Years after a Galway-area Catholic home for unmarried Irish mothers closed its doors, two boys playing on the grounds made a gruesome discovery:
… partially broken concrete slabs covering a hollow — a disused septic tank — “filled to the brim with bones.”
So began the latest scandal to swirl around the Catholic Church, an institution whose reputation in Ireland and elsewhere is in tatters due to a gigantic child sex-abuse scandal and the subsequent cover-up. Irish Catholicism was also rocked by revelations about the cruelty and exploitation that were endemic in the Magdalene Laundries, which I previously wrote about here.
The Galway bones turned out to be human and are thought to be all that’s left of almost 800 children who died miserably in the institution that was referred to locally as, simply, “the Home,” infamously run by Bon Secours nuns. The deaths occurred over a period of 36 years, between 1925 and 1961, the year the Home was finally shut down.
There do not appear to be death certificates for some of the children, which is why a police investigation is now underway. Where there are records, the causes of death have typically been recorded as “malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia.”
Unwed mothers and their children lived at the Home surrounded by eight-feet-high walls, in overcrowded and sometimes squalid conditions. The child death rate at the Home may have been as high as fifty percent, a number also seen in other Catholic institutions that purported to take good care of “fallen girls.”
The Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home, portrayed in the award winning film Philomena this year, opened in Roscrea, County Tipperary in 1930. In its first year of operation 60 babies died out of a total of 120, a fifty percent infant mortality rate, more than four times higher than in the general population at the time.
Statistics show a quarter of all babies born outside marriage in the 1930’s in Ireland died before their first birthdays. As observers have remarked elsewhere, these were infant death rates from the 17th century.
In one year alone in the mid 1940’s in the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in County Cork, out of the 180 babies born, 100 died.
Many who were warehoused at the Home near Galway died because of lack of nutrition and medical care.
A local health board inspection report from April 1944 recorded 271 children and 61 single mothers in residence, a total of 333 in a building that had a capacity for 243.
The report described the children as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” The report noted that 31 children in the “sun room and balcony” were “poor, emaciated and not thriving.” The effects of long-term neglect and malnutrition were observed repeatedly.
It will probably cheer some Vatican lovers that
… the “illegitimate” stigma was not confined to Catholics alone. Reports show that 219 infants died in the Protestant Bethany home in Rathgar, County Dublin between 1922 and 1949.
And “charity” this wasn’t, by and large. An adoption-rights advocate, Susan Lohan, told reporters that
“These were state-funded homes. Anybody who suggests the nuns were doing their best … they were not doing their best. They tendered for this business (and) wanted this business. They got a headage payment for every mother and child in their so-called care, which was greater at the time than the average industrial wage.”
While the mothers didn’t die at the same alarming rate as their children, they experienced pain and misery of a different kind:
Since there was simply no question of the birth mothers keeping their children — the shame was thought too ruinous — they lost all future claim to them. Their punishment was to work without wages for two or three years in atonement for their sins. In the homes they wore uniforms at all times, they had their names changed and they had their letters censored. …
In the few surviving black and white photographs taken at the site no child is smiling. Instead they simply frown at the camera, their blank stares suggesting the terrible conditions.
A local historian and genealogist, Catherine Corless, is trying to restore some honor to the almost 800 children whose remains were found on the grounds of the Home.
[A]s a schoolgirl Corless recalls watching an older friend wrap a tiny stone inside a bright candy wrapper and present it as a gift to one of [the institutionalized children]. “When the child opened it she saw she’d been fooled,” Corless says. “Of course I copied her later and I tried to play the joke on another little Home girl. I thought it was funny at the time.”
But later — years later — Corless realized that the children she taunted had nobody. “Years after I asked myself what did I do to that poor little girl that never saw a sweet? That has stuck with me all my life. A part of me wants to make up to them.”
Corless has helped the story onto many a front page. She’s now fundraising for a permanent bronze plaque marking the site, inscribed with the names of all the children who died at the Home, forgotten in life as well as death — until now.
Update: In the days and weeks after this story burst onto front pages all over the world, questions have been raised about the nature of the infants’ ghastly resting place. There seem to be three different, mutually exclusive claims: that the space was an active cesspit at the time, which now seems unlikely; that it was a disused (stone-slate?) septic tank, perhaps cleaned and rededicated as a burial chamber; or that it was a purpose-built crypt which investigators and/or the media (or Corless?) wrongly presented as a septic tank. See also here and here. Which is it? When we have confirmation, we’ll write another update.