You have probably read with dismay and disgust, as I have, the story of the bodies of 800 babies cast into a septic tank in Tuam, County Galway, children who passed away while under the care of the Bon Secours sisters at a “Mother and Baby” home. Between 1925 and 1961, the home sheltered hundreds of children and at least some of their unwed or “itinerant” mothers. Many of the children were mentally or physically disabled and suffered from malnutrition and neglect. According to what may be the first news report of the controversy, a May 25 article in the Irish Mail: “Causes of death included malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia.”
The story has provoked countless outraged commentaries in newspapers around the world and launched a thousand jaw-dropping headlines. Officials from the Irish government are now organizing inquiries; Irish Bishops, eager perhaps not to repeat the mistakes that typified the episcopal response to accusations of clerical sexual assault, are demanding that someone get to the bottom of what the sisters were up to in Tuam and at similar sites around Ireland. Those who already have their reasons to loathe the institutions of the Catholic church are a full-force gale of editorial indignation because of the septic-tank babies and rightly so.
Trouble is, there may be much less to the story than the horror suggested by those initial headlines. It is a sad reality, as the church continues to grapple with the legacy of its insufficient, at times negligent response to the sex abuse crisis, that a story as gothic and cruel as the Galway babies could come to be accepted at news-face value.
Don’t get me wrong; there remains plenty to fret over and investigate regarding the Bon Secours’ home and the manner of the final disposition of these children. Official site visits of the 1940s recorded deplorable conditions and include depressing descriptions of the state of the children there. What is not clear is how much this suffering can be ascribed to the poverty of the institution itself, the deplorable state of Irish country society at the time—infant mortality ran high whether at this “home” or within a normally impoverished home of Tuam (my grandfather’s hometown)—and how much of the babies’ neglect and their allegedly thoughtless disposal can be ascribed to cruelty and indifference among the sisters themselves.
A local historian, Catherine Corless had been among a handful of people attempting to find out more about the children who died in the Tuam home and was seeking to raise money for a formal marker to place at the site so that these forgotten children could be acknowledged. She wrote about her research for the Old Tuam historical society. Her story was picked up by the Irish Mail on Sunday May 25. The Mail headlined the report “A Mass Grave of 800 Babies,” but it did qualify in the body of the article that the presumed mass grave “may [my italics] contain the bodies of almost 800 babies.”
The Mail report continued: “It is suspected that as many as 796 children were interred in a concrete tank beside the home,” and “A source close to the investigation said: ‘No one knows the total number of babies in the grave. There are 796 death records but they are only the ones we know of.’”
An abandoned water tank is mentioned, no word about a septic tank, and remarkably the deceased are all presumed to have been disposed of in the concrete tank, according to “it is suspected.”
The Irish Mail account also included the testimony of two local men who as children in the 1970s had “stumbled upon” the gravesite. One, Barry Sweeney, then aged 12, according to the Mail, recalled. “It was a concrete slab. We used to be in there playing but there was always something hollow underneath it so we decided to bust it open and it was full to the brim of skeletons.
“The priest came over and blessed it. I don’t know what they did after that. I had nightmares over it, I could see all the skulls, it’s like what you would see on the Discovery Channel.”
This remains the outline of the tale that quickly spread to newspapers around the world, but within days some key components of the story had become seriously, perhaps irrevocably jumbled.
A website, irishcentral.com, had the story on May 26, rewriting and citing the Irish Mail account. The Irish Central reporter also actually interviewed the local historian, Corless, who told her that when she solicited the death certificates of the children who had died at the home over nearly 40 years that the registrar came back with a list of the 796 children. “I could not believe it. I was dumbfounded and deeply upset,” Corless said. “There and then I said this isn’t right. There’s nothing on the ground there to mark the grave, there’s nothing to say it’s a massive children’s graveyard. It’s laid abandoned like that since it was closed in 1961.”
Soon reports about the reports in Irishcentral, the Mail and other sources began a lazy susan circulation of internet citation that came to typify the manner this Galway tale was reported.
On June 3, the Washington Post headlined their account: “Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers.” The Post reported, citing Irish Central and other media, that “More than five decades after the Home was closed and destroyed—where a housing development and children’s playground now stands — what happened to nearly 800 of those abandoned children has now emerged: Their bodies were piled into a massive septic tank sitting in the back of the structure and forgotten, with neither gravestones nor coffins.” The water tank is thoroughly septic now and it is “massive.” It would have to be to hold that many dead bodies.
