Why Were the Bodies of 796 Babies Stuffed into a Septic Tank in Ireland?

At the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland 796 “illegitimate” children died between 1925 and 1961 and no one paid any attention. The institution had been created to rehabilitate “fallen women” and was run by the Catholic Church, whose teachings still dictate much of Irish life.

How were these deaths kept secret for so long? 

Writing in The New York Times this past week, Dan Barry published a powerful article on this story: “Ireland Wanted to Forget. But the Dead Don’t Always Stay Buried”.

In it Barry describes how Tuam native Catherine Corless chanced upon the horrifying truth of what happened at this institution and refused to stop digging until she unearthed all the facts.

Corless found out that pregnant, unmarried women were sent to this so-called “Home” in the first half of the 20th century to have their babies. While the mothers were forced to leave within a few months, the children stayed on.

Corless, whose own mother was “illegitimate,” remembered that two local boys had stumbled upon a pile of bones and skulls in a disused septic tank near where the Mother and Baby Home once stood. The theory was that the bones were those of famine victims, but she knew that wasn’t how the famine dead were buried. So she was determined to look further.

Her first step was to purchase a random sample of 200 death certificates for babies and toddlers who had died in the Tuam institution. Causes of death included measles, gastroenteritis and bronchitis. Conditions at the home must have been appalling for children to first contract and then die of these illnesses.  

When she checked the death certificates against all the burials recorded in the logs of the town’s cemetery, she could only find the names of two children from the Home who had been buried there, both labeled “legitimate.” So what had happened to all the rest?

No one could explain why there were no burial records for the home babies, although the suggestion was raised that relatives could have taken the bodies and buried them in their family plots. 

Corless knew that didn’t make sense. 

When she published the results of her investigation in an provocative essay entitled “The Home” in December 2012, Corless suggested that the Catholic nuns of the Bon Secours order who ran the home had buried the rest of the bodies, hundreds of children, in the septic system.

She was shocked that no one responded to her suggestion. Did no one care because these young people were “illegitimate”?

She continued her digging and paid for another spreadsheet that contained the names, ages and death dates of every “illegitimate” child who had died in the home. There were 796 in all, over a 36-year period.

In his brilliant article, Barry explains:

“Catherine felt obligated to these children. Continuing to plumb the depths of the past, she eventually cross-checked her spreadsheet of 796 deceased home babies with the burial records of cemeteries throughout counties Galway and Mayo. Not one match.”

Determined to seek justice for these young people, Corless contacted a writer for The Irish Mail on Sunday and in early 2014 the paper published a front-page story about Tuam. This led to the creation of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

As Barry writes,

“In early March of this year, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission reported that ’significant quantities of human remains’ had been discovered on the grounds of the Tuam home.

The ground-penetrating radar and delicate excavation had revealed what appeared to be a decommissioned septic tank. And in 17 of that septic system’s 20 chambers, investigators found many human bones. A small sampling revealed that they were of children, ranging in age from 35 fetal weeks to three years, and all dating from the home’s 36 years of operation.”

After years of pursuing her quest with a relentless determination, Corless finally had her answer. And Ireland has been forced to face the truth of its past.

Because they had been born out of wedlock, these innocent children were condemned as not worthy to be buried in the local graveyard; instead their bodies were stuffed into a septic tank.

We could dismiss this atrocious story as just a part of the past, a time in Ireland when the repressive patriarchy meant there were few choices for any women, and especially for those unmarried ones who became pregnant. And a time when children were punished for the “sins” of their mothers. But not, of course, of their fathers.

In a country which professes deep respect for the dead, and doesn’t allow baptized souls to be buried in unconsecrated ground, the bodies of these children were tossed into a sewage area. The Catholic church counts it a grievous sin for an unmarried woman to be pregnant, so these babies were the “illegitimate spawn” of sinners.

But how much have attitudes changed?

Abortion is only available in Ireland when there is a proven risk to a woman’s life, a notoriously difficult standard for women to demonstrate. As a result, pregnant women must travel to the U.K. to seek an abortion, or risk taking pills they buy online. And conditions for women in many other parts of the Western world aren’t that much better. 

