60. The Real Tragedy of Tuam
The Irish Government’s current indecisiveness about the revelation of 796 children and babies flushed into a septic tank at a former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway is telling. The Report by the Irish Government is now complete and the horrors of Tuam’s Mother and Baby Home is worse then originally thought, with the number of children dumped higher by perhaps 3 times the official number. Both the Irish Government and the Irish Catholic Church have a major problem - how to handle the story. The Irish Government’s refusal to release the inflammatory Report on the babies in the septic tank (confirmed by a United Nations’ investigation) is to solely protect the Irish Catholic Church, not least because the Pope is coming to visit Ireland this year and the world’s press will be watching. Not yet known by the general public is the fact that two more death chambers have been found in Tuam, with the remains of hundreds more babies and children that were dumped into them in the 1930s, 40s, 50, and mid 60s while, to the outsider, the Mother and Baby Home looked singularly harmless and was considered to be a place of refuge and care.
Today this sinister site of horrors looks deceptively peaceful although when I first stood there I experienced a feeling of surprise and the weird sensation of knowing that I was standing on top of the remains of hundreds of babies and children.
The formerly grassy area is now tarmacked, but the outlines of the septic tank are marked out in white paint so I could gauge its size. It is approximately 40 feet by 30 feet (12 x 9metres) and oblong in shape. At the far end there is a grotto (made by people of the town) with a statue of the Virgin Mary enclosed in a cracked glass case and surrounded by withered flowers, both real and plastic. Dozens of red glass candle jars, mouldy and water logged, vie for space in the small area. Rain-soaked teddy bears and other toys are scatterd around, looking sad and unloved as were the children and babies beneath my feet. My first reaction when I looked at this obscene, makeshift religious ‘monument’ was that it was insulting. Of greater insult to my eyes, however, is the small, black marble plaque on the stone grey wall outside the septic tank site, which reads “ In Loving Memory of those Buried here. Rest in Peace”. The sense of insult I feel is because this is a lie. There is nobody buried here, but there are 796 babies and children (one a boy as old as 7) who were unceremoniously flushed into this septic tank. That does not constitute burial – that constitutes disposal.
The Secret Orchard of Shame
For about 40 or 50 years this septic tank was hiding in plain sight for all to see - but nobody saw it; the criminal Nuns made sure of that. In the early 1940s they created a small orchard by planting 15 to 20 apple trees to camouflage their murderous crimes. For, lurking a mere few feet below the orchard, lay the septic tank of the Mother and Baby Home, filling yearly with the flushed remains of yet more newly dead babies and children as well as the supposedly Christian ethics and morals of the duplicitous Nuns.
For any visitors, stray or official, the enclosed grey stone-walled area now looked like a well maintained private garden with a thriving orchard and an active beehive tended by the Nuns in order to provide themselves with honey. The Nuns even installed a two- seater wooden bench there where they could sit to pray and contemplate their clever deceitfulness. Although the top soil was very poor, the hardy apple trees grew quickly, thriving on neglect in the coming decades. The inventive Nuns knew it didn’t matter as apple trees can grow in even very poor soil. In reality, the roots stretched down and the apple trees blossomed from their very own food source a few feet below – the decomposing remains of dead babies and children.
So the wicked Nuns yearly ate the harvest of their secret Orchard of Evil, indulging their pleasure. They knew that what was being done to those who died in their ‘care’ would be considered immoral. Why else camouflage the tank? The Tuam Mother and Baby Home closed in1961 and the building was knocked down and, I’m sure the Nuns hoped, all its cruel memories were erased. All of the Convent lands were sold.
All, that is, except the little orchard which thrived and continued to hide its dark secrets and would do so for many decades to come.
The evil Nuns never sold the orchard site, because, if they did, their filthy secret would be exposed and revealed to the outside world. Instead they enclosed the orchard with forbidding grey stone walls and they even put broken glass on top of the walls to keep out the curious. But the local children were not discouraged and used to sneak in to mooch (steal) apples, as children do. The evil Nuns had long neglected their secret, tumbledown orchard, and, over the decades, it slowly was overrun with weeds and briar branches and prickly scrambling shrubs that now thrived in the wilderness that it had become.
As the secret orchard decayed over the many long years of neglect, everything was slowly decomposing, like the hundreds of putrefied souls, bodies of the babies and children flushed below. Nothing no longer grew, no birds sang, built nests or stopped for food. Roving bands of colourful, noisy, active little birds, the male Blue Tit, abandoned its chores of singing a song, a feeling of melancholy, of pensive sadness, on hearing the deafening silent screams of the babies. No bumble bees hummed, nor bees looking for nectar for honey, an abandoned hive, absconding bees, long ago fled, by the uncontrollable cries of anguish, seeping through the earth. No whitetail rabbits hid in their labyrinthine of warrens, no longer, flowers grew, nor pollen to gather, the many decaying roses, in sadness, drooped their heads in shame. Only a pallor of death lay still, sleeping, seeping, hidden, grief stalked and hung over the pallidness orchard, like, an invisible fog.
