The Shame of Ireland
Reproduced with the kind Permission of Izzy
A letter to the Minister with responsibility for the Tuam Babies
A few weeks ago, I was happy to hear an excavation was starting at the site of the Mother & Baby Home in Tuam. Then I saw where the hoarding went up. I have information that suggests they’re digging in the wrong place and I know the Commission of Enquiry into Mother & Baby Homes has that information too.
It’s hard to know how to react. I struggled with feelings of powerlessness and despair. Is the hoarding in the wrong place accidentally or on purpose? Whose interests does it serve? In a country that ‘apologises’ to Magdalene women, then tries to swindle them out of the medical care they were promised, the line between conspiracy and cock up is very hard to find. Actually, there’s no line between conspiracy and cock up. They are conjoined twins and corruption is a mixture of the two.
Corruption isn’t just about governments, it’s about us. When corruption at the top gets to people at the bottom of the pile, it tells us we don’t matter. We might see what’s happening, but we can’t change anything, we’re too small and unimportant. Nobody will believe us. Nobody will hear us. There’s nothing we can do. If the people at the top don’t want change and the people at the bottom think they can’t make change, then change doesn’t happen. That’s how the country that once led the world in locking up inconvenient people becomes the world leader in letting sleeping dogs lie.
The time for letting sleeping dogs lie at Tuam is over. We’re meant to feel powerless, but we are not powerless. Catherine Corless, who documented 796 deaths at the Tuam Children’s Home, is not powerless. Adopted people denied information about their origins are not powerless. Women whose children were taken are not powerless. We can expose what’s hidden. We can make change.
One way we can make change is to appeal to those who do have power and to do so publicly. We can make it impossible for people in power to say they didn’t know what was going on and what they needed to do to put it right. So, I’ve written a letter to Katherine Zappone, who’s currently the Minister for Children, but I’ve also written it to you. In it, I tell her (and you) that
· Witness descriptions of burials at Tuam confirm there is more than one burial site.
· One witness description of burials closely matches disused sewage tanks below the site (formerly a 19th century workhouse.) These tanks are outside the area being investigated.
· Witness descriptions of a second burial site may describe either a section of the 19th century sewage system or the 20th century septic tank which replaced it. Only the 20th century tank is within the area being investigated.
· An area which may contain burials is under an access laneway used by cars. This may be destroying evidence and is also potentially dangerous to drivers and pedestrians.
· If underground structures at the site in Tuam were not properly treated when the housing estate was built, there is serious risk of them collapsing, causing injury or death to users of the area which includes a children’s playground.
· Failure to find bodies at Tuam, or to find the number of bodies there should be (which is in excess of 800) may indicate that deaths were falsified in order to facilitate illegal adoptions.
It’s a long letter, but easy to read, so put the kettle on and make some time. Come back to it later, if you need to. But please don’t read this just as an appeal to the power of the Minister. It’s an appeal to your personal power, the power they try to make you believe you don’t have. Use it. Share it, write to politicians or the newspapers, put pressure on Galway County Council to make sure the area is safe. If you have information, submit it to the Commission – but make sure you also submit it to Clann, the archive being put together by and for the victims of our institutional catastrophe. Do anything you can to support Adoption Rights Alliance and Justice for Magdalenes Research, the organisations giving voice to the victims. Do something. Do anything. Use your power. Use your influence. Expose the truth that lies waiting in the ground at Tuam.
I see you were in Tuam lately, at the site of the Mother & Baby Home. You were pictured with Catherine Corless, the woman who told the world there were 800 dead children underneath one of our many institutions dedicated to hiding away allegedly wanton women and their children. Catherine is pointing. Your gaze follows her pointed finger. I know what Catherine is pointing at. I know what you are looking at. She is pointing out the locations of the cesspools, where the bodies of the children may be buried.
Before it was the Mother & Baby Home, it was the workhouse. A 19th Century workhouse was a very efficient machine to conceal from view, at minimum cost, all those unable to support themselves except by begging. 130 workhouses were built around Ireland in the 1840s but grudgingly funded as they were by the local rate-paying class, they skimped on the numbers provided for. Famine came soon after and the workhouses ended up swamped with far more people than they were ever meant for - that’s why we remember them as disease-ridden hellholes, but actually the workhouses were built with a view to containing and preventing infectious disease. There was a terrible cholera pandemic at the time, 55,000 had died in Britain and 100,000 in France. The scientists of the age believed disease was spread by an unhealthy smell from rotting organic matter. They called it “miasma” and they rightly expected a lot of it in institutions for the poor and infirm, so when most of Ireland was still on the ‘bucket and chuck it’ system and dear old Dirty Dublin still notorious for sewage and offal flowing in the streets, every workhouse had a state-of-the-art sewage system.
Unfortunately the state of the art was based on the mistaken belief that the important thing was to contain the smell. The solution was a number of large cesspools. Some people use the words “cesspool” and “septic tank” interchangeably, but they’re not at all the same thing. A septic system carries sewage in water to a tank some distance away, where the liquid is allowed to filter out and the solids decompose somewhat. It does not require frequent emptying. A cesspool or cesspit is basically an underground room, directly below the privy or dry toilet (often just a hole in the ground.) Sewage doesn’t decompose into usable compost in these conditions – it’s far too wet and the tank is far too large. The hazards include sewer gas over the tank, which can cause unconsciousness and death, even combustion and explosions. They have to be emptied regularly (regulations specified several times a year) but in the age before chemical fertilisers, there was a ready market for sewage sludge.
It wasn’t a great system but it might have worked well enough, if the workhouses hadn’t ended up accommodating three and four times the number of people they were built for. In Ballyshannon, the sewage backed up into the water tank in 1847. Unlike ‘miasma’, sewage in the water really does cause disease and death. Incidents of workhouse sewage tanks overflowing were reported in Kinsale, Bawnboy and Enniskillen to name a few. By the early 20th century, most of the surviving workhouses had abandoned their cesspools and installed septic systems or connected to urban sewerage schemes. Tuam workhouse installed a septic system in 1918. The complex inherited by the Bon Secours Sisters seven years later included at least nine ‘underground rooms’ that had once been sewage tanks. They were empty now and ready to find a new use.
We need to talk about nuns, Katherine. Young people these days talk of them as evil caricatures. Worse still, they talk of them as if they were all the same. We know they weren’t all the same. In Ireland, for independent minded young women, the nuns were often more meaningful role models than the only available alternative – mothers and wives. They lived in communities of women. They were more educated than most women were at that time. They did important jobs. The school principals, the matrons, the Reverend Mothers were about the only women in our childhoods, and in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ childhoods, who exercised real power. Each order had its own traditions, its own culture. Most were absolutely independent of all the local structures of control, including the bishops, and answerable only to their “mother houses” – often conveniently far away. The answers to some of the mysteries of the burials at Tuam are within the culture of the Sisters of Bon Secours and I’m saving my thoughts on that for the Commission. There were good nuns, bad nuns, kind nuns, nasty nuns…nuns came in all the varieties that humans came in. In 1925, when the Tuam Mother & Baby Home opened, one Irishwoman in every 20 was a nun.
If there is one generalisation that could safely be made about nuns, it’s that they were resourceful. All of us old enough to have been educated by nuns remember anecdotes of how the foundress of the order wheeled and dealed, schemed as well as prayed, to get the land for a convent or the permission for a school. It’s unimaginable that these resourceful women on this congested site would not have found a use for those nine empty, underground rooms.
Tuam workhouse seems to have been the only one built without an adjoining graveyard. Some burials happened within the walls when the workhouse first opened in 1846, but the Poor Law Commissioners put a stop to it, fearful for the health of the inmates. Within a year, the workhouse was forced to buy a burial plot in Carrowpeter. This plot filled up during the Famine and another was opened on the Ballymote Road. There was no space within the walls of the Tuam Children’s Home for 800 burials, yet during its 36 years of operation no funeral seems ever to have been seen leaving the Home. It’s probable that the resourceful Sisters of Bon Secours used the underground structures already on the site to bury the dead.
In 2014, Philip Boucher-Hayes interviewed a witness called Mary Moriarty about her fall in the mid-1970s part-way into a hole that had opened up on the site. She described “a vault” in which she saw the bodies of a number of babies (possibly 100) wrapped and placed on shelves or steps. This description was reported as proof that the bodies were not, as had been claimed, in a septic tank. What she describes is not, of course, a modern septic tank, but sounds very much like one of the old workhouse cesspools – vaulted underground rooms, up to 9 feet wide and 9 feet high and made of brick or stone. Thrift as well as resourcefulness can safely be associated with all the nuns I remember from my childhood. Why on earth would they go to the trouble and expense of excavating and constructing an underground vault when they already had 9 unused vaults under the premises?
