The deaths at Tuam: a voiceless testimony

Tuam Babies unmarked graveThere is an unmarked mass grave in Galway which has become briefly famous by the work of historian Catherine Corless, who spent years tracing the death records of each child whose remains may have been buried there. (You can hear her being interviewed about her work on the mass grave here.)

Timothy Stanley, a Telegraph blogger who converted to Catholicism from the Anglican church, argues that the mass grave is “a human tragedy, not a Catholic one”. At more length, Caroline Farrow, a spokesperson for Catholic Voice, explains that first of all, this wasn’t really so bad, and anyway, everyone except the Catholic Church is probably lying. (I note for the record: the sheer quantity of misinformation and distortion provided by both Stanley and Farrow is quite astonishing.)

Ireland became independent of the UK in 1922. It’s estimated that between 1922 and 1979 over 100,000 illegitimate children were born in Ireland. (After 1967, it became possible to go to the mainland and get a safe legal abortion: the slang term for getting an abortion in Ireland is apparently “getting on the boat”.) Over three hundred cases of infanticide were tried in Irish courts between 1900 and 1950, a crime committed by single mothers who wanted to escape the social and legal penalties for having an illegitimate baby, and this was recognised as being a fraction of the actual numbers.

And for many girls and women, pregnancy outside marriage meant sentencing to a Home and separation from their child. There was no public health provision to support all mothers and children in Ireland until 1953, when, against the strong religious and political opposition of the Archbishop of Dublin, the Irish government passed a Public Health Act, based on a woman’s right as a citizen: so that by 1956, Irish mothers – single or married – could get help during pregnancy and birth, a one-off grant originally set at £4, and maternity centres were funded where hot meals were provided.

The Home at Tuam was called St Mary’s, and the institution was run from 1925 to 1961 by a Catholic order called the Bon Secours Sisters.

Unmarried women in the area who became pregnant were sent there to give birth away from their families, as at the time, having a so-called ‘illegitimate’ child was regarded as shameful.

The babies were then left in the orphanage to be raised by the nuns. Some of them were put up for adoption while some remained in the care of the nuns.

Some of the poorer women who gave birth were forced to work for the nuns in the institution after they had their child as a way to pay for the service which had been provided to them.

(The Archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, Dr. John Charles McQuaid, believed that “only the deserving poor should get charity”, and a girl who had conceived an illegitimate baby was not among the “deserving poor”, and nor was her child.)

Abortion BPASAccess to safe legal abortion in Ireland even today is a matter of money. A woman who can afford to pay, can have an abortion safely in London or Liverpool: about twelve women every day do so, often with help from the Abortion Support Network: and BPAS offers cheaper rates to women from Ireland. A woman who can’t, either because she doesn’t have the money or she doesn’t have access to the necessary information, or because she’s too ill or is from outside the EU and doesn’t have a passport – she has to stay in Ireland and find either an illegal abortion or give birth.

The Catholic Church formally bans any boy born outside of marriage from the priesthood unless special conditions are met, on the grounds that:

The clerical state which has the dispensing of the mysteries of God must be beyond reproach. No stain should be upon it, no blame possible. Therefore the Church raises the barrier of illegitimacy before the entrance to the priesthood. Thus the crime of the parents is held up to just reprobation, and is condemned even in the lives of their offspring.

Between 1922 and 1937, the Catholic Church’s moral code became enshrined in the law of Ireland. J.H. Whyte’s study Church and state in modern Ireland 1923-1927

explores the changing relationship between the Catholic church and the Irish state and determines that the turning point in this partnership was the mother and child scheme in the 1950s. He investigates the Catholic church’s role in shaping state policy throughout the twentieth century. He identifies the problem that former ideas about the relationship between church and state were oversimplified and that the history between the two is particularly complex. Rather than influencing legislation, the church in fact influenced society, which in turn affected state policy, which reflected and upheld the views of society.

The result was that women in Ireland who got pregnant outside marriage were treated shamefully, and so, too, were their children: and this went on for decades, strongly supported by the Catholic Church and the Irish state in close partnership. (Recommended reading: “Unmarried mothers: the legislative context in Ireland, 1921–79” by Ann-Marie Graham: also Amnesty Ireland’s In Plain Sight.)

Maura O’Dea, who founded Cherish in 1972, found that when she had a baby as an unmarried mother in Ireland

had to hide her pregnancy at her Dublin office, where she worked as a financial controller.

When her daughter, Carol, was born, she had to keep the child a secret and move into a mobile home — because she was an unmarried mother.

“It’s hard to believe now what kind of bloody society we lived in,” she says. “It was ridiculous.

“No one was supposed to be having sex outside marriage in Ireland, and if you did and got pregnant then you gave the baby up for adoption — only an inadequate woman would keep her child.”

The argument has been made by defenders of the Catholic Church that this was no different from any other culture at that time – why should the Catholic Church have been expected to be a moral leader on the treatment of unmarried mothers, illegitimate babies, or abused children?

