DUBLIN – Almost 800 dead babies and children may have been interred in a mass grave near a home in Ireland run by nuns for unmarried mothers, research suggested Wednesday.
Public records show 796 children, from newborns to 8-year-olds, died at St. Mary’s home in Tuam, County Galway, during the 35 years it operated, from 1925 to 1961.
They are thought to have died natural deaths, from disease or malnutrition, but there are no records of their burials. Conservative Catholic teaching at the time denied children of unmarried parents baptism and therefore burial in consecrated land.
The government said it was considering an inquiry into what it called “deeply disturbing” revelations and is examining the “best means” to address them.
Historian Catherine Corless, who made the discovery, said study of the death registers for St. Mary’s suggests that the bodies were interred in a former septic tank nearby.
Corless said the records continue up until the home’s closure just over 50 years ago. She said some of the children are listed as having died from measles and tuberculosis, and that some were as young as 3 months old.
The tank was found brimming with bones in 1975 when concrete slabs covering it broke. Until now, locals had believed the bones were mainly those of victims of the Great Famine of the 1840s, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland.
St. Mary’s was run by the Bons Secours Sisters, an order of Catholic nuns, who operated it with state funding and supervision. While the Catholic Church did not run such institutions itself, many of Ireland’s social services in the early 20th Century were operated by religious orders.
Mother-and-baby homes such as St. Mary’s welcomed rape victims and other unwed pregnant women, commonly dubbed “fallen women,” and offered them perinatal care.
The women were often ostracized by society and in many cases were encouraged to give up their children for adoption. Unmarried mothers and their children were seen as a stain on Ireland’s image as a devout, Catholic nation. They were also considered a problem for the fathers, such as wealthy married men or even priests.
Like the Magdalene Laundries, where single women and girls were sent because they were seen as threatening Ireland’s moral fiber, the mother-and-baby homes were run by nuns but received state funding. They acted as adoption agencies and in that capacity were overseen by the state.
Poor health and other problems with the homes have long been documented. As far back as 1944, a government inspection report of the Tuam home described some of the children it cared for as “fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated.”
The activities of such institutions received fresh scrutiny following the commercially successful and Oscar-nominated movie “Philomena,” a true story of an Irish woman whose son was sold as a toddler by nuns to a U.S. couple.
Researcher Corless said in an online synopsis of her study that some mothers who gave birth at the home told her of being left unattended by nuns or midwives for long hours during labor, and that a doctor examined them only once, when first admitted.
The Tuam home was knocked down many years ago to make way for new houses, but locals have long maintained the area around the unmarked mass grave. A fundraising committee has now been formed and it is hoped that a memorial will be built with all the names and ages of the children displayed.
The archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, expressed shock at the revelations and said he would meet leaders of the Bons Secours Sisters to assist with the memorial. “Many of these young vulnerable women would already have been rejected by their families,” he said in a statement. “It is simply too difficult to comprehend their helplessness and suffering as they watched their beloved child die.”
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Charlie Flanagan said that “active consideration is being given to the best means of addressing the harrowing details.”
“Many of the revelations are deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been,” he said, adding that a report would be delivered to government by the end of June.
The Adoption Rights Alliance, which campaigns for greater access to adoption records in Ireland, particularly for those born in Catholic-run institutions, said there could be mass graves at other homes.
“This has got to be a national inquiry, it’s got to take in all of the mother and baby homes, all of which have mapped children’s graveyards on site,” co-founder Susan Lohan told an Irish broadcaster. “We’re looking at the very big mother-and-baby homes we know about, but there are also smaller ones.”