The great advantage in our current situation of knowing these sewage vaults were there and may have been repurposed as tombs is that their locations are known. They are clearly marked on the plans for the workhouse and those plans are still available. In June 2014, while the controversy about burials at Tuam was in full swing, I visited the Irish Architectural Archive, where I saw and photographed the plans of the Tuam workhouses. I verified the existence and planned locations of 9 cesspools underneath the footprint of the old workhouse buildings. I gave them to Catherine Corless and I know she included them in the evidence she gave to the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes. I gave them to The Irish Mail on Sunday too, which published them along with an interview with me on 22nd June 2014. I also posted pictures of the plans on my blog. Almost immediately afterwards, the Commission was announced and the plans, along with a large number of other documents, were withdrawn from publicly accessible archives and given to the Commission.
The Commission knows about the cesspools, Katherine. You know about the cesspools. Catherine Corless knows about them. I know about them. We know where they are – and we know where they are not as well. You are standing with Catherine Corless and three elderly men who I’m told are survivors of the Tuam Children’s Home. You are standing on a manicured lawn of irregular shape with a low wall around it. There is a grotto, an improvised shrine where a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in an upended bathtub behind glass. We’ve all seen the pictures of this little plot, with a low concrete wall around it and a metal gate with a cross.
You are standing beside Catherine Corless and your eyes are following her pointing finger. She’s pointing to the area outside that little plot tended as a gravesite. She’s pointing to the probable locations of the workhouse cesspits. One is under a shed in somebody’s back garden. Others are dotted around the open space (perhaps a third of the footprint of the former workhouse) that now contains a children’s playground, access laneways to the backs of houses, a public footpath. None of the cesspools are under the little lawn you’re standing on. It wasn’t even part of the workhouse until 1918, when it was purchased as the site for the new septic tank that made the old system redundant. Before that it was a gravel pit, under separate ownership. That septic tank was in use until 1938, so it’s impossible that any of the burials from the 1920s and 30s took place there – and why would they, with 9 empty underground chambers to choose from? It is possible some later burials took place there, but it’s unlikely that the structure described by Mary Moriarty is in there.
A high hoarding has gone up in Tuam around the excavation site. The workhouse had a high wall too. Its purpose was to conceal from view the human misery within. All of the many institutions in Ireland, in the days when we institutionalised a higher proportion of our population than even the Soviet Union, had high walls and nobody outside really knew (or probably cared) much about what went on in there. I don’t know what’s going on behind the hoarding, Katherine, but I do know what’s not behind that hoarding. None of the cesspits of the Tuam workhouse are in the area cordoned off for investigation. The area cordoned off is only the “grotto” area, that little lawn we’ve seen so much of on the news. Cars and vans associated with the dig are parked on the area clearly marked as ‘burial ground’ on a Galway County Council map of 1971/2 (when the housing estate was planned.) This is now an access laneway for the back gardens of the houses. Trailer-loads of turf are regularly hauled over the ‘burial ground’ to the back gates of the houses.
Mary Moriarty, the woman who saw the swaddled babies (“parceleens”, she called them) in 1975 believes the place she fell was behind that hoarding. I’m almost certain she must be mistaken. A third of the area of the old Home was covered in briars and brambles at that time. It must be very hard to pinpoint a location. When we know that there were underground sewage vaults a matter of feet away on the other side of the wall (a wall that wasn’t there when she fell), surely the search area must be extended?
There are two other witnesses from the 1970s and what they saw was quite different, so it’s clear there are multiple burial sites. Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney were 10 year old boys when they lifted a slab and saw a higgledy-piggledy pit of bones, quite different from Mary Moriarty’s orderly rows of “parceleens.” The slab they lifted could be the cover of the 1918 septic tank (disused from 1938, when the Home was connected to the public sewer). If so, it is within the area cordoned off for investigation, but there are also lots of places in the old workhouse’s sewage and drainage systems where traps or ‘pipes’ (which could have been several feet deep) would have been covered with slabs for ease of inspection. If what the boys described is not found in the tiny area cordoned off, it must be looked for feet away, on the other side of that hoarding.
Mary Moriarty saw perhaps 100 bodies. Barry and Frannie saw only 20 or so. 796 deaths were recorded at the Mother and Baby Home during its 36 year lifetime. Even if both of these sites were discovered behind the hoarding, where are the rest of the bodies? It makes sense that there would be multiple burial sites. The 796 deaths registered does not include stillbirths, which were not recorded at that time. Stillborn children could not be baptised and it was not considered proper to bury them with the baptised – hence the proliferation of ‘cillini’ (special burial places for unbaptised children) around the country. Assuming a stillbirth rate of 3%, 60 or more stillborn babies must have been buried somewhere, separately from the rest. It is entirely possible that, in that era of sex-segregation, boys and girls may have been buried separately, or younger and older children. Some mothers must have died in childbirth. If they were buried there, nobody has yet reported where they are buried.
