Kathy Sheridan: Tuam baby burials suggest an insidious agenda

Scandal disproves defence that the Catholic Church did wrong but was trying to do good

Anyone who enjoys ramble around old Irish cemeteries will recognise them. Fine edifices of marble and granite, rendering glory to the mortal remains of senior churchmen, trumpeting a temporal hierarchy even in death.

Meanwhile, stories of the despised unbaptised – stillborns and foetuses – denied a burial in sacred ground and destined for the loveless afterlife of limbo, lie deep in us still.

So, it is not just the disposal of foetal and infant remains in a disused waste facility that stuns the heart. It is the fact that a religious order buried even baptised children in unconsecrated ground – as it surely did, since a fifth of those identified in the death certificates were more than a year old.

Punch-drunk from stories of savagery in religious institutions, the one remaining excuse was that it was all about the twisted saving of souls. Tuam disproves that. Something else was afoot.


We know that many of the children who survived the mother and baby homes, ended up in the industrial schools, and that some of the mothers themselves ended up in the Magdalen laundries, all becoming, in effect, cogs in a vast interlocking system established by the Catholic Church.

The church, then, is the poisoned tree, begetter of a hapless society rendered toxic by the fanatical, near-fascistic control of the clerics. In which case, we can relax since the church is a beaten docket, its damage fading with the generations.

Shirk responsibility

Which only raises another question.

To what extent can whole populations shirk responsibility for the deeds of individuals, institutions and governments for whom they continued to vote, cheerlead and/or follow orders ?

In Suffer the Little Children, a 1999 book about Ireland's industrial schools written with Eoin O'Sullivan, the late Mary Raftery was clear: "There can be little doubt that few families in this country were not touched by it . . . How many families have suffered the guilt of wondering what happened to these children? The sheer scale of the system has in part resulted in the strange public silence on these institutions for most of this [20th] century.

“While there were some courageous expressions of concern and dissent, the general absence of questioning was profound. Yet the majority of these institutions were not hidden away in remote areas. They were situated in prominent locations in towns and cities all over Ireland”.

As long ago as 1941, an article in The Bell stated that in 1924 one in every three illegitimate children died within one year of birth, notes Michael Byrne, a Co Offaly historian. The mortality rate was said to be five times higher than for children of married parents. That was 20 years before the Tuam home closed its doors. So why was the incidence of infant mortality such a shock when research was published in 2014? Was it because the great burden of judgmental savagery comes to rest on the backs of terrified, vulnerable women and can therefore be minimised, denied, buried?

Awful plague

In 1935, while the Tuam babies were being swept away by disease and malnutrition, a criminal court judge noted “the awful plague of infanticide . . . overrunning the country at the present time”. Between 1922 and 1950, 183 women stood trial for the murder of a newborn.

Sometime after the second World War, as many pregnant Irish women began to blaze the lonely, anonymous trail to England, an alarmed archbishop of Dublin requested a report from the Department of Health.

Alice Litster, the inspector of boarded-out children, observed: “If she wishes to keep her baby, and rear it herself, the hand of Society is against her here. In England, she will be able to find employment in which she will be allowed to keep the child with her. This is no doubt mainly due to the scarcity of domestic workers. But – workers are scarce here too, and how many employers in Eire will take baby as well as mother?”

Only a fortnight before, Litster noted, three infants had been found abandoned in or near Dublin, one pushed up the chimney of the mother’s home. “These three hapless babies are not the only infant martyrs of convenience, respectability and fear. The church is perhaps waiting for the State to do something. The State is perhaps hoping that the church will do something.”

Both of these observations were excised from the final report, presumably for fear of offending the archbishop and his secular acolytes. But all this was undoubtedly known out there in “society”, where industrial schoolgirls who ended up in Irish domestic service worked nonstop for about a £1 a week.

Universally abandoned

“In their ignorance of sex, they often mistook physical contact with another person for the kindness and affection they had so lacked as children,” wrote Mary Raftery. “They were almost universally abandoned by the fathers of their children and often ended up back with the nuns.”

Ah, yes: the fathers. They get little mention in these dispatches. Yet each of those children had one. Where were they? Who were they? Knowing what we do now of the extent of sexual violence and child sex abuse – that the vast majority happens in the family – how many of those children were conceived of rape and incest?

On International Women’s Day, anyone looking for culprits should cast the net wide.