Some weeks ago, more than 100 representatives of businesspeople and local county councillors attended Tuam’s “enterprise week world cafe” brainstorming session in Tuam to discuss the wonderful assets that our town has to offer. Our local newspaper reported on this think-in, and highlighted Tuam’s advantages of high-speed broadband, a new gas line, leisure and good sporting facilities, a new motorway, great socialising facilities, the list goes on.
However, added to the end of this report was the stinging remark that Tuam had just one disadvantage: its image – the home babies. If a picture paints a thousand words, then those three words give us a picture of the true nature of the inbred lingering mentality that still exists from a distant past in Tuam. It’s a collaborative process of deliberate denial that such an atrocity could ever happen on our own doorstep, so the consensus is to put it away, leave the lids on the sewage chambers, plant some flowers and place some relic on top of the home babies.
This has been my experience with those that I sought help from, when I asked for records from their archives, that is Galway County Council, the Bon Secours sisters, our archbishop, our local representatives, the gardaí, the Health Service Executive West. Nobody wanted to know, doors were shut, files had disappeared.
Commission of inquiry
But the media was interested, and through it my research was exposed, and led to a commission of inquiry into all mother-and-baby homes with a judge and a minister who both had the compassion and empathy with survivors to do the decent thing and have now exposed the raw truth of the Tuam home in the fifth interim report.
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone has pleaded with the people of Tuam who may have some recollection or knowledge of how and why the Tuam babies were buried in such an undignified and callous way to come forward with information, as it is not forthcoming from any of the local authorities, the religious, or from anyone who would have the means to give support.
In a statement to the media, Fianna Fáil councillor Donagh Killilea berated Ms Zappone for her suggestion that Tuam people were withholding information, and emphasised that his grandfather, the late TD Mark Killilea, who was on the county health board during the home’s existence, “was instrumental in getting the home closed down in 1961”.
We already knew that Mark Killilea was on the then Western Health Board visiting committee to the Tuam home, and that the committee frequently checked the Tuam home registers. It would be helpful if Cllr Killilea could elaborate on his statement. Where are the records from the HSE West from their visits to the home? Would they not have noted the extremely high death rates? Would they not have queried the burials? Also, why was Mark Killilea instrumental in closing down the Tuam home in 1961?
The Tuam Herald reports on the home for the period 1959-1961 give varying accounts of a plan for an extension which was recommended by the visiting committee, and was even sanctioned by the engineer. In a report from October 1960, Mark Killilea said: “The Tuam home was economic for the people it served and it was in better condition than similar Institutions elsewhere.”
Other reports include observations that “the conduct of the home had been unsatisfactory”. What happened to the plans for the extension? They seem to have just evaporated.
We need answers and clarification from those who hold the archives.
I believe that many local people must have some knowledge, or whispers of stories carried down the generations, besides the now-infamous memory of the sound of the home children’s hobnailed boots clattering down the pathways from the home to the Mercy and Presentation schools each morning.
Many people approach me to applaud my efforts, sometimes people remark on the callous treatment of the children, but always added at the end is “Don’t quote me on that.” It’s always in a whisper, and I can observe a little fear in their eyes that I may expose whatever little guilt, shame or other feeling about the home that they may be harbouring. But it’s only by opening up to the truth of what happened in the Tuam home that individual memories could be collated to draw a picture for the commission of inquiry, which is willing to listen in private.
Tuam could indeed be a great little town if its people could open up to the truth, deal with it and show some empathy to its most vulnerable: the home babies. That would indeed give Tuam a really good image.
Catherine Corless is a local historian whose research into the Bon Secours mother-and-baby home in Tuam lead to the establishment of a statutory commission of investigation