Monday 19 February 2018

They are names familiar to us: they were us all

Finally we can give the acknowledgement that was denied to the children during their brief existence, writes Jody Corcoran

Tuam mother and baby home where the bodies of almost 800 babies are believed to be buried.
Tuam mother and baby home where the bodies of almost 800 babies are believed to be buried.
A plaque at the Baby gravesite at Tuam Mother and Baby home
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Who was Mary Connolly? She died on April 30, 1944, one of three children to die that day of measles. It seems likely she had spina bifida, that is, her spinal column had failed to form properly while she was developing in the womb.

Contributing to her death was "congenital hydrocephalus", more commonly known as "water on the brain", the cause of which is usually genetic but can be also acquired within the first few months of life.

What was remarkable about Mary is that she lived for seven years before she seems to have succumbed to an outbreak of measles which also claimed the lives of Julia Kelly and Catherine Harrison that day.

In the language of the time, under cause of death, there is also written the word "idiot" alongside Mary Connolly's name. It is coldly shocking to see now, but was commonly used in the Tuam mother and baby home, and elsewhere, at the time.

In all, 17 children were termed "idiot" or "congenital idiot" in death, including Mary Connolly, who lived for five days with measles before her death was certified. At least her death was certified. In several instances, it seems certification did not take place.

Take the Roache twins as an example, a boy and a girl who were not christened. They died on October 19, 1942, having lived for 23 hours. "Premature birth" was the cause, the girl's death certified, the boy's not.

In only two instances an inquest was held into the cause of death, in the cases of James Murray and Bridget Cunningham.

James died on November 4, 1925, aged four weeks. His cause of death is listed as "syncope", which is the medical term for fainting or passing out, but his passing out is said to have come from "natural causes". The record also states: "Child apparently well a couple of hours before his death." An inquest was held the day after his death.

Bridget Cunningham died on January 22, 1928, aged two months. The cause was given as: "Asphyxia caused by her mother over laying her deceased child." An inquest was held the following day.

SEE ANALYSIS Pages 20, 22 & 36

Two children died on Christmas Day: Peter Lally in 1925, aged 11 months, the cause "Intestinal Tuberculosis" and Josephine Staunton in 1949, aged eight days, the cause "Congenital heart disease. Icterus". Icterus may refer to Jaundice. Both deaths were certified.

Some of the children seem to have had horrific deaths – "Abscesses of scalp from birth. Haemorrhage from mucus membranes" – while others died from what are today relatively minor illness, tonsillitis for example.

But in truth, there is a heartbreaking life story behind the short lives of each child on the list: 18 died, directly or indirectly, from what is called "Marasmus", a form of severe malnutrition which includes two girls with the surname Kenny and Gilmore.

That is the striking nature of this list of the dead, published to formally acknowledge a brief existence, an acknowledgement denied in their short lives – their names are the names familiar to us all, our families, neighbours, friends, school friends, names we can link to our leaders and our heroes in sport, culture and life.

They truly were us all.

There are two Corcorans, Patrick who died from "congenital heart disease" on April 11, 1941 aged one month, and Annie, my paternal grandmother's name, who died of measles on December 2, 1936, aged 11 months. Both deaths were certified.

Sunday Independent

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