But one sunny summer’s day, two local mischievous boys of seven and nine, went on an adventure to steal a few apples from the secret walled garden. Unbeknown in their innocents, both elfin boys playing, chasing each other among the wild secret garden, pulling small rotten crabapples, here and there among the many decrepit apple trees, biting into the crabapple, which had the sour taste of death, which the happy boys threw now at each other.
In the wild chase, one of the boys fell, bruising and scratching his kneecaps on the corner of a slab of sharp stone sticking out of the ground. In annoyance, the fallen boy pulled at the small concrete stone to reveal a rabbit-size hole which he peered into. He saw thousands of white bones and hundreds of abandoned skulls. He called out to his friend, who was looking for an apple to eat; it seems that every apple he touched was rotten. The fallen boy called out again to his friend, who ran to see what all the excitement was about. They both looked in wonder and the first boy reached in and pulled out a very small skull from the hidden pile. The boys looked at the skull with childish inquisitiveness, then looked at each other impishly and laughed. The boys didn’t really know what the round bleached skull was; they passed and threw it to each other like a football, even kicking it around the overgrown orchard.
Soon the boys tired of their adventure, climbed back across the glass-embedded wall and ran home, the skull-football under the arm of the boy with the bruised and scratched kneecaps. Upon entering his house, he saw his father and showed him their find. Deeply shocked, his father gruffly asked his son where he had found the skull, and his son replied in a frightened voice, “In the secret orchard.” The parish priest was called. He returned the skull to its secret tomb in the secret orchard, blessing it thus denying its secrets. The boys never visited the garden again until they were in their fifties, and the importance of their find as children became world news.
The Normality of Evil
The number of 796 babies and children disposed of in the grounds of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam is much higher than reported. Local historian Catherine Corless herself showed me a field on the other side of the septic tank, with overgrown grass verges all around what is now used as a children’s playground. This playground itself hides another very dark secret, for a few hundred more women and children, (probably up to 1,800 according to the locals) were dumped beneath it. It now transpires that, in addition to the 20 known, 2 more secret disposal chambers were discovered. There may indeed be more.
Council houses with long back gardens lie to the left and right of the children’s playground with dark secrets of death and the Nuns’ guile. And up and down the local children roam; playing, laughing, running where the football is thrown, round the septic tank, while below, the island of Ireland’s shameful secret lies.
Many of the residents of the surrounding council houses, set in a horseshoe shape around the children’s playground, have, over the years, found human remains in their back gardens. When they reported these gruesome finds to the County Council, they were told that it was ok, as the bones were from people who had died in the Great Famine of 1845. They were never told that they were the bones of murdered women and children dumped there by the heartless Holy Nuns, the Bon Secours Sisters, who owned the land and ran the Mother and Baby Home from 1925 to 1961.
This is absolutely outrageous. Clearly this is a mass, murderous and criminal disposal site in which the local Police, Politicians and Church refuse to believe.
It is now clear that as many as 2800 bodies of women and children were dumped into different pits - a septic tank and at least 22 death chambers - and even scattered across two acres of Convent land, that now, ironically contains a children’s playground.
What thoughts passed through these Nuns’ minds as they made the decision about how to dispose of the bodies of babies and children, then flushed them into a septic tank? Could anyone still believe that this humiliating process of being flushed into a septic tank, naked, mixed with toilet paper, human faeces and disinfection, was ok?
I admit that at first it was all very hard for me to take it all in; in truth I was overwhelmed and numb with the horror and grief the first time I visited Tuam. Could the children in their death throes see the Nuns’ eyes as the child watched them, reaching out for a little human warmth and kindness? The cruel and heartless Nuns had nothing to fear however; according to their Church’s teachings, these tiny babies and children, born out of wedlock, were the very spawn of the devil. This religious conviction made flushing babies and children down an impersonal sluice toilet much easier. It was routine – just the daily normality of life in the Mother and Baby Home. It was the normality of routine, the normality of evil, the dehumanisation of unwed mothers, women and their babies, that is evil itself. The bureaucratisation of brutality, by the Irish Catholic Church.
What makes it worse even now, is that we have the wholesale destruction and suppression of evidence by the Bon Secours Nuns, actively supported by the ruthless Irish Catholic Church and their enablers in both Galway County Council and the Irish Government. We are thankful to dedicated researcher Catherine Corless, who really rescued the Mother and Baby Home’s history from the dustbin.
Tuam Mother and Baby Home would eventually become infamous, but was perhaps not the cruelest of the Irish Catholic Church’s Institutions. Sadly, I believe that honour will be reserved for the largest of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes - St. Patrick’s on the Navan Road in Dublin, where I was born and spent the first four years of my life. It is estimated that it will soon be discovered that at least 3,800 and probably over 9,000, women, children and babies were dumped in secret underground chambers on that very site. Owen Felix O’Neill
Owen Felix O'Neill
Author of Child Laundering Secrets, 2017