If the whole site was explored, it’s likely there still would not be evidence of 800 burials there. This opens up another can of worms, Katherine, as I’m sure you know. Evidence is mounting that, in various institutions, deaths were falsified to facilitate illegal adoptions. You can hardly be unaware of Connal O’Fatharta’s articles in The Examiner on this subject. Some of the people involved in these adoptions may have been well-intentioned. They may have thought it in the best interests of the child, but the results have been harrowing for many people, deprived even of knowledge of congenital medical problems that might affect their own children and left with practically no prospect of ever making contact with their lost families.
It’s a very great injustice and one day it will be brought into the light. The question is will it happen in time for people like the three elderly survivors you met in Tuam? This is our local branch of a global scandal – mass institutionalisation of pregnant women and forced adoption of their children. In Canada, most of the women and children were First Nations people, the indigenous population of Canada. In Australia too, the native Aboriginal people were the ones who bore the brunt of this practice. Ireland is unusual only insofar as the practice was extraordinarily pervasive and reached into every corner of the population, almost every family. I’m sure you heard Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s recent apology to the mothers whose children were taken from them, often without consent and sometimes by deception. In Australia, up to 60% of so-called ‘illegitimate’ children were taken from their mothers for adoption and this is rightly the cause of much soul-searching and official regret. In Ireland it was 97%. It was virtually impossible for any single woman to keep her child.
I don’t want to be cynical about the Commission, Katherine. I want to believe it will get to the truth and bring some comfort to thousands of people affected by this scandal, but sadly we have a tradition in Ireland of reports compiled to satisfy a demand that ‘something must be done at once’ that then gather dust on a shelf or, like the survivor testimony behind the Ryan Report, are sealed until all concerned are dead. I want to believe the Commission will bring, if not justice, at least a measure of truth to the women whose children were taken and to the adopted people meeting a brick wall in their enquiries about their origins. I want to believe in the Commission, Katherine, but the hoarding in Tuam has gone up in the wrong place, the Sisters of Bon Secours have hired the most powerful public relations firm in Ireland and that picture of you standing beside a pointing Catherine Corless has disappeared, although Catherine has confirmed to me that the conversation occurred.
Three months ago the morning news reported that an excavation was to take place at the Donegal farm where 6 year old Mary Boyle went missing in 1977. The dig was scheduled to take five weeks, we were told. By evening of the same day, the search had been called off and an announcement made that nothing had been found. It was a farce. I’ve spoken to archaeologists who told me they wouldn’t even have their tent set up in the time it took for that “five week excavation” to be called off. Something is very wrong in this country and it must not be allowed to frustrate the enquiry into Mother & Baby Homes the way it has frustrated the search for Mary Boyle and many other historic enquiries.
I didn’t think I needed to give evidence to the Commission. The information I had was given to them by Catherine Corless. I’ve since been told that, as it passed through Catherine rather than coming from me directly, it may have been considered ‘hearsay’ and inadmissible. I will now make a submission to the Commission and to Clann, the shadow enquiry set up by Justice for Magdalenes Research and the Adoption Rights Alliance. Making a submission to Clann is a way of ensuring it will be available to survivors and future researchers, even if the State does what it did with the Ryan Commission survivor testimony, which it sealed for 75 years. Catherine Corless has, of course, already given evidence to the Commission. I’ve asked her to submit to Clann also, to ensure her work is available to others in the future. I’ve been advised throughout my own involvement in this by an architect with an interest in institutional architecture. He is one of the very few people alive to have been inside a workhouse cesspit. He doesn’t want to make any public statement, but I’ve asked him to submit to the Commission, which I understand he can do confidentially, and to Clann. I’ve made the same request of Limerick historian Liam Hogan, who spent a lot of time researching Tuam workhouse and the Children’s Home, as reflected in newspaper reports of the time.
Drip by drip, this story is coming out, Katherine. In my opinion, it is better out sooner than later. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe it will reflect quite as badly on the nuns as some people hope and others fear. But the truth is, it won’t reflect terribly well on anyone. It was a terrible era: church and state, national and local politicians, doctors, social workers and people charged with inspecting the institutions all played a part in this scandal and barely a handful raised their heads above the parapet to object. Neighbourhood bullies and gossips and the families of the women banished to the homes will also find much to be uncomfortable about when the truth comes out. This was a collective madness of a whole society, in much the same way as the horrors of wartime Germany were. Nobody will get off scot free when this truth is told – but still it must be told.