In the U.S., a virulent misogyny is evident amongst Republican lawmakers: States enacted over 60 abortion restrictions in 2016; last May we had the lovely spectacle of 13 men and no women on a Senate health care panel making decisions on female health issues; one of Trump’s first executive actions was to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, which gets rid of U.S. funding for NGOs that provide abortion counseling and services for women worldwide.

The women of Tuam, along with their children, were condemned by a male-dominated society, but still today the sexual actions of women are monitored and controlled by men. We women aren’t trusted to make our own decisions about our bodies, and heaven forbid we should actually enjoy our sexuality.

 

Photo Credit: thinkstock

129 comments

Patrice Z
Patrice Z20 days ago

Oh, horrific.

SEND
Chad Anderson
Chad A25 days ago

Horrible.

SEND
Karen Swenson
Karen Swenson26 days ago

privileged, tax free, unreasoning Religion, if it does no better and many times much worse than everything else?

SEND
Karen Swenson
Karen Swenson26 days ago

@Nicole H--You are right, in that the Catholic Church has built the first schools, but they also demanded that a Physics professor had to be a priest. Harvard, for instance was founded by Christians to train Clergy. It was a strong Catholic school system which produced millions of devout Catholics. Religion had much of the money, which had been stolen in the past from ordinary people--stealing their land, torture, Gold from European Jews and many dubious money making schemes. I have no issue with the good people who adopt here and abroad giving homes to orphaned children. They deserve the highest praises. I have issue with those who would support legislation, because of their Religion, forcing a woman, or child, regardless of her circumstances, mental, physical health, to bring a fetus to term, and give birth, because someone wants a new born baby who cannot conceive themselves. That, to me, is the most horrible of bodily slavery and withholding of human rights. The Catholic Church and other Religions have way too many Weeds in their Garden to be issuing moral dictates to the rest of us. I am related to a wonderful Nun and respect the Nuns on the Bus and of course there are good and dedicated Priests also. Doesn't change the horrible Fact, Religion has much to answer and apologize for. That religion is no better, as you said, good ones and bad ones, like everything else--then tell me Nicole--what is the point of all this

SEND
Nicole H

Now a last word : as I said before, I turned my back to the Catholic Church. However, when you all are realistic you have to admit that the first schools were built by nuns and pastors. They were the teachers, and they did not stop working at 16.00 hrs. Also, they built a lot of hospitals to look after the sick people and sometimes also the elderly, when these could not live with one of their children. I fully admit that the Catholic Church has committed many many CRIMES. But it is like with everything : you have good ones and bad ones. When I gave birth to my son, there were still some old nuns working in this hospital. When one of the newborn babies were crying hard, it were not nurses who came to see what was going on, but it were these old nuns... I also have known a priest who regularly showed up too late in the church. Why ?? Well someone had called upon him to repair a bicycle or a washing machine... and he took his bicycle and went off. All the people were waiting in the church, and then suddenly he appeared, 10, 15 mins. too late, but nobody bothered. I personally know some other nuns and priests who did marvelous jobs, but these examples will certainly suffice that NOT all of them were disgusting people. Sometimes, we forget that.

SEND
Nicole H

@ Karen Swenson : I partially agree with you that most of us just want to adopt the "Perfect Baby". Most parents want a child up to maximum 2 years, and preferably a "white" baby. However, there are others. Many many people have adopted children from Vietnam. You hardly can NOT see the difference between a European or American child and a Vietnamese child. Also, there are a lot of black children being adopted. Some - like my late husband and me - have adopted 2 children (bother and sister) of resp. 9 and 11 years from Chile. Not really white nor babies either. I remember very well that 90 % of the people thought we were really nuts, some of them even said it.. So nice, when you are really a compassionate human to hear such a nice name... And when our children were in Belgium, all thought they came from Northern Africa, viz. Morocco. Moroccan people are not really loved here. Their grandparents came to our country because we needed laborers, to do the heavy and dirty work our men refused to do. Of course, as soon as they got some money, their wives and children also came to live here. And they had many children. 6, 7 or more was "normal". Their children got married and had children in turn, so by the time our 2 kids arrived here, everybody called them Moroccans... That's what Western Europeans do. So nice !!

