The Amateur Historian Who Uncovered Ireland’s Mass Grave of Babies
The dogged effort of a determined historian in a small Irish town uncovered one of the greatest tragedies in modern Irish history.
DUBLIN—On Friday morning, the Irish government’s minister for children made a shocking announcement.
Katherine Zappone stood in front of a hastily convened news conference in Dublin and confirmed a horrific, longstanding rumor that the bodies of several hundred babies and children had been illegally disposed of by an order of nuns in a sewage system hidden underneath a so-called ‘mother and baby’ home operated by the Bon Secours congregation of nuns – the name is French for “good help” and their motto is “Good Help to Those in Need”.
"Up to now we had rumors. Now we have confirmation that the remains are there, and that they date back to the time of the mother-and-baby home, which operated in Tuam from 1925 to 1961," Minister Zappone said, her voice at times seeming to break with emotion.
The minister’s statement came after a specially appointed commission published the results of test excavation at the site in Tuam, Co Galway, a patch of waste ground adjacent to a housing estate which was built after ‘the Home’, as it was known locally, was demolished.
The commission reported that two old septic tanks contained “remains” from “a number of individuals with age-at-death ranges from approximately 35 fetal weeks to 2-3 years.”
The commission pronounced itself ‘shocked’ by the discovery and said it was ‘continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way.’
But the news came as no surprise to the local amateur historian who uncovered the scandal in the first place. And in an interview with the Daily Beast, Catherine Corless made it clear that she, for one, is not in any doubt about who was responsible – the nuns who ran the home and the authorities who looked the other way.
Corless told the Daily Beast that far from intending to uncover a scandal that looks set to discredit and expose the Catholic Church in Ireland almost as profoundly as the clerical sexual abuse scandals of earlier decades have done, she was simply planning to write an essay for a local journal on the history of ‘the Home’ when she began investigations in 2012.
In the course of her research, she stumbled across an extraordinary story; some boys playing football on the patch of waste ground in the 1970s after the Home had been demolished had accidentally dislodged the lid of an old septic tank.
One fell in. His friend ran to get help. The young woman he fetched also fell in up to her shoulders after the ground gave way.
To their horror, they saw bones and human skulls all around them.
The local people informed, quite naturally, the church. The lid was replaced, the tank covered over, a local cleric came and said a few prayers over the site. The locals were told it was probably a famine grave; and that was that. They were advised to forget all about it.
But the course of events didn’t sit right with some residents on the newly built estate, who erected a small shrine in the corner of the field.
Catherine Corless told the Daily Beast that if it had not been for those residents, the existence of the mass grave might never have reached her ears.
Corless began a series of conversations with former residents of the Home – unmarried pregnant women who were sent there to have their babies, and then often kicked out after a year to try and prevent bonding – and began to piece together, along with a disturbing picture of life in the home, an even more disturbing picture of how the Bon Secours nuns dealt with the illegitimate children who died of natural causes.
But try as she might, she couldn’t find an undertaker who had ever buried a child from the home.
“When I started the basic research on the history of the place, I started talking to people and word got around that I was doing a bit of a story on it, a lot of people came forward and filled me in on what it was really like,” Corless told the Daily Beast.
“Then I heard about the bones being found in the 1970s and just put in again, and the ground covered up and nothing done about it.
“There was no sign of it being called a graveyard, no crosses, no significance at all, it wasn’t on the Tuam map as a graveyard which you would have expected if it was a famine graveyard. I just thought that was bizarre.
“And then somebody hinted that the bones found were not famine burials at all, they were belonging to the home.”
Corless then contacted the local registry of births and deaths and asked them to provide her with copies of the death cerificates of any children whose place of death was listed as the Tuam mother and baby home.
“The registar called me back a few weeks later and said, Do you really want them all? There are almost 800.’
She did. She discovered that of the 798 children who had died at the home in its years of operation, just two of them had graves on consecrated ground in the local graveyard.
Those two, Corless says, were granted a legal, dignified, Christian burial because they had come into the home as orphans rather than illegitimate children.
Of the other 796 children who had perished there, there was no record beyond their death certificates.
“They obviously made the distinction between orphans and so-called illegitimate children. And that really got me. It made my blood boil.
“I tried to give the story locally and I thought it would be taken on board by the authorities in Tuam and by the church – that they would see to this and they would see that justice was done and look into it.
