The historian tells the compelling story of how she uncovered the Tuam babies scandal and gives a frank account of her own life
Forty-six years ago, two boys clambered over the wall of the deserted Mother and Baby home in Tuam. The older boy, Frannie, landed with a hollow thud.
Together with his friend, Barry, he pulled back a cracked concrete slab on the ground and the pair peered into a deep, dark hole. What they saw astounded them.
Inside, they spotted a hollow tank. At the bottom lay a pile of skulls and bones.
Barry lost his grip and fell into the hole, and Frannie somehow pulled him out. The terrified boys ran home, and were told never to return to that spot again.
Catherine Corless was told the story of the boys’ discovery as she was carrying out her initial research into the history of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.
At the time, more than a decade ago, she was an unknown figure beyond her locality. She had attended a local history class and written articles for the Journal of the Old Tuam Society. But what she discovered — that hundreds of dead babies had been buried in a large disused sewage tank — was to propel her to national and international attention.
The issues that the discovery threw up could not be avoided by government ministers, archbishops and eventually, the Pope. It prompted the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby homes.
When she heard the story of the two boys, Corless could hardly believe what she was being told. As she puts in her memoir, Belonging, “These boys had discovered some kind of tomb by the sounds of it. Whom did those bones belong to and what were they doing there? Who put them there and why?... The question burned in my mind.”
This book, written by Corless with Naomi Linehan, is more than just the Galway woman’s autobiography. It also tells the story of the institution run by the Sisters of Bon Secours and the mothers and babies, who were in effect disappeared at the behest of church and state.
Corless has little time for the conclusion, conveyed in the recent Mother and Baby Homes report, that “it was us, society, that should bear the brunt of the blame” for what went on.
She quotes approvingly the TD Catherine Connolly, who told the Dáil: “The Taoiseach is saying now that we are all responsible. I am not responsible. My family is not responsible. The people I know are not responsible. Those least responsible were those put into the homes.”
In the early part of the book, Corless gives a remarkably candid account of her early life: her fraught relationship with her mother (whose own family background was mysterious); how she underwent electric shock treatment after suffering panic attacks and anxiety; and her husband Aidan’s treatment for alcoholism.
The book is well-structured, and perhaps most compelling during the earlier part of her investigations, as she painstakingly uncovers what happened to the babies. This is as much a story of the living as the dead.
‘Treated like a slave’
From early on in her investigation, former residents of the mother and baby home could turn up at the Corless family home near Tuam, and Catherine would welcome them in.
Many of their stories are harrowing, and the society portrayed could not be described as “Christian” in any positive sense of the term.
After leaving the home, many of the young children were fostered out to farming families and treated as a source of free labour.
She tells of Michael Hession, who was boarded out after leaving the Tuam home, and “sent to an uncaring family who treated him like a slave”.
Corless quotes a Galway inspector’s report into this system of boarding out in 1956: “The callous treatment meted out to some of these unfortunate children... bears comparison with that imposed in the better class prison camps in totalitarian countries during the war. Neglect seems to be quite the common thing in some cases, and in the others, it borders on cruelty.”
Corless was interested in the children from the Tuam home from the time she was six, and attended the same primary school.
The “home babies” arrived separately at school, and stayed at the back of the room, quiet and unengaged. As Corless recalls, the teacher never called on them: “It was though they weren’t even there.”
When she began her investigation, Corless set about finding out who the babies and young children were who died in the home in the public office of births, deaths and marriages. She eventually traced just under 800 babies.
As the book records, a child brought up in a mother and baby home in Ireland was much more likely to die than a ‘legitimate child’ growing up in a family environment. The death rate was about 15pc.
Among the main causes of death were measles, tuberculosis, anaemia and meningitis.
It was when she was looking through the map section of the library at NUI Galway that Corless spotted the defunct sewage tank.
In a map from 1925, ‘sewage tank’ was marked in small writing at the back of the home, and she realised it was in the same spot where the two boys had discovered bones in 1975.
She dismisses the school of thought that we should not judge the harsh treatment of the mothers and children during the 20th century by the standards of the present.
She writes: “When does something so sinister become ‘the past’? Is it five months? Five years? Fifty? When is it something we no longer have to deal with because it belongs in the past?”
Memoir: ‘Belonging’ by Catherine Corless
Hachette Ireland, 480 pages, paperback €16.99; e-book £8.99