AT the Bon Secours home for mothers and children, 796 children were buried in a mass grave over 37 years (1925-61). At the Bethany Home in Dublin, 221 children were buried in unmarked graves over 28 years (1922-49).
The Bethany Survivors Campaign supports Catherine Corless's commendable research on the Tuam deaths and her efforts with Teresa Killeen Kelly to place an appropriate memorial stone at the Tuam site. The Tuam Graveyard Committee attended the April 2 unveiling of the monument to Bethany children in Mount Jerome cemetery.
Mainly young, unwed mothers were banished from their community to Bethany as a punishment. Some 'unwanted' 'illegitimate' children who survived the Bethany regime were exported to Britain and the USA. Some were dispatched to unsuitable families. Many suffered lifelong illness, physical and psychological.
Since the discovery of the Bethany graves in 2010, survivors were keen to ensure that Protestant denominations, whose clerical representatives sat on the Bethany Managing Committee, accepted their share of responsibility. Only the Church of Ireland stepped up to the plate. However, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches did send representatives to the recent memorial unveiling; that was a moving and positive event for all who participated. Plymouth Brethren assemblies, whose religious ideology guided the 'Mission' (Bethany's name in its minute book), ignored survivors' requests for discussion.
However, the Bethany survivors' focus has been on the state, which was supposed to regulate the health and wellbeing of residents under the 1934 Registration of Maternity Homes Act. Analysis shows that Bethany became a more dangerous place for children after its passing. In a home with, on average, 20 mothers and about the same amount of children in a given month, 52 children died in the 10 years before enactment, 132 during the 10 years afterwards. In October 1939, the deputy chief medical adviser of the Department of Local Government and Public Health stated, after visiting Bethany, that it was "well recognised that illegitimate children are delicate and marasmic (starving) from their birth".
This tosh was in response to public disquiet at death and illness in the home, exacerbated by sectarian competition for possession of children's souls (whether living or departed). The medical adviser sought a solution to unwelcome publicity throughout 1939 by finally directing Bethany in October to cease admitting Roman Catholics. He thus revealed the sectarian intent of state regulation.
His 'solution' worked. Public attention went away and children, all of whom survived between April 14, 1939 and April 21, 1940, started dying again. Once the spotlight was turned off, lives were again quenched.
In reacting to the disgraceful revelations in Tuam, and more that are sure to emerge in other parts of the island, we should not lose focus.
These institutions were state services by proxy that were officially regulated.
Deaths in church-run or religiously based institutions required official complicity or perhaps (more likely) indifference toward the plight of officially marginalised 'illegitimate' human beings.
While going through the Bethany Home Minute book I noted monthly figures on how many children died. A thought occurred, 'Where are they buried?'. That led me in 2010 to unmarked ground at the nearest graveyard, Mount Jerome, and subsequent extraction of children's names from the burial register. It is inconceivable that the state was not aware of this fact. Could state officials similarly have been unaware of the mass grave in Tuam and of the living conditions that led to it? That seems highly unlikely.
The religious orders and churches whose representatives administered 'mother and baby' homes have their burden of responsibility. So, too, does the state. It was not blind to what went on and should not be allowed to deflect from its responsibility today, by placing all blame on churches. Bethany survivors and those from similar homes were unfairly excluded from the state's redress scheme in 2005 by then Education Minister Mary Hanafin. Subsequent ministers turned down requests to reverse the decision. Perhaps it can be reversed now. How much more unearthing of forgotten children will it take?
Niall Meehan is Head of the Journalism & Media Faculty in Griffith College Dublin