“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” And then there are stories about brutality, abuse and the Catholic Church.
What follows, I submitted as a comment to an article I came across on Facebook posted by Waterford Whispers News. The article was totally scurrilous, simply a rehash of all the worst distortions that have been so far published — for example, indeed as an example of the ludicrous rather than the scurrilous, whoever wrote it just assumed that whoever wrote whatever article he had based his on knew French as wot it is rote and so mis-translated "Bon Secours" as “safe harbour” rather than “Good Comfort”, even going so far as to replicating not using initial capital letters —
“The Tuam workhouse for unmarried mothers and their babies was run by the Sisters of Bon Secours (French for ‘safe harbour’) between the years 1925 and 1961, during which time the bodies of at least 796 children aged from 2 days to 9 years were placed one by one in an unused septic tank, following deaths from TB, malnourishment, pneumonia, and good old-fashioned neglect.”
Good old fashioned neglect. Yes, indeed. The good old fashioned neglect of the truth when to actually check the facts and to then properly assess them before putting pen to paper would be too much like hard work when there is the chance of a bit of good old fashioned Catholic Church bashing and baiting.
Where to start? Although it is only incidental, the seemingly helpful translation of the French, calculated to provide an ironic dig at the nuns involved, and hence the Catholic Church, falls flat. If the author of this article had done something as simple as bothering to seek expert help about the translation of “Bon Secours”, rather than just lift it from somebody else’s piece, he would have come up with a more pointed barb. It is all to do with the “of” before “Bon Secours”. This renders the possible translation of “Bon Secours” as “safe harbour” untenable. They are in fact the Sisters of Good Comfort. Still to my mind a sadly misplaced jibe but it at least would have had the merit of being, whilst still wrong, at least right; if you see what I mean.
Catherine Corless examined the public records and found that as far as she could determine 796 children had died at the local St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam run by the Bon Secours nuns. This was not in any size, shape or form a “workhouse”. It had been one, established in 1840, but it had ceased to be one before the nuns took over. Perhaps the author of this article had read that in 1938 the Matron and Medical Officer for the Home had petitioned the local authority to have a new disinfecting chamber and laundry installed and jumped to the wrong conclusion. These were to deal with the Home’s own laundry: the children’s clothing, the bedding etc. It was NOT a Magdalene Laundry.
Indeed, originally mothers were not catered for. It was only four years after the Home opened that this became the case. And it is very much to the credit of the Sisters that this happened.
In 1929 a special maternity ward for unmarried mothers-to-be was added to the Home. Married women, especially those paying the full fees, at the local district hospital in Connacht voiced their displeasure at having to share hospital facilities with “fallen women”. A senior local priest, one Canon Ryder, objected to the suggestion that these unfortunate women be segregated from the others and had hoped to secure facilities for them at other hospitals. That having proved a fond hope, the Bon Secours sisters in St Mary’s kindly offered to help. Unfortunately, they were never able, through no fault of themselves, to recruit enough properly trained staff and they were never provided with adequate facilities. There is no doubt that these practical difficulties affected infant and maternal mortality outcomes but the nuns cannot be blamed for that. They did their best.
Over the lifetime of St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home (1925-61) there were on average about 22 deaths per year. Catherine Corless noted that the children had died from a range of ailments including malnutrition, measles, meningitis, tuberculosis, convulsions, influenza, bronchitis, pneumonia, gastroenteritis and so on. (It must be remembered that in any institution were large numbers are living in close contact with one another cross infection is both a great concern and something which can never be wholly counteracted.) Neglect, good old fashioned or not, was not an issue she noted. And to forestall at least one all too predictable riposte from the ill-informed and ill-disposed, “malnourishment” is not a synonym for “neglect”. Indeed, at that time most children in Ireland would have been clinically speaking malnourished and it is reasonably safe to assume that that would have been a contributory factor in the deaths of most infants and young children, in or out of local authority care.
