THE remains of hundreds of children feared buried in a mass grave at a former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home are to be exhumed as part of a major forensic investigation.
The measure was approved by the Cabinet today after it was recommended by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone.
A “significant quantity” of human remains were discovered in underground chambers thought to have been used for the treatment of sewage waste water at the Catholic institution in Tuam, Co Galway.
Ms Zappone said the Government had agreed to implement a multi-disciplinary framework, known as “humanitarian forensic action”, as the appropriate response to the discover of the remains of children there.
The actions to be taken include:
* A phased forensic investigation and recovery of the juvenile remains in so far as is possible;
* The use of systematic on-site “ground-truthing” and test excavations to effectively locate potential burials;
* The forensic analysis of any recovered remains and, where possible, individualisation and identification;
* Arrangements for a respectful burial and memorialisation and the appropriate conservation of the site.
She said the Government’s decision was informed by detailed technical advice on international best practice and, most importantly, out of compassion for the rights and dignity for the children believed to be interred there.
The remains were found at the Tuam site by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, vindicating painstaking research conducted by local historian Catherine Corless.
Unmarried pregnant women were sent to the institution to give birth between 1925 and 1961. After giving birth they were separated from their child and required to do unpaid work in the home for a year.
The children stayed until they were fostered, adopted or old enough to go to an industrial school.
But Ms Corless discovered 796 juvenile deaths at the institution were registered where no burial location was recorded.
In March of last year the commission reported that significant quantities of human remains had been discovered at the site.
Ms Corless welcomed the announcement that the grave will be exhumed.
“We couldn’t ask for more. We really couldn’t,” she said.
Ms Corless told Independent.ie that the Government decision meant that a much wider area than just the sewage tank chambers would be investigated for remains.
“I have been adamant all along that there were burials in the surrounding area as well as in the tank,” she said.
“They have decided to do test excavations there [in the surrounding area] to find out exactly where they are.
“I have been saying all along that they can’t leave the rest of the burials.”
The Tuam Babies Family Group, made up of over 20 people who had relatives in the home, also welcomed the announcement.
In a statement the group said: “This is an exceptionally important decision and will pave the way for all the other mother and baby homes, and the lost children of Ireland.
“We want all of the children found, if they are not in the grave, where are they? All of the children must be found and we would like to see a full excavation of the entire site as we believe there are many graves in the area, not just at the site we have all come to know.
“We want to thank Minister Zappone and Professor Geoffrey Shannon, whose work on human rights has heavily influenced today’s decision.
“We met with the Taoiseach last night, and we believe he showed empathy. We are very grateful for this decision.
“The lost children of Ireland deserve truth and recognition and dignity in their shameful deaths, which was no fault of their own. We hope this decision will bring peace to the families of these children.”
An international Expert Technical Group (ETG) report prepared for Ms Zappone said the situation in Tuam was unprecedented and that no comparable case could be identified either nationally or internationally.
It found there were a number of factors which made it unique.
These included the significant quantity of juvenile remains, the commingled or intermixed state of the remains, and the position of the remains within subsurface chambers, with limited access.
The ETG report gave a menu of five options for the site, ranging from memorialisation with no further excavations to exhumation, forensic examination and further investigations.
However, it cautioned that the complexities of the site could not be understated and outcomes may be more limited than expected.
Ms Zappone said she wished to offer her solidarity and an apology to all of those affected.
“Every effort will be made to locate the juvenile remains at the site.”
She said these were “lost children, lost sisters and lost brothers” and there was a need to respond with “empathy and compassion to those who have been previously ignored”.
The minister said it was one of the “dark chapters” of Ireland’s history and steps must be taken to ensure something like it can never happen again.
Ms Zappone said the project to exhume and identify the remains is expected to cost between €6m and €13m.
She said the Bon Secours Sisters had offered “a voluntary contribution” of €2.5m towards this.
The offer has been accepted in principle by the Government, but Ms Zappone stressed it was not a settlement and not an indemnity of any type.
The local historian who helped uncover the remains of babies dumped in the Tuam mother and baby home said she believes there are many mass graves to be uncovered around Ireland, but Tuam "is a little bit worse, the fact it was a sewage area".