Irish society must “atone” for sending women to institutions and burying babies in unmarked graves, Leo Varadkar has said in response to last week’s long-awaited publication of the fifth interim report from the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes.
Ireland’s Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, has pled with the public that there “must be” people in Galway who “know more” about the mass burials of children at a mother and baby home in Tuam.
Nearly 800 children died at a mother and baby home in Tuam in the county between 1925 and 1961. The public inquiry into mother and baby homes, in its latest report, has encouraged people in the surrounding areas of Tuam and Galway to come forward, as well as its censuring of Galway County Council.
Significant quantities of human remains were subsequently found at the site, some in a septic tank, brought to the public’s attention by local historian Catherine Corless.
The Irish government set up the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation in 2015 to investigate the Tuam burials and to conduct a wider examination of how mother and baby homes were run.
The Tuam home was run by the Bon Secours order of nuns.
The remains found at Tuam in 2017 are believed to have been those of stillborn babies and babies and infants up to the age of three who had died as far back as the 1950s.The commission is excavating the site for a detailed forensic investigation.
The taoiseach said that the report made for “gruesome reading” and gave further insight into “a very dark part of our history”. “As a society, we inherit a deep shame for what was done back then and we must now endeavour to learn, to atone and to put things right,” Mr Varadkar said.
Published last Wednesday, the report is highly critical of the Sisters of Bon Secours and former members and officials of Galway County Council, which owned the home.
The report states that council members and staff “must have known something” about the manner of burial. This, said the report, is because the authority’s sub-committees sometimes met on the site.
It said employees would have been in the grounds “quite frequently” to carry out repairs to the building and suggested that officials or council employees may have also maintained the grounds.
The report also highlights other concerns over burial practices at a number of former maternity institutions.
With regard to the grounds of the Bessborough home and maternity hospital in County Cork, the commission said it was “likely” that some of the children were buried in the grounds but it could not find any “physical or documentary evidence” of that.
The report added that it was “highly likely” that burials did take place in the grounds of Bessborough.
The commission, however, did not consider it “feasible” to excavate 60 acres.
Representatives of the institution’s owners – the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary – told the commission they had little information on burials as Bessborough’s records were held by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and it had no access to them.
The report states that a number of the congregation’s nuns provided evidence to the commission but “were able to provide remarkably little evidence about burial arrangements”.
Excavations are also taking place at another former home at Sean Ross Abbey in County Tipperary.
The report was published by Irish Children and Youth Affairs Minister Katherine Zappone, who said it was “significant”.
A spokesperson for the Tuam Babies Family Group told Irish national broadcaster RTÉ that there were serious issues around the interim report.
Anna Corrigan, of the Tuam Babies Family Group, told RTÉ that issues surrounding the Tuam case were criminal and were a matter for the coroner and the Garda Síochána.
The commission’s fifth interim report, echoed by Zappone, states that there are still many unanswered questions, with the full report not expected until next year.
By Colin Gannon