Albeit that in this instance it is local authority care by proxy. The local authority owned the Home and the good sisters operated it on their behalf. And far from it being “notorious”, in 1935 the Health Board commended it as being “one of the best managed institutions in the country”. In 1944 the Matron ensured that all the children were vaccinated against Diphtheria (it has been estimated that in the previous year, 1943, there were 1 million cases of Diphtheria throughout Europe and that 50,000 died). She also sought to have the children vaccinated against Whooping Cough. The Tuam Herald reported in 1949 on the Health Board inspection of the Home and noted that the Inspectors had “found everything in very good order and congratulated the sisters on the excellent conditions in their Institution”.
And, yes, in that year of 1944 a local Health Board report did, indeed, described some of the children as being “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” and with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” But in 1944 even children not in Homes were nowhere near as well-nourished as they are today. There was a war on in Europe and the Irish economy was in tatters, as were children in or out of care; and particularly in rural Ireland. And to state that is not being heartless, it is being honest. In 1949, the Matron and her senior assistants met with Senator Martin Quinn and told him that children were suffering as a result of a lack of funds. The Senator is reported to have replied: “I do not like these statements which receive such publicity”. He then asserted that the local people were complaining about how much the present level of care was costing.
But what about the poor wee souls who died? The author of this article states: “between the years 1925 and 1961… the bodies of at least 796 children aged from 2 days to 9 years were placed one by one in an unused septic tank.” If I may borrow a highly technical term from the legal fraternity: Bollocks. A spokesman for the Garda stated: “(T)here is no confirmation from any source that there are between 750 and 800 bodies present.”
In 1975 two boys, Francis Hopkins (then aged 12 years) and Barry Sweeney (10) were playing at the site. Barry was recently interviewed by The Irish Times. He told Rosita Boland they had levered up a concrete block which she notes he indicated was about the same size as his coffee table, roughly 120cms by 60cms. He said: “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. 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.”
Boland asked him how many skeletons he believes were there? He replied: “About 20.”
Now you have to bear in mind, firstly, that he is recalling something form almost forty years ago and, secondly, that this is a guess; it can’t even be described as an estimate. He had then and has now no scientific knowledge upon which he could make an educated assessment. And that is in no way meant as an insult or as a condescension. It is merely a statement of fact. Figures are being bandied about, supposedly authoritatively. Where do they come from? Even one of the few people who has actually seen inside this supposed septic tank — the site remains so far unexcavated so we don’t know if it is the septic tank that is known to have once been there — doesn’t know exactly but he reckons it could be only about 20.
And another thing, he does not say anything about the bones being those of children. They could have been the bones of adult s who died and were buried there when it was a famine workhouse. But even if they were children there couldn’t have been 796 of them. Not in the septic tank there couldn’t. And not simply because it would have needed to be one helluvva size of a tank. The septic tank was in use in the period between the nuns taking over the premises in 1925 and the public water system reaching Tuam in 1937. The public records show that 204 children died in the Home during that time. And so they could not have been “placed one by one” in it. 592 anyone?
But there is another problem. Barry Sweeney says there were no coffins. However, in 1932 in the Connacht Tribune newspaper the Bon Secours nuns placed an advertisement seeking tenders for the supply of coffins for the Home. Why do that if you are just going to dump the bodies either naked or in a shroud and in a septic tank or a more common mass grave? At the time the boys made their grim discovery, most local people believed that the remains dated from the workhouse that had been on the site before the mother-and-baby home. It could even have been a famine grave from the 1840s. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there are ANY babies or young children buried on the site never mind in the septic tank. So far it is simply a matter of supposition.
When Catherine Corless had produced her list of the 796 children, she sought to cross-reference them with the names of children buried in local cemeteries but she drew a blank. She concluded, therefore, that they must have been buried in unconsecrated ground at the rear of the premises. The Home has long since been demolished but that area is today a grassy, walled and gated plot where local people have planted roses and erected a small grotto with a statue of Our Lady. Hopefully there will now be added a suitable commemoration of the children who lived and died at the Home. And the Irish government, the local authority and the Church should combine to ensure that the site and the records should be thoroughly examined to determine exactly what happened.
And until that is done all those Lunchtime O’Booze’s out there should put away their fevered, anti-Catholic imaginations.