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Sunday, March 5, 2017

'I thought I'd seen it all. Then I found nuns' secret grave for 800 babies'

In nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent, I covered stories of mass graves in far-flung locations in Eastern Europe  and Russia. The thought of them has remained lodged in my memory. 
But never did I expect to be covering a mass grave from modern times on my own doorstep; I thought Western and Northern Europe was immune from such horrors. 
Yet that is exactly what I came across in January this year in the small Irish town of Tuam in County Galway, an ugly place with its rundown streets and council estates. 

SQUALID: Children in the 'care' of the Sisters of Bon Secours in 1924

On a grey, rainy afternoon, I was taken to a patch of land in the centre of one such estate. Surrounded by houses built in the 1970s, on the edge of a scruffy playground, I found a plaster statue of the Madonna on a pile of stones, incongruously sheltered by an old enamel bathtub. Beneath it were the bodies of nearly 800 babies.  
The remains of a forbidding 8ft  wall nearby were a clue to the place's  history. Until 1961 this had been the site of a Catholic religious community run by the Sisters of Bon Secours. 
They had bought the workhouse in the 1920s and converted it into a home for unmarried mothers. For the next 36 years, the nuns took in thousands of women. In those days, sex outside marriage was proclaimed a mortal sin. 

The Church said the girls were 'fallen women' and degenerates. Their crime had to be hidden, their babies delivered in secret behind high walls, and their children taken away.
News of the mass graves at Tuam finally made the newspapers last week, but I had heard of the site and visited the shrine five months ago while researching a BBC TV documentary about the estimated 60,000 babies that the Church took for adoption in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them sent to America in return for large payments disguised as 'donations'. 
I had written about one such case in my book Philomena, later made into a film starring Judi Dench.
The hundreds of letters I received from mothers and children forcibly separated by the nuns, and still seeking each other even now, made me painfully aware of the full human tragedy behind Ireland's mother and baby homes. But Tuam had other, even darker secrets. 

The site where the bodies of nearly 800 babies lies was the site of a Catholic religious community run by the Sisters of Bon Secours until 1961

I talked to local residents and met John, now in his  80s and one of the first to move into the estate in October 1972, who told me how children made a grim discovery on the grassy area. He said: 'Not too long after we came here they were playing football and they saw something they thought was a ball or something. They kicked it around, but when we looked at it we saw it was a child's skull.' 
Worse was to follow. 'The local lads used to go fishing in the river', John said. 'They needed to dig for worms and one day they lifted up some old slabs that had been lying since before the estate was built...'  
What the boys found was horrific. The slabs concealed the entrance to a Victorian septic tank built for the workhouse. Its original function had ceased in the 1930s when mains sewerage came, but the nuns had seemingly put it to a new and grisly use. 

'We children burst open the slab...the tank was full of skeletons'
Barry Sweeney, one of the boys there that day, says: 'It was a concrete slab, but there was something hollow underneath it, so we decided to bust it open and it was full to the brim with skeletons. The priest came over and blessed it. I had nightmares over it.' 
Like all the mother and baby homes run by the Church, conditions in Tuam had been primitive. The girls were denied basic medical care and refused painkillers for even the most difficult birth because the pain was 'God's punishment for your sin'. 

Their babies were neglected, crowded into communal nurseries where infection and disease ran unchecked. The result was a shamefully high death rate, with measles and dysentery killing hundreds.
Infant mortality was often five or six times worse in the Church's homes than in the rest of Ireland, and judging by accounts of what went on there it is hardly surprising. 

'Nellie', a former inmate in Tuam, spoke to me on condition that I would not use her real name.

'I came in pregnant and was put to work in the nursery,' she said. 'It was awful. There was no medicine and the babies were always getting sick. When one of them caught something, they would all get it and nuns did nothing about it. The worst was the green diarrhoea. It just poured out of the little things. It was so bad that you couldn't even put nappies on them. They just lay there in it.'
Nellie's daughter survived, but many didn't. 'There was nothing you could do. Their diet was terrible, there was overcrowding and disease, and no doctor to call on. There were babies dying every day.' The Tuam home was demolished in 1972 and the nuns departed without any mention of the dead babies. 
But rumours continued to circulate until two local people, Catherine Corless and Teresa Kelly, set out to uncover the truth. 'We all knew about the "home babies”,' Catherine told me. 'But the place was behind 8ft walls and nobody was allowed in.'
Catherine and Teresa consulted old maps and documents, gathering whatever information they could. The stories about the sewage tank began to make sense. 'Some locals do remember,' she told me, 'that grave diggers would be seen late at night bringing out children and putting them in there. They were without coffins, just wrapped in white shrouds.' 