SEND
Nicole H

I fear that this is NOT the only horror story of the Catholic Church. Since decades there are rumors that during the 2nd W.W., Rome was not as Cristian as we would like to believe. However, all papers, documents, registers etc.. are kept safely somewhere in the Vatican in Rome. And is there anyone who has the authority to order the Pope the hand all this "evidence" to a Court of Justice ?? The Catholic Church can NOT be ordered to disclose anything, so most probably this will remain a big secret for ever and ever and even longer....

Homes, as the one in Ireland, could also be found in the North of France. I know that many young girls from Belgium were sent over there when they were pregnant, and unmarried. They gave birth to their babies, who were immediately taken away from the mothers (even without having seen their baby) and were adopted to rich families, who could not get children by themselves and paid lots of money !! Many women went to this Monastery in order to try to find out who their birth mother was. Some of them could still find their mother, but most of them did have insufficient information to pursue their investigations and were never re- connected.

The Catholic Church has so many secrets that a whole bunch of scientists would need a lifetime of research to investigate everything they can find.

SEND
Nicole H

This is certainly the most evil story that I have ever read. It is a well known fact that the Catholic Church has committed CRIMES of the highest degree. But their entire organization was so well established that only a very few ever have known what happened exactly and where. That's why I make a huge difference between being a Cristian and being a member of the Catholic Church. As a kid, I was raised by Catholic parents, went to Catholic schools, etc.. Later on I learned and saw all the richness of the Church, in all churches and certainly in Rome. Then I wondered : How is this possible ? Every day millions of children are starving, or barely keep alive, needing food, clothing, medicines etc.. while there are billiards Euro's that can be gathered from the Catholic churches, when they sell all their belongings. That's also one of the reasons why the Catholic church has so many branches (Angelic Church, Evangelical Church, etc...) I decided to leave the Church for what it was, and just kept my belief in God. And that is part of the huge difference between the Cristian people and the Catholics. A real Cristian soul would never dump the bodies of dead babies / children in a septic tank. Catholics had to cover up their dark practices, and made more and more horrible mistakes, which are UNFORGIVABLE !!

SEND
JT Smith
JT Smith28 days ago

And for anyone who holds the belief that God will give us a solution that doesn't require the "murder" that abortion entails, as an ordained minister and archaeologist I can tell you exactly how God will handle it if humanity doesn't get over itself: the four horseman (war, famine, pestilence, and death) wreaking havoc pretty much like what's described in Revelation. So much prettier and nicer for humanity to go through that horror in the hopes of expediting the second coming than taking charge of our own lives by using the very intelligence that God (Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah [all three names refer to the exact same deity, BTW), the Divine, or simple providence of evolution has bestowed on all sentient lifeforms and avoiding needless horror as there's more than enough horror now.

SEND
JT Smith
JT Smith28 days ago

One thing that so many people like the GOP, the Catholic Church, vegans, and misogynists the world over miss is that this planet is becoming ever more dangerously overpopulated with humans. Human breeding (not black, not Jewish, not Muslim, not [fill in the blank with ethnic group(s) of choice], but HUMAN breeding desperately needs to be slowed. It is this overpopulation that ultimately causes all of the major fights over resources (e.g. fuel, potable water, etc). When the original texts of the Bible were written, particularly the bit about "be fruitful and multiply", human population on Earth only counted in the millions. It was just over two centuries ago that humans crossed the 1 billion mark. And the population has more than doubled in the last 50 YEARS. Guess what: you've been Very fruitful and multiplied like rabbits. Now knock it off already! This means that not only contraceptives but, as distasteful as it may be to anyone at all, abortion access needs to be greatly expanded.

SEND