“But they seemed just to be washing their hands of it. Nobody knew anything about it according to themselves. But I knew they had to have to some records or some evidence or some knowledge of what went on there.
“When I wasn’t being taken seriously locally, that really got me very, very angry and I think that is what drove me just to try and seek more information and to find answers and just bring some justice. Because it was obvious because they were illegitimate that they were just conveniently forgotten about.”
Yet the deaths were reported, at least in part because the nuns were paid a nominal fee per head, and they obviously wouldn’t have dreamed of pretending a child was still alive and claiming the stipend. That would have been theft.
The fact that the deaths were reported and that death certificates were issued for the children who were never buried – and let us not forget that prohibiting the decent burial of a human is and always has been a terrible crime in Ireland - is an indication of the incredible arrogance of the nuns. But it is also evidence that there must have been a wide circle of people in authority and the church who knew full well what was going on. Multiple children’s bodies a year were disappearing, unaccounted for, and no questions were asked.
“They were a law unto themselves,” says Corless, “They were surrounded by those eight foot high walls. Nobody – literally nobody - was allowed in; they were met at the gate and hardly any outsiders were brought in. They didn’t employ any locals as such -maybe they might bring somebody in for maintenance, for fixing the roof or a chimney–but otherwise the women who gave birth there and who were waiting to give birth, they were the ones that did all the work.”
Corless was told by a former resident that it was sometimes the other mothers themselves who were obliged to do the dirtiest work of all and stow the bodies in the disused sewerage tunnels.
“It is an old Victorian sewer system,” Corless explains, “The building was built in 1840 as a workhouse and there was a sewer system that you would walk through.
“The tunnels are seven foot in depth and maybe seven foot wide. So, you could literally walk through them and we have evidence that a woman who lived in the home all her life told a friend, when the boys found the bones, she said ‘Many a one I have placed there myself. We used to walk through the tunnels.’ That woman has died, unfortunately, many years ago, but we do have her friend’s account of what she had said at the time.”
The woman’s testimony from beyond the grave was key to Corless unlocking the grim mystery.
Corless believes that financial motivation was the primary motivation behind the illegal burials.
“A coffin for each of those children would have cost money. But they gave the impression that they were buying coffins because in the local paper, every six months, there was an advertisement looking for tenders to supply coffins for the Tuam home.
“I am sure they had to give the impression that they were looking after the dying and it was known, I suppose, that children did die.
“So, you can see really, they were just trying to give the impression that they were burying those children with dignity. But that wasn’t the case.”
But Corless adds that while the bodies were hidden partly to save money, “Partly it was not to expose the fact that so many children were dying in their care.”
Corless speaks with undisguised disgust about the present day authorities attempts to frustrate and block her research.
“When I went to look for records, from all sides, nobody had any records and each authority was saying ‘No, we passed them on to the other authority’ and they were saying ‘No, it is not us, we don’t have them’ and I mean to say, they have to have kept a record of every child that died and it is just – even to this, even to the present day that arrogance is still there where they won’t – nobody is taking responsibility. And it is still just a silence – I met with that silence for the past three years.”
She says that 99% of the local community encouraged and supported her, as did her ‘fantastic’ family.
But those in power continued to attempt to block the full facts about the Home emerging. At one meeting she was told she couldn’t see certain records because she didn’t have a universty degree.
“That was said to me at the county council meeting, I would have to be an academic before they would let me see the records. Like, who was I to be looking at stuff. That is more or less what they were saying really, at the end of the day.”
She is, frankly, rather amazed at the developments of this week which have seen the state admit that horrors occurred at the Home in Tuam, but thrilled for both survivors and those innocents who perished there.
“It is a great day for survivors, for those who have people buried there. It is a wonderful, wonderful day for them and so many of them rang me and told me of the relief because number one, they wanted the truth and now they want answers and they want an apology.
“This is only the start. There is an awful lot of questions to be answered yet and I will be helping the survivors to get answers to those questions.
“For Tuam, this has opened a lot of more eyes of people who were dismissing it and people who were saying that it is not right to be going against the church. And I got all this rubbish and I mean, it is blatantly obvious now, what has happened and I don’t think anyone can really say anymore, you know, that what I did was wrong.
“We can see that since the abuse scandals, people have opened their minds more and they’re at last looking at the whole of Catholicism in a different light.”