Politicians worry about their legacy. This is understandable. We’d all like to be remembered well. But it’s also an obstacle to truth in a story of this kind, especially in Ireland where dynastic politics means the sons and daughters of the main actors of the past are all too often in power when an historic scandal trundles down the tracks. Political parties are families too and like to protect ‘their own’ even 50 or 100 years after the event. You’re in a somewhat unique position – a government minister, independent of party apparatus. I mean no offence, Katherine, when I say you may not be a minister for very long. Our current government could hardly be called stable and doesn’t look like making a spectacular contribution to anybody’s legacy. Yours could be different. As I write, you look likely to be remembered as the Minister who marched through the lobbies to keep the 8th amendment, only weeks after she marched through the streets looking for its repeal. There’s a greater legacy waiting for you to claim it. You can be the Minister who brought justice or truth or even a glimmer of hope to the women and children wronged by Ireland’s history of incarceration and forced adoption. I hope you claim it.
In a 2008 interview, speaking about your relationship with Ann Louise, you said “Imagine feeling really free for the first time, free about who you are. Maybe it’s hard to understand, for others who have not been despised by society. I don’t give a shit what people think any more. I know who I am, our partnership has given me the greatest happiness of my life and it’s created a lot of good in the world, so shag off.“ I’m speaking to that Katherine in this letter, the woman who said that. The women and children from the Mother and Baby Homes were “despised by society” just as you and I were. Here is another opportunity to create “a lot of good in the world.” You can give them back something that was taken from them. Do it, please. Tell the ones who want to hold the floodgates closed to “shag off.” Tell them you “know who you are” and you are the person whose job it is to represent the interests of Irish children, past and present.
Katherine, I can almost see the reply where you tell me you cannot interfere with the work of the Commission. I’d be the last one to ask you to interfere in what we must hope is a proper investigation (remember what I said about Mary Boyle.) But, if the Commission has decided to confine the archaeological aspect of its investigation to that tiny area behind the hoarding, what is there to stop you looking into what is on the other side of it? The truth is, even if there were no bodies buried in Tuam, even if there had never been a Mother and Baby Home there, you would have a duty as Minister for Children to be concerned about the old workhouse site in Tuam. The reason is this: disused cesspools, regardless of their contents, don’t just lie harmlessly under the ground. Disused cesspools collapse suddenly when people walk over them.
In Suffolk County, on Long Island, New York there are many houses built before the sewer arrived and a warren of forgotten cesspools exists below people’s backyards. Since 1998, six cases have been recorded of cesspools collapsing, sucking in people who were walking over them at the time. Seven people have been injured and three killed. It took eighteen hours to dig one man’s body from the foul sludge at the bottom of the tank. Many other cesspools have collapsed without causing any injuries and it’s purely a matter of luck that casualties have not been far higher. One woman’s cesspool collapsed 5 days before the backyard birthday party she had planned for 65 guests. They would have been dancing on the very spot where the hole appeared overnight, after heavy rain. The hole was ten feet in diameter and twelve feet deep. The disused cesspools now collapsing on Long Island are between 30 and 90 years old. The cesspools at Tuam are 170 years old.
“I absolutely love and adore children. Sometimes when I see a child, I go up to them and say “I’m your Minister,”” you told the Daily Star recently. Katherine, if you can’t be “their Minister” for the children under the ground in Tuam, can you at least be a Minister for the children in the playground? Make sure Galway County Council immediately commissions a geophysical survey to establish the safety of the entire workhouse site at Tuam.
Oh…and while you’re at it, could you ask the archaeologists to stop parking their cars on what may well be the graves of the children they’re supposed to be looking for?
PS One of the privileges we allowed nuns when they joined their orders was to start their new life with a new name. Nobody ever accused them of hiding behind a pseudonym. I started a new life myself, more than three decades ago, when I came out at the age of 19 and I too changed my name. Unlike the nuns, I’m continually accused of cowardice and hiding behind a pseudonym, especially when, in any small way I can, I challenge the status quo. I believe you know who I am, just as I knew who you were, long before most people in Ireland had heard of you, but to avoid any such accusation, let me clarify: when they sprinkled holy water over my infant head and later, when the nuns called out my name from the roll book of a typical National School, they called me Ruth O’Rourke.
This is so much like modern day politics. Proberly the catholic Church has had a say about this.