Catherine went to the records office in Galway. 'There was a nice girl there. I'm not sure she was supposed to, but she dug out the old records of all the children who died, with their ages and what they died of...'

By collating the data, Catherine calculated that nearly 800 babies were buried beneath the housing estate. 'I was utterly amazed when I realised that I had the names of 796  babies. The causes of death were measles or septicaemia, abscesses, convulsions, tuberculosis or pneumonia; lots were aged three to six months, and then quite a lot of one and two-year-olds. It's heart-breaking reading through all the names.'

The scandal of the babies in the mass grave was discovered by local historian, Catherine Corless

An inspection report from 1944 reveals the sorry state of many of the 333 babies then at Tuam. Most, aged between three weeks and 13 months, are described as 'fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated', 31 are listed as 'poor babies, emaciated and not thriving'. There is a 'miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions'; a 'delicate' ten-month-old 'child of itinerants', and a five-year-old with its 'hands growing near its shoulders'. 
A nine-month-old is described as 'emaciated with flesh hanging loosely on limbs', and the child's mother is said to be 'not normal'. 

'Unnamed, unrecognised children lie in mass graves across Ireland'
The report concludes that the mortality rate was 'high', with 300 deaths between 1943 and 1946. With so many babies perishing, the nuns had used the septic tank as a convenient depository, turning it into a mass grave. Catherine Corless believes that what is now the playground also conceals buried remains.
A Church that sets such store by the sanctity of human life and its opposition to abortion showed very little respect for the young souls  in its care, and that rankles with  Teresa Kelly. 
'The nuns left without doing justice to those children', she says. 'They walked away and left the babies there. I don't understand how anyone could just cover over all that and forget that all that happened.' 

When the story of the grave began to emerge, a local couple took it on themselves to keep the burial site tidy; it was they who put up the makeshift shrine with its bathtub. But Teresa says she won't rest until a proper memorial is erected. 'We want to put those children's names on a plaque and get them up on the wall. They deserve to have a name, the day they were born, the day they died. Their mothers don't know where they're buried. People will be looking; they deserve to know.’

Now people are looking. A relative of a child born in Tuam has made a formal complaint to the Irish police that could trigger exhumations at the site. William Joseph Dolan was born on May 21, 1950, to a young single mother called Bridget Dolan. The institution's records carry the scribbled word 'died', but no further information. Bridget reportedly told her family that William had been sent for adoption in America. His relative, who does not wish to be identified, says: 'I just want to know what happened to him. There is no death certificate. He could still be alive or he's in the grave.'  

The Dolan case may force the  government to take action, but it is unlikely Tuam is an isolated case. 
Catherine Corless says: 'I know there are other mass graves and there are people wanting to recognise them. There are mass graves  all over Ireland. Unrecognised, unnamed children. Here in Tuam we hope to have some justice for them.'
Sadly, from my own experience working on Philomena, I know justice is not easy to come by. 
Church and state have repeatedly failed to help mothers whose children were sent for adoption in the 1950s and 1960s; some accuse them of operating a 'deny until they die' policy of stonewalling.

And there are similar signs of buck-passing in this case. The Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, said he is 'greatly shocked' by the news, but he is quick to blame others. 
'As the diocese did not have any involvement in running the home, we do  not have any material relating to it. There exists a clear moral imperative on the Bon Secours Sisters to act upon their responsibilities.’

But when Catherine Corless approached the Sisters, they told her: 'We haven't got one single record. We gave everything over to the county council and then it went to the health board, so we have absolutely nothing on the home.’

When I phoned a spokesman for the Bon Secours Sisters, she was charming, but said that the nuns were old now; they aren't able to talk to the media and there is really nothing they can do. 'Through the passage of time, the sisters who would have served at the home are now deceased. Unfortunately, I cannot take the matter any further.’

It is a statement that puts me in mind of the final scene of the film Philomena when Steve Coogan, playing a semi-fictional version of me and furious at being fobbed off by the Church, storms into a convent and threatens to throw the old nun who ran the mother and baby home 'out of that f***ing wheelchair!' Melodramatic perhaps, but sometimes that's what it takes.

Martin Sixsmith