TWO senior gardai are to conduct a "fact-finding" mission into the deaths of 796 babies believed to be buried in a mass grave in Tuam, the Sunday Independent has learned.
The officers were appointed on Friday, on foot of a request by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald to gather the "facts" behind reports that almost 800 children were buried near a disused septic tank at a mother and babies home that was run by the Bon Secours nuns.
They have been asked to gather all surviving records, including death certificates and the ledgers kept by the mother and baby home until it closed in 1961. Crucially, the officers are also expected to carry out preliminary tests on the site of the suspected mass grave, which lies on the edge of a housing estate in the Galway town.
The exploratory inquiry marks the first step in an official Garda response to the revelations, as yet another religious scandal that was overlooked by Irish authorities for years hit the international headlines.
It follows the discovery by a local historian that 796 babies and infants died at the home, with death certificates citing measles, tuberculosis and malnutrition among the causes. There is no record of the children's burial in cemeteries and locals believe they were dumped beside a septic tank over the years.
The scandal was one of the items discussed at a meeting of the commissioner, assistant commissioners and other senior management in Tallaght on Friday.
A source told the Sunday Independent: "What you are seeing is fact-finding and a preliminary examination to establish the scale of this first. And then they can decide is it necessary to proceed to a full examination of the ground."
They will study ledgers from the home now held by the Child and Family Agency.
The handwritten entries provide scant notes on the dates of admission and discharge of the mother, and some medical notes.
Records from the local authority in Tuam may also be relevant, as the suspected mass grave is near a housing estate developed by the local authority in the 1970s.
A preliminary examination of the site is likely to involve testing a sample of ground for traces of human remains.
They have to be forensically examined to determine whether they are remains of babies who died in the last century or Famine victims from the nineteenth century.
Gardai told RTE that some bones discovered at the site related to famine deaths.
Sources said it would be difficult to establish whether a crime had occurred, or to identify the victims.
The state forensic anthropologist, Dr Lorraine Buckley, is expected to play a key role in trying to establish the age and details of any remains.
Garda sources said a full-scale inquiry would be fraught with complications, as they had no formal complaint or suspicion of a crime.
Legal sources said gardai could investigate whether the religious order applied for burial licences for the children – a criminal offence at the time – or whether they reported the deaths to the coroner.
Meanwhile, TST, an engineering firm, was this weekend carrying out a subsurface radar examination of the site at the former mother-and-baby home.
But sources admitted the team will not be able to determine if skeletons are at the location or number, but that it will only be searching for 'anomalies' in the soil.
He told the Sunday Independent: "They will be able to tell if the structure of the ground has changed. It would be possible to see the outline of a square of a tomb or a tank or the outline of a cellar.
"With regards to the numbers of skeletons there – they definitely wont be able to answer that. The use of 2D maps and 3D maps will be used to build up an image of what if anything there is underneath the soil."
Nothing illuminates quite like an Irish scandal. The nightmarish discovery of hundreds of babies' bodies in the mother-and-child home at Tuam encouraged elements within the "pro-life" faction to reach back for the playbook they used during the barbaric death of Savita Halappanavar for want of an abortion that would have been her constitutional right in nearly every major hospital in western Europe.