Probe into mother and baby homes
Published 04/06/2014 | 16:37
The Government has bowed to national and international pressure over the scandal of the death of 4,000 babies who were buried in unmarked, unconsecrated and mass graves at homes for unmarried mothers.
The horrifying record of so-called mother and baby homes over several decades in the last century is being reviewed after campaigners forced renewed focus on the need to formally commemorate how 800 infants died and were buried in at one institute in Co Galway.
The remains of the youngsters were interred in a concrete, septic tank in the grounds of a since-abandoned home in Tuam, run by Catholic nuns from the Sisters of the Bon Secours between 1925 and 1961.
The names of the 796 children buried in the mass grave without a headstone have been confirmed by a local historian after she made repeated requests from the state for records. Records of hundreds more at other homes are still being held confidentially.
The revelations sparked renewed calls for the Government to hold a short, focused public inquiry into the practices at the homes, particularly mass burials.
Children's Minister Charlie Flanagan said officials were giving active consideration to the best means of addressing the harrowing details.
"Many of the revelations are deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been," he said.
"I am particularly mindful of the relatives of those involved and of local communities."
About 35,000 single women are believed to have spent time in one of 10 homes - one of which, the Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, was where the story of Philomena Lee began when she was forced to give her son up for adoption. He died without her ever seeing him again.
Four homes had little angel's plots for infants who died in their care - Tuam, and the three run by the Sacred Heart Sisters at Sean Ross, Bessborough, Co Cork, and Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.
The records of the deaths - even if the birth had not been registered - were kept in ledgers under the 1934 Maternity Act and are now held by the state in private record offices in Galway, Waterford, Cork and Donegal.
Several Government departments, including the children's ministry, health, education and justice, are involved in examining calls for an inquiry, which if granted is likely to dwarf the examination of the Magdalene laundries - Catholic-run, state-sponsored workhouses for poor, destitute, uneducated or convicted women, the last of which closed in 1996.
Campaigners have been asking ministers to take action on the mother and baby homes for several years, with little success.
A renewed focus on calls for Bon Secours nuns to fund a memorial headstone at the Tuam burial site has sparked massive interest nationally and internationally and led to calls for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to announce an inquiry and issue a formal apology to relatives of the dead.
Paul Redmond, a campaigner with Adoption Rights Now, said the Government has been running scared.
"The Government is terrified of this. It's massive. The Government just don't want to know," he said.
Another home where the scandal of unmarked graves was uncovered is the Protestant Bethany Home in Dublin, which was found to have had 222 infants die before being secretly buried.
They have since been re-interred and a memorial placed on the new plot in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold's Cross.
In a joint campaign, Adoption Rights Now, the Bethany Home Survivors, Beyond Adoption Ireland, Adopted Illegal Ireland and Catherine Corless, the historian who identified the 796 unknown babies in Tuam, have asked for three simple responses to the controversy.
Along with the public inquiry, they have asked for a dignified memorial stone to be placed on the site in Tuam - a grassy area on the edge of a housing estate - along with similar monuments on the other sites.
Campaigners say the names of every infant secretly buried should be engraved on the stones.
The Sisters of Bon Secours have been in talks to pay for an official commemorative site. The congregation has not commented publicly but it is understood to be prepared to issue a statement in the coming days.
Discussions have also taken place between the Tuam campaigners and Catholic diocesan leaders.
"In a positive way, we want to assist the local community in their efforts to erect a plaque and to have a suitable religious service," a spokesman for the archdiocese said.
It is understood the Archbishop would support an inquiry into deaths at the Tuam home but he has not formally or publicly made his thoughts known.
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said yesterday a state inquiry or academic research was needed to record what happened. He also said he would support excavation for exhumation on reasonable grounds.
The Tuam burial site was discovered in 1975 by 12-year-old friends Barry Sweeney and Francis Hopkins.
Locally it was referred to for years as a famine burial site where youngsters who had died in the 1840s disaster were buried in a mass grave, often on unconsecrated ground.
Health board inspection records dating as far back as 1944 reveal the conditions some of the children and their mothers lived in.
Some 271 children, mostly aged from three weeks to 13 months, were listed as living there at the time with 61 single mothers, way over capacity
A 13-month-old boy was described as a "miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions and probably mentally defective".
There was a "delicate" 10-month-old baby who was a "child of itinerants" and a five-year-old child who was described as having "hands growing near shoulders".
Others were referred to as "poor babies, emaciated and not thriving" or "fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated".