Saturday 21 September 2019

Michael Kelly: 'Those who know truth behind tragedy of baby homes must come forward and help'


Memorial: Funeral boxes, each representing a dead child at Tuam
Memorial: Funeral boxes, each representing a dead child at Tuam
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

The latest interim report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission leaves as many questions unanswered as it answers.

But it lifts a veil on a chapter in Irish history most of us would rather not face. And it asks piercing questions of those who clearly know more than they're letting on.

As well as excavating the site of the former Tuam home, yesterday's report excavates a period where some of the most vulnerable people in our society - including unmarried mothers and their children - got nothing from their friends and families other than a cold shoulder and their marching orders to a life in an institution.

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Some of the past reporting about this hugely emotive subject, particularly the final resting places of children who died in the homes, has been unhelpful to say the least.

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone told the Seanad in February that headlines which "sensationalise" the story cause further pain to former residents and their families desperate to know the full truth.

Yesterday's report sees the commission - chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy - echo this concern.

"In the light of a great deal of inaccurate commentary about the Tuam site, the commission considers it important to emphasise what it has established and what it has not established," the report says.

"The human remains found by the Commission are not in a sewage tank but in a second structure with 20 chambers which was built within the decommissioned large sewage tank."

Noting there are instances of deaths in the Tuam home's records which are not on the register of deaths, the report states that there is "very little basis for the theory that the children concerned did not die but were 'sold' to America".

But while the commission provides answers to dismiss some of the more lurid claims about the homes, we're still a long way away from getting the full picture - and there are those among us who can tell us more.

Take Bessborough, for example, where the burials of children who died at the home are not recorded.

There is no certainty about where they are buried and the nuns who ran the home told the commission they do not know where the children are laid to rest.

This is hard to fathom and the commission makes it clear that "there must be many people who know more about the burials which are described in this report and who have not come forward with relevant information".

That seems beyond dispute. What is not beyond dispute is the fact that basic human decency would dictate that anyone who knows anything about where these little ones are buried has a moral and religious responsibility to come forward.

The Ireland of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and industrial schools may seem like a far distant land now.

And it is.

But, as the ongoing pain of those whose loved ones were murdered and secretly buried by the IRA - euphemistically called 'the disappeared' - shows, the absence of a grave leaves a deep void that compounds the sense of loss.

Before the widespread availability of penicillin and other medicines considered routine today, infections needlessly claimed many lives - particularly those who were young and vulnerable.

Infant mortality in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s was in the region of 70 per 1,000 or 7pc, as high as some countries in sub-Saharan Africa have now.

Among those cruelly described as "illegitimate children" it was five times that of the rest of the population.

But the only thing they should have been guaranteed was the right to be treated with respect in death and to have a dignified burial and fitting final resting place where their memories could be acknowledged by loved ones as well as passers-by.

Tuam, Sean Ross, Bessborough, Castlepollard and Bethany are now bywords for a cruel and uncompromising culture in 20th-century Ireland that published birth out of wedlock in a way that is unimaginable today.

We can't undo that, but there are those who know more, and they must come forward if they have a shred of decency.

Irish Independent

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