The Shame of Ireland
New evidence has come to light in the #TuamBabies case, which took the world by storm in recent weeks. This evidence tends to support the view of local researcher Catherine Corless - that the bodies of almost 800 children who perished at the site may be inside the disused sewage system of the Workhouse which occupied the site prior to the opening of the Mother and Baby Home (a Catholic institution for unmarried mothers and their children.)
For the past 10 days or so, various vested interests have tried to discredit the story as a hoax. They’ve been able to do so due to faults in how the story was treated by mainstream media. The story broke in the Irish Mail on Sunday of 23rd May. (Please note: the original story was published only in the print edition and the words “septic tank” were not used. This later version was first posted online on 2nd June and has since been updated.) http://dailym.ai/1kFSG3f
The slightly more restrained tone of the original article is glimpsed in this clipping on Donal O’Keeffe’s blog: http://bit.ly/RqHHUb
Apart from the Mail and coverage on “Liveline” (a popular phone-in programme) during which Catherine Corless mentioned her belief that the burial site was a sewage tank, the story was more-or-less ignored by Irish mainstream media, but rumbled away sensationally on social media. This led to it being picked up by international media outlets which, with few local news stories to check against, chose to cover social media speculation as if it were proven fact. In particular, most stated that “the bodies of 800 babies had been found,” which was not the case. Obviously, various international media players were left with egg on their faces and had to recant aspects of their original stories. There were at least some established facts, but sadly, these got rather lost in the scramble to recant.
The established facts were that 796 deaths had been registered during the 36 years that the home was open; that this represented a mortality rate several times the national average, that no place of burial was known for most of these and that eyewitnesses reported that there were burials at the site, although the number could not be established.
At this point, only two eyewitnesses were reported. Two young boys, Barry Sweeney and Frannie Hopkins, had lifted a slab on the site when playing there in the 1970’s. This exposed a pit “filled to the top with bones.” It was apparently assumed that the bones were those of “famine victims.” A priest was sent for, some prayers said and the grave was closed again. Sometime after that, a local couple began to tend the site as a memorial and it became the manicured site now familiar from media coverage http://bit.ly/1lQzroF But when these boys were playing there, it was an untended wilderness – the kind of place where only kids go.
At around the same time as international media started to backpedal away from their initial sensational reports, another eyewitness account emerged, also from the 70’s, which appeared to contradict the first. An adult, Mary Moriarty, had seen a child playing with a skull and ventured into the brambly wilderness to try to return it to its resting place. She glimpsed a tomb and describes it here.
The tomb she describes sounds much more organised than the boys’ description of a heap of bones. The bodies were stacked neatly on steps or shelves and resembled “parcels.” Asked whether it was “a septic tank,” Mary seems unsure. But the interviewer, Philip Boucher-Hayes (who has incidentally done very good work on this story) clearly decides it’s not a tank and the story is presented in that light. His blog that day also dismisses the idea that this is a sewage tank. http://philipboucher-hayes.com/
This dismissal seems to be based on nothing more than a vague idea that we know what a septic tank looks like (and that there would be no “tunnel” to a septic tank.) But what if we don’t know what a septic tank (or, more correctly a sewage tank) looks like? What if it looks like this?
This is a “section” from the architectural plans of Tuam Workhouse, later the Mother and Baby Home. A section is a drawing showing a two-dimensional slice of a building or structure. Being two-dimensional, it doesn’t show the depth of the structure, just the height and width. This “cesspool” is 9’ 9” tall (just under 3 metres) and appears more than 3 metres wide. It has a high arched ceiling and looks much more how we might expect a vault or tomb to look than what it actually is – a sewage tank.
The section comes from a document that, after a modest amount of research, I found in a public archive, where it seems nobody else had thought to look for it. I only had a mobile phone camera, so I couldn’t photograph the whole page, but here’s the corner that explains what the document is.
So, all the drawings on this page show structures that are part of the sewage system of Tuam Workhouse (“privies” are toilets – probably dry toilets, usually just a hole with a tank below.) They are extraordinarily varied in appearance and none of them would be immediately identified as a sewage tank by an inexperienced person.
The sewage system is much more extensive than previously thought. So far as I’m aware, all previous accounts have relied on the idea that there was only one tank.
In the same archive, I also found a ground-floor plan. A “plan” gives a birds-eye view, like a map showing the shape of the buildings on the ground. This plan was in terrible condition. It is very large, very faded and hard to photograph. This photo gives an idea of its general condition.
The positions of cesspools beneath the complex are shown on the plan. I counted nine, but there could be more -given its condition, the plan is hard to read. Structures are marked in the draftsman’s handwriting and much of the writing is tiny.
The next picture shows the one cesspool I expected to find. I had been told there would be one below the “Dead House” (mortuary) in the centre of the back wall. The Dead House is marked “D.H” on the plan and vertical writing identifies “cesspool underneath.”
Pictures below show some of the others:
(Cesspool projects beyond the complex’s wall on left of pic. The complex is incredibly symmetrical – there is a matching one on the opposite side.)
