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Comment: The horror in Tuam continues to unfold... Tiny bodies dumped in a septic tank, left to rot without human dignity


Remembering: The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home. Photo: PA Archive/PA Images

Remembering: The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home. Photo: PA Archive/PA Images

PA Archive/PA Images

Remembering: The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home. Photo: PA Archive/PA Images

On the face of it there doesn't seem anything especially macabre about the site of the former mother-and-baby home in Tuam. Nestled between middle-class semi-ds and bathed in a soft winter light, it looks less like a latter-day Auschwitz and more like the kind of plot an ambitious developer would be licking his chops over. Hoarding is still erected around the site known locally as the Children's Graveyard on the Dublin Road.

To heathen eyes the carefully landscaped grotto in the corner almost looks like some kind of art installation. And even when you remember that actual human baby bodies were found here, you still have Galway County Council's newly minted description of the place - a Garden of Peace - to becalm you.

Just two weeks ago they declared it a protected site, which is "a structure that a planning authority considers to be of special interest from an architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical point of view". Every one of those well-meaning adjectives seemed to place the dark history of Tuam at a sanitised, academic remove. They seemed to presuppose that the healing was done.

Today calling it a Garden of Peace seems not just ridiculous, but also disrespectful to the victims of what looks very like systemic torture and mass murder. How can they grow flowers and plant trees, and invite contemplation, when the full extent of the horror is yet unfolding? And yet, if the council's renaming of the area showed unseemly haste in attempting to draw a line under what now looks like an active crime scene, this too, was strangely understandable.

We all wanted peace for Tuam. Over the past three years few of us could look the horror of the story in the eye. When it broke in 2014, it seemed an atrocity too staggering to comprehend: hundreds of babies buried in the grounds of a former mother-and-baby home. Tiny bodies dumped in a septic tank, left to rot without any human dignity.

After the nightly news we saw testimony of hollow-eyed adults who told of starved children with distended bellies. We heard of women forced to work as slaves to pay their debt to the religious order that took their children from them. We heard shaky-voiced old men who told of a poverty apartheid - they were never allowed to speak to the children with families. The news went around the world - it was on the front page of The Washington Post that week - but closer to home it seemed, at a subtle level, to not be fully taken seriously.

You could speculate on the reasons for this. Maybe the horror was too much to take in.

We had already come through the umpteen child abuse scandals connected with the Church and this just seemed a dark chapter too far. We were inured. And there were so many gaps in the story, so many doubts.

There seemed little enough appetite for it in Galway itself - many in Tuam felt that the investigations were a pointless and painful rummage into a dark time in recent Irish history.

It was local historian Catherine Corless whose research alerted first the Irish media and, then, the international press to the magnitude of this drama. When eventually the Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation was established to investigate thoroughly what had happened, Corless was excluded from any meaningful involvement in the investigation or from information about the archeological dig which resulted from her work.

The rumour mill churned, of course, but last Friday morning's press conference was the first that she had heard about what had been found. "The archaeologists said they were sworn to secrecy," she said.

Now the story has exploded once again. Much like Sinead O'Connor or Christina Buckley, Catherine Corless has now been vindicated in her claims about the institutional abuse which took place. Children's minister Katherine Zappone was said to have choked up with emotion on a telephone call with her this week. There were calls this week to put Corless on a stamp. She is the Erin Brockovich of the Tuam Babies scandal. Layers of class and bureaucracy tried to stall her progress to the truth. She initially tried to contact the Bon Secours sisters at their Cork headquarters and was told they no longer had files or information about the mother-and-baby home. She tried the Western Health Board, who told her there was no information available.

When she tried to access information from Galway County Council, she says she was told that she wasn't allowed because she didn't have a university degree. But it was Corless who first attached facts to the rumours. For decades there had been local talk of a graveyard for babies in the grounds of the home, and one woman told Liveline last week of "a skull on a stick" being seen by a child at the site.

The institution, known locally as The Home, was run by the Bon Secours nuns and was open from 1925 until 1961. Unmarried women in the area who became pregnant were sent there to give birth away from their families, as at the time having a so-called 'illegitimate' child was regarded as shameful.

The babies were then left in the institution to be raised by the nuns. Some of them were put up for adoption - in some cases, without the consent of the mothers.

Most of the women who lived there have now passed on - Corless says they are "few and far between" - but their relatives are still seeking answers. Peter Mulryan, one of the men who was involved in the original action group which formed around Corless, has fought a court battle to get information about what happened to his mother and sibling. His solicitor, Kevin Higgins, said there had been "widespread evidence of children trafficking at the home".

The full extent of the horror in Tuam is still unfolding. Galway County Council is now allowing for the possibility that there may be human remains under some of the houses in the area surrounding the so-called Garden of Peace. Thomas Warde, who was born in the home in 1942, last week told Liveline: "I know four houses [where the] people driving into their back yard they're driving on human graves. The graves are there."

The scandal again brings into sharp focus the dark history of the Catholic Church in this country and some will wonder how an organisation which allowed crimes like this to take place can be such a vociferous part of the debate on abortion and Repeal; the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference made extensive submissions to the Citizens' Assembly on the subject.

Katherine Zappone last week said that the State would now "honour the memory" of those who lost their lives, "and make sure that we take the right actions now to treat their remains appropriately".

Part of that will, of course, involve proper burials for the bodies, but part will also probably involve facilitating a clearer picture for relatives who have hitherto had to pry information from the relevant authorities and agencies through the courts.

Until those victims are satisfied, the 'garden' will remain a grave, and there will be no peace for Tuam.

Sunday Independent