The New York Daily News likewise blared: “800 skeletons of babies found inside tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers.”
A June 3 Guardian story, attributed to staff and “agencies,” hewed close to the bare facts of the story as it was so far understood. It reported: “The Catholic church in Ireland is facing fresh accusations of child neglect after a researcher found records for hundreds of children said to be buried in unmarked graves at the site of a former home for unwed mothers.”
The first Guardian story clearly refers to unmarked graves but adds that Corless “suggested that many of the children's remains lie in the site of an old septic tank.”
That linkage proved irresistible for opinion writers. In the same paper the next day, under a headline boldly demanding, “Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway's mass graves: Forget prayers. Only full disclosure by Ireland's Catholic church can begin to atone for the children who died in its care,” columnist Emer O'Toole flatly asserted: “The bodies of 796 children, between the ages of two days and nine years old, have been found [my italics] in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway.” After this ferocious beginning O’Toole oddly acknowledges just a few sentences later that “the number of bodies” were “unknown,” adding, “their names forgotten.”
A June 6 story from the UK’s Independent, headlined, “Ireland mass graves: Unearthing one of the darkest chapters in Irish history,” described how “The bodies of the infants had been stacked—buried is too formal a word—in a disused septic tank.”
The account continues: “Only now is the realisation dawning that for decades the Galway earth has held the skeletons of 800 babies and toddlers in ‘a jumble’ that is one of the country’s most unthinkable secrets. Each new detail of what is being called the Irish Holocaust brings fresh horror. The children were the offspring of unmarried mothers who were housed in a nearby home run by nuns. Many died of malnutrition, at a mortality rate suspiciously well above the national average.”
The “fresh horror” of the Galway babies now apparently represents “the Irish Holocaust,” called so by, hmm, not clear, though many might argue that the starvation of one-third of the Irish population by British policy and the flight of a third more during the previous century might make a better candidate for that title. In fact many locals throughout this controversy have remained unimpressed by the home babies story as many “mass graves” dating back to the famine times have been unearthed from time to time in this part of Galway. The Great Hunger was just one of the many hungers which claimed lives here throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
I could cite literally scores of other stories and headlines reprinted in respectable newspapers all over the world that continued the false account of the “dumped babies,” but I think you get the point.
By June 8 Corless had had enough. “I never used that word ‘dumped’,” she told The Irish Times. “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.”
“I never used that word ‘dumped,’” Corless repeats “with distress” to the Times reporter, Rosita Boland. “I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own.”
The Irish Times also tracked down one of the “boys” who had uncovered the water? septic? tank cover on the site of the old home. Barry Sweeney, who was 10, not 12, when he made his frightening discovery. “There were skeletons thrown in there. They were all this way and that way. They weren’t wrapped in anything, and there were no coffins,” he says. “But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that.”
How many skeletons does he believe there were? Boland asks.
“About 20,” Sweeney tells her.
What is certainly known is that over 36 years on average 22 children each year died at the Tuam home. The final figure may be higher. “The deaths of these 796 children are not in doubt,” reports Boland. “Their numbers are a stark reflection of a period in Ireland when infant mortality in general was very much higher than today, particularly in institutions, where infection spread rapidly. At times during those 36 years the Tuam home housed more than 200 children and 100 mothers, plus those who worked there, according to records Corless has found.”
According to a review of the death certificates by The Irish Times; “the children are marked as having died variously of tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis, among other illnesses.” Some of the children who died may have been buried in an abandoned tank, which may have been used as a septic tank as late as 1937. Others may have been buried in other unmarked sites on the grounds. Despite the increasingly extravagant accounts of the U.S., U.K., Irish and now international media, 800 baby bodies have not been located in a septic tanks. In fact there is no reason to believe any babies were ever “dumped” into a septic tank, as many media reports have depicted it. Corless speculates (let’s repeat together, “speculates”) that the sisters may have converted an unused tank into a crypt for some burials.
A government investigation of the site, that among other agenda items will seek to find the unmarked graves of these deceased children, is beginning and the Archbishop of Tuam has committed the diocese to seeing to a proper burial for any remains that are discovered. The Bon Secours sisters have assured that they will cooperate as much as they are able to with the investigation.
As for the “Galway, gothic, Irish holocaust,”or however it may come to be officially known, it may prove to be a holocaust mostly of sloppy and indifferent reporting and twitter/Facebook frenzying, e-mail and fury signifying nothing more than how quickly misinformation can travel in our socially-mediated era.