Monday 18 November 2019

Tuam is now a byword for a cruel and unforgiving time - and it shines a light on a side of us that most wish to forget

The site of the mass grave at the Tuam mother and baby home. Picture: PA
The site of the mass grave at the Tuam mother and baby home. Picture: PA
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

After fears it would be covered over and a new memorial erected, there was relief and quiet satisfaction in Tuam this week that the Government has decided to go ahead with a full-scale excavation of the former site of the mother and baby home in the Co Galway town - even if some people affected felt let down that they heard the news via the media rather than ahead of time from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

I spoke to the family of one 87-year-old woman who gave birth in the home in 1951 and they were upset not to have been forewarned. The lady learned of the plan to exhume the remains when she turned on the evening news.

In a world where most people look to the internet as their window on the world, Tuam has become a byword for a cruel and unforgiving time.

Type the name of the town into any search engine and stories are legion of the collusion between Church and State to ensure society didn't hear from or see what they viewed as 'fallen women' - those who became pregnant without being married.

They were victims of a culture of control that had its roots in Victorian puritanism and reached a climax after the creation of the Free State.

The site in Tuam had originally been a workhouse, and in a 1921 letter WT Cosgrave - as President of the Executive Council, effectively Ireland's first Taoiseach - surely summed up the prevailing mood of the time.

"People reared in workhouses, as you are aware, are no great acquisition to the community and they have no ideas whatsoever of civic responsibilities," he wrote. "As a rule, their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. Consequently, it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate."

That contempt for the poor and the marginalised less than a decade after the leaders of the Easter Rising proclaimed a Republic based on "cherishing all the children of the nation equally" is barely believable.

The fact that Mr Cosgrave felt free to put this in writing speaks of the extent to which such petty snobbery was the order of the day.

Enter the French Sisters of Bon Secours in 1925 and the home was earmarked as a place where unwed pregnant girls would be sent to give birth to spare their parents' blushes in the 'valleys of the squinting windows'.

Thanks to the tireless work of local historian Catherine Corless, we know that the death rate at the Tuam home was double that of other facilities and significantly higher than the national average.

Take 1947, for example, the year of 'the big snow' when hundreds of people lost their lives due to the weather.

In the Tuam home, 49 babies were born that year. A further 30 children younger than a year old were admitted to the institution in the same year, making a total of 79 children under the age of one. Records show that 25 babies less than a year old - almost a third - died that year.

One child, aged just eight months old, died of laryngitis and cardiac arrest. A three-month-old is recorded as dying of TB. Other causes of death include bronchitis, convulsions and epilepsy.

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation (MBHCOI) will have to answer many questions.

There has been no evidence - so far - that the nuns were directly or indirectly responsible for the babies' deaths.

But, there are serious issues that need to be addressed. Were the deaths of the children preventable, for example? Did the sisters who worked in the home do enough to ensure that children who were ill got the medical attention they needed?

We certainly know that the children were not buried in a way that seems befitting by the standards of today.

As far as we know, they were swaddled and placed on shelves in a crypt - which may or may not have been purpose-built - at a time when it was by no means uncommon for individual graves not to have been noted.

Tuam is a glimpse into a country that was a harsh and brutal place for people who didn't live up to a fantasy vision of Ireland as an idyll that was Catholic and free from nefarious influences.

It was anything but. In fact, it was a hell on Earth for those judged to have failed the morality litmus test.

Egregious, certainly. But, it is only one example of the architecture of confinement that marked much of 20th-century Ireland.

Add to it industrial schools, Magdalene Laundries and psychiatric hospitals that were bursting at the seams.

Taxpayers rightly bemoan the spectre of seemingly endless investigations.

But high death rates in psychiatric hospitals, unmarked graves and allegations of patient mistreatment deserve to be investigated if Ireland is to arrive at anything resembling closure.

It would be easy to lay all the blame on the Church or the Bon Secours nuns - and certainly there is much fault there - but as former Taoiseach Enda Kenny pointed out: "No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children…We gave them up maybe to spare them the savagery of gossip, the wink and the elbow language of delight in which the 'holier than thous' were particularly fluent. We gave them up because of our perverse, in fact, morbid relationship with what is called respectability."

Tuam shines a light on a side of Irish life many would prefer to forget.

It is, to paraphrase a theatre critic's reaction to the 1907 'Playboy of the Western World' riots, "as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous". It's unsettling and clashes with our deeply held sense of ourselves as the nicest people in the world.

The 'Ireland of the welcomes' marketing blurb sits very uneasily alongside the numerous examples when this wasn't a very welcoming place for many people.

Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper.

Irish Independent

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