The next one is in the Women’s Yard. (Again, this is mirrored in the Men’s Yard on the other side of the building.)
So, that’s five, so far…
The Kitchen and Scullery are on the Women’s side of the complex, with the Laundry and Wash House occupying similar (but not identical) positions on the Men’s side.
So that makes 7, right?
Two more are marked in the Boys’ and Girls’ Yards. They look like this:
That makes nine. As I said, there may be more – I almost lost my eyesight finding some of them! They are concentrated into the rear half of the complex, as the fancier buildings (Board Room, offices and the like) are up the front.
So what does this prove?
There was a range of underground structures under the Tuam Workhouse, which became St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home and these were associated with the containment and disposal of sewage.
Shallow structures, covered with flagstones (like the slab lifted by the two boys) and higher, crypt-like structures (suggested by Mary Moriarty’s account) wereboth part of this sewage system.
Tunnels (as described by Mary Moriarty’s informant, Julie Devaney, who had been a child in the Home and stayed on as an adult to work for the nuns) are certainly suggested by the drawings, but more expert people than me are hopefully reading this and can clarify. Certainly, some means of emptying the tanks was needed. We have a 21st century attitude to sewage. In the 19th century, before chemical fertilisers were available, the contents of these tanks were very valuable. I found an amusing insight into the 19th century attitude to what we cheerfully flush away in a 1971 book called “Coprophilia” by Terence McLaughlin (a fairly eclectic history of attitudes to dirt.)
A central part of the argument that the sewage system could not have been for burial has been the notion that this system was in use until 1937 (when the Home was connected to the town’s sewerage scheme.) This may not be true. A newspaper article from 1912, posted on Twitter by @BrendanSol told me that a new sewage system was under consideration as early as 1912 (13 years before the nuns took over the premises.)
It doesn’t seem that this went ahead. In 1918, a much more amateur-sounding scheme happened, using the labour of workhouse inmates under the supervision of the Master.
Liam Hogan (@Limerick1914 on Twitter, who has done amazing work, tweeting a lot of press cuttings from the period) sent me this article from that year.
So these works could have made all or part of the Workhouse sewage system redundant, 7 years before the nuns moved in. On such a cramped site, it would be astonishing if a series of underground rooms had not found a use. As space to bury the dead appears to have been an issue, the sewage tanks may have become tombs.
In relation to shortage of space for burial, a 2012 excavation of a different part of the Workhouse site found (Workhouse-era) burials. These burials were oriented north-south (instead of the usual east-west) and shortage of space may be a factor in this, as they seem to have followed the direction of the Workhouse wall. This link also relates how, within two years of opening, the Workhouse authorities were forced to acquire a burial site elsewhere – no evidence has emerged yet that the Irish State demanded the same of the Mother and Baby Home during its 36 year history. http://bit.ly/VgEc5o
One final picture makes another point. It has been reported that the Workhouse site has disappeared under a housing estate, leaving only the tiny scrap of land identified by Catherine Corless as a sewage tank (actually, this may be the 1918 tank, as it does not appear on the workhouse plans.) This is not true. As this animated gif shows, a large portion of the footprint of the site was not built on and a rather odd “blank space” was left in the middle of the housing estate. This space is now, of all things, a children’s playground and appears to occupy much of the area at the rear of the workhouse where, as I said, the sewage system was concentrated.
(Source: Ordinance Survey Ireland website, www.osi.ie , Orthos 2005 map and 25" Historic map utilised for the image)
It’s hard to look at this image and not speculate that somebody at Galway County Council in the 70’s didn’t want to dig up whatever they felt lay beneath the Mother and Baby Home. And this is a good place to end this story, for now. Church, State, communities and families all played their part in the massive tragedy of Ireland’s institutional past. When all the secrets are told, nobody is going to come out of it smelling of roses. It is very sad that we seem to be more interested in how these children were buried than in their miserable lives, or the pain still being experienced by the bereaved mothers and the adopted children severed from their histories. But as we are, I might as well come out and say it – it seems quite probable the #800deadbabies are buried in the sewage tanks.
This piece is dedicated to my partner of many years, to the daughter she had “out of wedlock” and to the child that daughter is now carrying – no blood of mine, but in every imaginable way my longed-for grandchild.
The documents mentioned were given to the Irish Mail on Sunday, which published them on 22nd June. Unfortunately this article has not yet appeared online. However, the Mail’s surveyors did confirm that these underground structures are consistent with anomalies found during their survey of a small part of the site.
The following people have been helpful in ways large and small. Any mistakes, assumptions or shark-jumping is mine, not theirs! Liam Hogan, John Murphy, Ariel Silvera, Cillian Rogers and Imelda Peppard, Dr Jack Elliot, Dr Pauline Conroy, Donal O’Keeffe, Alison O’Reilly, Lyser, Ciaran Ferrie, @AuntieDote, @BrendanSol and (surprisingly) @BattlementClare
Reproduced with the kind Permission of Izzy
the original Blog can be Viewed at http://izzykamikaze.tumblr.com/post/89770303451/vaults-under-tuamba...