Beyond the Grave

We’ve heard of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, homes for ‘fallen women’ – including unmarried mothers – who were subject to horrible sexual, physical and mental abuse. But what of the children? The recent discovery of a mass grave containing the bones of 800 babies and children at the site of the former Bon Secour Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, is horrific.

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A Shrine in Tuam, County Galway (credit: Paul Faith, Getty Images)

In 2014 Catherine Corless, a historian who had been to school with some of the ‘inmates’ as they were known then, found records of 796 deaths registered between 1925 and 1961. It was rumoured that they had been buried in an unmarked grave, and an inquiry was established, but it was only on March 3rd that excavations found the children buried in an underground structure next to a septic tank.

Horrifying though this discovery is, for me it is not so much the disrespect shown by the nuns in not giving them a Christian burial, but why so many died in the first place. And what happened to those who survived? And their mothers?

An inspector who visited the home in 1947 gives details of the neglect suffered by the children who were malnourished.  One baby was described as emaciated, with flesh hanging loosely on limbs.’ The home was overcrowded with 271 children and 61 mothers living there when the desirable number was 243. There was a very high level of infant mortality with 34% of the children dying in 1943 – a rate far higher than the average rate of some 7% in rural Ireland at that time.

Corless, interviewed on Woman’s Hour on March 9th, found a sense of relief ‘for the survivors of the Children’s Home. They had brothers and sisters…they’d been searching for years coming up with no answers. I’m happy for them that something is happening for them.’

But Tanya Gold, in an article for the Guardian, points out that the official Commission on Mother and Baby Homes is narrow in scope. ‘About half of the adopted people and their mothers have been placed beyond the scope of the inquiry. There is, so far, nothing for them – no possibility of apology, financial settlement, memorial, medical history or opportunity for healing – an unless the inquiry radically expands, there never will be. These are, in many cases, ruined lives. Much of the press likes to tell happy tales of families reunited, but this is retrospective and duplicitous self-expiation; it is sentimental. What was taken cannot be returned.

I spent the first two months of my life in a mother and baby home in London and the next four months in the National Children’s Home before I was adopted. I’m not saying that I or my mother was mistreated. I had a strict, but reasonably happy adoption, and I recently found two birth sisters. I now know where I’ve come from, but from what my sisters told me my birth parents never recovered from the stigma of my birth and went on to lead somewhat sad lives.

I don’t know Gold’s background but I agree: what was taken cannot be returned.

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