Tuam mother and baby home: 'Secrets in the vaults of our cruel and troubling past'

THE green plastic bottle, slightly crushed but otherwise intact, must have looked out of place. It lay on the sediment on top of an underground chamber that contained the bones of dead children.

The site investigators regarded it as being of “significant evidential value” so they recovered it for analysis, first ensuring that doing so wouldn’t interfere with the human remains within the chamber. The label read: “Castrol GTX high-performance motor oil, contents 500ml, Castrol (Ireland) Ltd,” a product, they discovered, not launched on the British or Irish market in 1968.

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The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby homes, which produced its fifth report last week, regarded Castrol bottle as “proof” that “this particular chamber at least” had been accessible after 1968.

By that time, the now-notorious mother-and-baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, was shut down. The Bon Secours Sisters, who ran it, had moved out of the old council-owned workhouse building and were living in the town and Galway County Council planned a new housing estate on the site.

The nuns left behind, unrecorded and forgotten, a large number of children interred in an underground structure that was built within a decommissioned sewage tank. The structure was divided into 20 chambers, possibly designed to contain waste water or sewage and there was evidence that at some stage sewage had filtered through. Each chamber had a concrete lid and a narrow opening. Burying the infants required lifting the heavy lid. The Commission thought it was “highly unlikely” that the nuns did the burial but would have instructed others.

The remains of most children decomposed in the chambers, but other remains may have been placed there. Experts saw the cranium of a toddler, resting on surface sediment, suggesting it had been moved there in recent decades, possibly thrown.

The Castrol GTX bottle wasn’t the only piece of rubbish found in the debris: “non-domestic waste” was also within the chambers.

A list of “artefacts” observed included a century-old blue enamelled children’s cup displaying the nursery rhyme, ‘Mary had a little lamb’ and a child’s blue shoe. It also lists Bovril jars, a Club Orange can and a Southalls sanitary towels packet with the Guaranteed Irish symbol first introduced in 1974.

It was “highly likely” that the chambers were “accessed” when the Tuam Road housing estate was being built in the 1970s, the Commission said. Not only were infants and children buried in receptacles designed to receive sewage, but their final resting place attracted an accumulation of rubbish disposed by the living overhead.

Its findings on burial practices at mother and baby homes represent another secret from the vaults of Ireland’s cruel past.

In addition to its findings on Tuam, the report found that more than 900 children from Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Cork died, but the Commission could only find graves for 64. There are no burial records. The religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart Sisters of Jesus and Mary, don’t know where the children are.

Two other institutions, run by the Congregation of the Sacred Heart Sisters, were also investigated by the Commission. At Castlepollard, 220 children died but appear to have received proper burials in its graveyard on site. Investigations are ongoing at the third Sacred Heart institution, Sean Ross, where there is a designated children’s burial ground.

It found no evidence to support a suggestion that the deaths of children had been falsified so that they could be “sold” in America.

What kicks this scandal from the last century to the present is the Commission’s suggestion that information about the burial practices of children has been withheld and that people are not coming forward.

The Bon Secours order has claimed to have no knowledge of the burial practices and Galway Council said it was not aware that burials of the nature discovered by the Commission’s investigation had taken place there. Along with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, all insist they are cooperating.

Yet the Commission said they and the people of Tuam “must” know more.

In the 1970s, Galway County Council mapped the burial ground in three drawings for the housing estate it planned to build on the site. The burial site was dropped in a fourth and final drawing dated 1979.

Galway County Council members – which means councillors – “must have known” something about the burials, the report says. The health board held its meetings there and council employees were in and out repairing and possibly maintaining the grounds. It was the local authority’s responsibility to keep burial records.

The Bon Secours Sisters “must” have known something. They moved out of the old home in 1961, but they remained living and working in Tuam until 18 years ago and “must” have been aware of the 1970s building works.

The Sisters said they had no files and had no knowledge of the practices. There was only one nun alive who had served in the Home for a few months, and she was unable to assist. They are “shocked and devastated” by what has come to light. “It is the view of the Sisters that the children who died at St Mary’s deserved a proper burial and this did not happen. For this, we express our deep sorrow and apologise unreservedly.”

The Bon Secours Sisters commissioned its own archaeological review of the site, after reading a draft of the Commission’s, the effect of which was to suggest that the structure might have been a designated burial chamber. The Commission was unequivocal: This was not a purpose-built burial vault: “It did not provide for the dignified interment of human remains.”

The Congregation of the Sacred Heart Sisters of Jesus and Mary provided an affidavit that was speculative, inaccurate and misleading. They also claimed to have saved the State some money. They told the Commission that the infants buried at Sean Ross and Castlepollard “were laid to rest without any cost accruing to the coffers of the local or central government”. This was wrong; the Commission found bills for burials and a bill for coffins.

A spokesman for the Minister for Children Katherine Zappone is “strongly of the view that the church has a duty to contribute to the cost of the works that will take place on the site in Tuam”.

She will collect €2.5m from the Bon Secours Sisters in the coming weeks – a donation the Minister suggested they make last year. Sources said the nuns will be required to agree in writing that the money is not a “settlement” relinquishing it from liability, which leaves it open for the State to pursue the order for more. The Sacred Heart sisters are also likely to be asked for a contribution in the future.

The Minister is also understood to have raised the issue of “misleading” information being supplied to the Commission, according to sources. Although it was unlikely to be an offence, the Government was told that the issue could be raised once the Commission’s final report is published.

As with other scandals involving women and children, this one reaches into the State’s most powerful and privileged institutions. Universities are being forced to delve into their own dark pasts, with the “distasteful” disclosure that the remains of more than 950 “deserted” and “illegitimate” children were dispatched for anatomical research to University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons between 1920 and 1977.

The Anatomical Committee of the Irish Medical Schools – which represents the anatomy departments of all Irish medical schools – said it has been dealing with this “issue” since 2011, when a family member contacted one of the schools about a relative.

“On learning of the circumstances of the deceased infant, all Anatomy Departments carried out detailed inspections of all records held concerning bodies received.”

It is cooperating fully with the Commission and is trying “to the utmost of our ability to assist families who have requested information”, it said in a statement to the Sunday Independent.

Survivors of Tuam and their relatives want nothing less than full inquests into the deaths of all those who died. Others have called for criminal investigations. The Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan will be forwarding the report to gardai for examination.

For now, the Commission says its emphasis is on tracing the missing bodies, reclaiming the children who died.

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