We need less outrage and more home truths about Tuam
If this country is to hold its head up high a century after independence, it needs to start manufacturing a lot more than outrage. Our reaction to the story of 800 deaths over four decades at the mother-and-baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, has not been proportionate.
The sight of politicians calling for declaration of crime scenes and a newspaper arranging radar examination of a graveyard does little to bring clarity to a complicated story. It was no secret that many children died young, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. They were dying all over Ireland from infectious diseases. Principal causes were TB, dysentery, diphtheria, meningitis, bacterial pneumonia, and complications of measles and polio. This was the pre-antibiotic era. You were considered lucky if all your children lived to adulthood. Every year, the Galway Health Board would advertise a public contract in local newspapers for a supply of coffins to its Tuam children's home. They were to be made of white deal, one-inch thick, and supplied in three different sizes. Specifications included electro-brassed grips, breastplate and crucifixes. It was no state secret that orphanages that looked after large numbers of vulnerable children, most under the age of five, had higher death rates than the community at large.
The obligatory tribunal is on the way, but I have been able to do some of my own research from old editions of the Irish Medical Directory and archives of local newspapers of the day. The children's home at Tuam was owned by Galway County Council and the Health and Public Assistance Boards that preceded it. They paid the salary of the medical officer and a capitation grant to the nuns for each mother and child. The first medical officer at Tuam was Dr Thomas Bodkin Costello. He graduated from the old Royal University of Ireland in 1888, and would have been well-established in practice at Bishop Street, Tuam, when the children's home was opened. He was appointed in July 1925 at a salary of £90 per annum, approved by the Minister for Local Government and Health. Dr Costello had an impressive array of postgraduate qualifications, and was also medical officer for the Civic Guards and the Post Office. An educated man, he co-wrote a book called Focloir na Leagha, which was a list of medical terms in Irish. Dr Costello, and his successor in the 1950s, Dr Anthony Waldron, would report back to the board or council on medical conditions and death rates at this home.
The role of politicians in the running of this home was interesting. Just before Christmas, in 1929, they dispatched an officer to interview all the unmarried mothers about who had got them in the family way. The subsequent report was discussed in detail by the local board. Most of the girls were servants and gave the names of fellow servants or labourers as "putative fathers". The board was not interested in these. They were more interested in whether any of the fathers were men of means. One was, and was then chased for money by the local solicitor. Other girls were the daughters of farmers and living at home when they got into trouble. It was decided to chase these families for maintenance. If fees were not forthcoming, the home would send the mother and children back to the farms from whence they came. Health authorities now run nursing homes in the same fashion.
On a lighter note, my interest in local phrases for medical terms continues. I am now told that plucamas is not a local term for measles, but it is the direct Irish translation. No wonder I only got a D in Irish. Kind correspondents tell me that, in Tipperary, ringworm was always known as tetters and excessive anger or ire in Co Kerry is sometimes known as wine gall. A doctor, who has worked across many western counties, tells me that a sore throat, or hoarseness, in Mayo is a piachain. A lady from Longford once told her, "I have a sore throat and I would be gatherin' and gatherin' to clear it." The doctor says it was the finest description of a post-nasal drip she ever heard. In coastal Galway, she has heard a repetitive strain injury called a trallach, and says the act of squatting is referred to as "going down on your gogaide". Contributions to Modern Medicine in Local Ireland are always welcome at email@example.com or by post to PO Box 5049, Dublin 6W.
I was writing recently about Matron at the old Adelaide Hospital, and a friend asked if we could find out which surgeon operated on a tumour in her father's ear there back in the early 1950s. Other hospitals had refused him surgery because of its deep location. The Adelaide consultant gave instructions to the secretary that he was to be allowed to jump the queue whenever he arrived. The surgeon was so pleased to do his operation, one that was rarely attempted, that he performed it without any charge. With a little digging, I have discovered that the surgeon in question was the late Mr Sidney Furlong. He lived at Pembroke Road, near Baggot Street Hospital, and once built his own airplane in his back garden. A prominent member of the Irish Aero Club, he would compete against other doctors, including Oliver St John Gogarty, in airplane-landing competitions. Apparently, Mr Furlong was once asked to give evidence in a court case in Wexford and flew his own plane down to the courthouse, or nearby, anyhow. They certainly don't make ear, nose and throat men like that any more.
Dr Maurice Gueret is
editor of the 'Irish