what its work has exposed in Tuam, with the considerable help of local historian Catherine Corless and backed by the testimony of relatives of those who lived in the home and some who lived nearby, the limitation of its remit suggests it will only provide a summary of our dark history.