Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers

imageI simply cannot let this pass without saying something, especially since I am myself born and bred in Ireland.

As you are no doubt aware, a rather horrendous discovery has been recently made, a rather large number of unidentified remains were discovered in a water tank close to the Tuam mother-and-baby home in Galway

So how did all this come to be discovered?

Catherine Corless began researching the history of the home, run by the Bon Secours order of nuns, more than a decade ago.

When she conducted a search of the county council’s records she found that almost 800 infants and young children had died at the home during its years of operation between 1925 and 1961. Most of the children were buried in an unmarked plot next to the home.

So what exactly is the context here?

In Ireland the idea of being an unmarried single female was once a huge social stigma, so much so that the Catholic Church created and ran what could best be described slave labor camps for those who found themselves in this situation. The term used to describe them was “Magdalen Laundry”. It was in fact not a specifically Irish thing, they operated throughout Europe and North America for much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. London’s Magdalen Asylum was active from 1758 to 1966. What perhaps makes it all uniquely Irish was that the last one in Ireland closed in 1996. (Yes, it really was all that recent).

800 bodies … what happened?

The Washington Post appears to have done a rather good article on it all, they report

Between 1925 and 1961, thousands of “fallen women” and their “illegitimate” children passed through the Home, run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam.

Many of the women, after paying a penance of indentured servitude for their out-of-wedlock pregnancy, left the Home for work and lives in other parts of Ireland and beyond. Some of their children were not so fortunate.

…what happened to nearly 800 of those abandoned children has now emerged: Their bodies were piled into a massive septic tank sitting in the back of the structure and forgotten, with neither gravestones nor coffins.

… The grim findings, which are being reviewed by police, provide a glimpse into a particularly dark time for unmarried pregnant women in Ireland, where societal and religious mores stigmatized them. Without means to support themselves, women by the hundreds wound up at the Home. “When daughters became pregnant, they were ostracized completely,” Corless said. “Families would be afraid of neighbors finding out, because to get pregnant out of marriage was the worst thing on Earth. It was the worst crime a woman could commit, even though a lot of the time it had been because of a rape.”

According to documents Corless provided the Irish Mail on Sunday, malnutrition and neglect killed many of the children, while others died of measles, convulsions, TB, gastroenteritis and pneumonia. Infant mortality at the Home was staggeringly high.

“If you look at the records, babies were dying two a week, but I’m still trying to figure out how they could [put the bodies in a septic tank],”

…Special kinds of neglect and abuse were reserved for the Home Babies, as locals call them. Many in surrounding communities remember them. They remember how they were segregated to the fringes of classrooms, and how the local nuns accentuated the differences between them and the others. They remember how, as one local told the Irish Central, they were “usually gone by school age — either adopted or dead.”

According to Irish Central, a 1944 local health board report described the children living at the Home as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” and with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.”

Further Thoughts?

It may indeed be tempting to try and dismiss this but the cracks here really are too big to paper over, this was not simply one bad home, the degree of neglect and abuse dished out within Catholic run institutions was endemic and widespread – that fact is well documented … here.

The conclusion of the Ryan report (created by an Irish commission whose remit was to investigate all forms of child abuse in Irish institutions for children) was as follows:

Overall. Physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions. Sexual abuse occurred in many of them, particularly boys’ institutions. Schools were run in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff.

Physical abuse. The Reformatory and Industrial Schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment and the fear of such punishment. A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from.

Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse was endemic in boys’ institutions. The schools investigated revealed a substantial level of sexual abuse of boys in care that extended over a range from improper touching and fondling to rape with violence. Perpetrators of abuse were able to operate undetected for long periods at the core of institutions. When confronted with evidence of sexual abuse, the response of the religious authorities was to transfer the offender to another location where, in many instances, he was free to abuse again. The safety of children in general was not a consideration. The situation in girls’ institutions was different. Although girls were subjected to predatory sexual abuse by male employees or visitors or in outside placements, sexual abuse was not systemic in girls’ schools.

Neglect. Poor standards of physical care were reported by most male and female complainants. Children were frequently hungry and food was inadequate, inedible and badly prepared in many schools. Accommodation was cold, spartan and bleak. Sanitary provision was primitive in most boys’ schools and general hygiene facilities were poor.

Emotional abuse. Witnesses spoke of being belittled and ridiculed on a daily basis. Private matters such as bodily functions and personal hygiene were used as opportunities for degradation and humiliation. Personal and family denigration was widespread. There was constant criticism and verbal abuse and children were told they were worthless.

Supervision by the Department of Education. The system of inspection by the Department was fundamentally flawed and incapable of being effective. Complaints by parents and others made to the Department were not properly investigated. The Department did not apply the standards in the rules and their own guidelines when investigating complaints, but sought to protect and defend the religious Congregations and the schools. The Department dealt inadequately with complaints about sexual abuse, which were generally dismissed or ignored.


In the end this latest news is simply yet more damming evidence that verifies the above Ryan report conclusions as both factual and accurate.

Adhering to a religious belief that is not actually true at all has dire consequences, it motivates and inspires humans into some truly abhorrent behaviours. Catholicism lays claim to the high moral ground, yet when faced with the evidence of what actually happened they try to claim that the belief is just fine, the fault resides with the flawed individuals who failed to adhere to the belief.

This is simply not a factual claim, the root of the problem here is the embrace of bad religious ideas – the thought that women who have been raped and are pregnant are “fallen”, and so need to be locked away. What then naturally comes from this is the idea that the children from a pregnancy outside a church sanctioned marriage should be deemed less human and not deserving of normal human empathy – no the issue here is not simply a few flawed humans who failed to embrace the belief, but rather humans who rather fatally embraced a rather bad idea that overrode their normal human empathy.

The abuse is not a failure of the belief to function correctly, the belief itself is “abuse incarnate”.


3 thoughts on “Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers”

  1. According to an article in The Guardian, this grave has been known about for nearly 30 years:

    “Locals have known about the grave since 1975, when two little boys, playing, broke apart the concrete slab covering it and discovered a tomb filled with small skeletons. A parish priest said prayers at the site, and it was sealed once more, the number of bodies below unknown, their names forgotten.”

    The fact that it’s taken 30 years for this to become news is also rather shocking.


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