It could well be the darkest ever scandal concealed in Ireland’s past but now the government has pledged to carry out a full forensic examination of the former mother and baby home in Co Galway. PJ Cunningham reports on a chapter that could see the remains of almost 800 children finally receive respectful burials.
It has taken a long time but at last Ireland is trying to right the wrongs that occurred so grotesquely last century in a mother and baby home in Tuam.
The announcement last week by Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, that she plans to spend up to €13 million to recover the children’s remains where it is possible and re-inter them properly and with respect was greeted with approval by those close to this horrendous chapter in the history of the Irish state.
It is also an acknowledgement, albeit belatedly, that we as a nation are dealing with our sinister past by excavating the pit of horror where 798 children’s bodies were dumped like domestic refuge.
More than that, though, it is the first real understanding by authorities that the innocent victims of a tyrannical regime in the past will finally have human rights bestowed on them with the dignity of a proper resting place.
While there was a consensus that the current cabinet had come up with the right solutions and had walked the walk by earmarking finances to carry out the work, there was less acceptance for the disclosure that the Bon Secours sisters had offered to pay a €2.5 million fixed sum to the Tuam excavation costs.
This figure was only forthcoming following correspondence with Minister Zappone and is understood to be much less than what was sought as a contribution from the order by the state.
Their approach has not won the order any friends with its blatant meanness of spirit, regretful in light of their obvious role in those darkest days.
The Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, in a report highlights the fact that the State could yet face criminal charges for not giving the children a proper burial. However, the task of painstakingly tracking down families of all those children is a mammoth one and could, in turn, take years and years to undertake.
There is no doubt that without the great work undertaken by local historian, Catherine Corless, the scandal of Tuam might have been another dark secret never to see the light of day. Indeed, it is a sobering thought to consider that there are 13 more mother and baby homes in the country, and the extent of the cover-ups in these institutions are still largely unmeasured.
As DNA testing and the exhumations get ready to start in Tuam, inevitably such probes may also seek to address how the children actually died under the care (sic) of the Bon Secours sisters.
One thing to emerge is the high death rate in this home, raising the possibility of foul play which could lead to garda involvement if inquests and murder investigations called for by survivors are given the green light.
Ireland in the second half of the last century was dominated by the religious collar with politicians only too happy to defer to the men of the cloth in dealing with issues such as pregnancy outside of marriage. In the thinking of the time, it was much better that innocent babies could be discarded in sewers rather than have the image of Catholic Ireland sullied with their presence in the community.
In the nod and wink way authorities were happy to conceal scandals then, it is equally disturbing to think that decades later gardai and local councils were aware of the mass grave situation without ever showing any real desire to unearth the tragedy.
Of course, it would be too easy to condemn those in authority as our public figures with the odd rare exception were happy to sweep the septic tank terrors under the carpet.
Catherine Corless would not allow such a convenient exit for this story. She had to pull the government and people who tried to decry her campaign picking and dragging with her into the reality of what happened.
Such has been her heroism and stubbornness in championing the cause of Tuam Mother and Babies that the 62-year-old’s role could be translated to the silver screen. Ms Corless admitted that she has been flooded with movie and book offers. True to form, she has stressed that she will not be happy to sign off on anything until the truth is out on what happened during those bleak times with the home.
Ms Corless said she was overjoyed at the decision to initiate excavation and exhumation at the site, adding that it made her work worthwhile.
“I’m very relieved, to be honest, as I was in the dark. Nothing was happening actually and it could have gone any way really. It’s a huge relief and I am overjoyed the truth is being exposed. I just did anything that would keep awareness alive. I stuck with it,” she stressed.
“I’m very thankful to Minister Zappone and the government for making the right decision. It has gone further than we had ever hoped. This is going to take a few more years but the work begins now.”
Ms Corless, herself a mother of four emphasised: “My hope is that each of the remains will get its own little white coffin. That’s the least they should get. It’s what they should have got.”