The Catholic Church appears to have regarded its duty to be a moral leader to be performed by treating illegitimacy as a shame and a disgrace, and treating any girl or woman who gave birth to an illegitimate baby as shameful and disgraceful

Nevertheless every illegitimate child that is born represents at least one grievous sin against the sixth commandment, and forebodes many harmful consequences for itself, its parents, and the community. ….. On the other hand, where the parents fall but slightly in social esteem the public regard for chastity is deplorably lax. In any case, the presence of illegitimacy in a community always tends to weaken the popular appreciation of chastity, and the popular disapproval of its violation.

In Ireland, a girl or a woman who got pregnant, who was not able to support or defend herself, whose family would not support her, would be imprisoned and made to work for no pay for the Catholic Church’s religious orders, sometimes for life. The last of these slave labour institutions was closed down in 1996. The Catholic Church has consistently refused to provide any apology or compensation to the women whose slave labour was made use of by its orders.

The Irish government paid for the care of illegitimate children in the children’s homes of Ireland, run by religious orders, up to the age of two. After the age of two, healthy children were often adopted away, sometimes within Ireland, sometimes to the US, and every effort made to ensure their mother would never be able to find them again.

A daughter speaks of her mother’s life in the Catholic Church’s commercial laundries:

She looked, she looked like a pensioner. I couldn’t believe she was forty-two, I kept looking, I kept looking into her face to find a forty-two year old and I couldn’t, because she had the face of hard work, that face that you see in so many women that have just had to work too hard and have never had a rest and have never had anyone to take care of them or tell them to put their feet up, and who have just, just worked too hard. Because, as I said on the radio a few years ago, this was slavery and I don’t use that term lightly and I’m not an emotive person but slavery is a form of work for which you get no pay and you can’t leave and these were the white slaves of Ireland and they were never emancipated. And nobody stood up for them until now, until you guys (Justice for Magdalenes) did.

That was Samantha Long, whose mother Margaret Bullen died pointed out in her testimony (Docx file):

And, I mean, the nuns didn’t get unpaid for the work, the work was, it was hotels, it was state agencies, state agencies sent their laundry there and paid for it, so that’s, that’s a form of being complicit in it, because they knew where they were sending the laundry to, it wasn’t to a business.

The government of Ireland has formally apologised and offered compensation to the women enslaved in these institutions. The Catholic Church has not.

The story that’s currently in the news – about the 796 children who were buried in an unmarked grave at Tuam – is about the illegitimate children from this system who weren’t adopted. The Tuam Mother and Baby Home was one of many in Ireland, to warehouse the children whose existence was regarded as evidence of a crime to be “condemned even in the lives of their offspring”. The mothers might have gone home, if their families would have accepted them: or might have been sent to institutions to work unpaid for the profit of the Catholic religious orders who ran them.

Tom Ward, a survivor of Tuam Mother and Baby Home between 1942 and 1947, said:

“I was fostered off to somebody. There were a lot of us fostered people. They got paid for having us in the house and they reared us, but the priests, the teachers, they all left us out.

“When we would go to town events or coming down from Mass, someone would say ‘Who’s the little laddie?’ and they would reply ‘Oh he was fostered out of that home’ and all eyes turned away. We were just outcasts.

“In school, we had to stay at the desk and we wouldn’t be able to go out to play.

Attempts to make the story sound better than it is – the Irish Times has a version that tries to argue that this wasn’t really so bad – ignore the proved facts, the known historical background, to focus on details – is the unmarked grave where the bodies were buried really a septic tank? How many bodies are in that unmarked grave?

We don’t know yet how many bodies are in that unmarked grave, because it has been sealed over and not yet re-excavated. But we do know what happened to the 796 children who died at the Home in its years of operation, because Catherine Corless methodically requested each death certificate for each child who died there. None of the children were buried in any Galway cemetery. The Journal’s explainer article notes:

An average of 22 children died every year at The Home, meaning one died every 2.3 weeks on average. This rate is significantly higher than Ireland’s infant mortality rates at the time.

Fianna Fáil TD Dr Conn Ward told the Dáil in 1934:

“From the abnormally high death rate amongst this class of children one must come to the conclusion that they are not looked after with the same care and attention as that given to ordinary children.”

Why does it matter to Catholics like Timothy Stanley and Caroline Farrow to defend or excuse or deny the mistreatment of illegitimate children and their mothers in Ireland, even if that mistreatment was supported and endorsed by the Catholic Church at the time?

Today – 7th June – is the launch of a National Day of Action by Christian campaigners against the contraceptive pill. Their slogan is “The Pill Kills”. Their claim is that girls and women must be prevented from accessing oral contraception, both daily and emergency contraception, because of the “medical risks”. (Some are invented. Others are simply very rare, especially with proper medical supervision.) Worldwide, a leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years is complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Contraception and abortion saves lives.

The prolife faux-human rights argument is consistently a pretence that they only want to prevent access to contraception, to prevent access to abortion, to reduce support for children of single mothers, to deny support for all mothers, to make illegitimacy shameful, because they claim that these actions “protect women”, “protect children”.

That unmarked grave in Tuam is voiceless testimony from the children who were denied ordinary human care because of those beliefs. No wonder the campaigners who want to bring back those bad old days must deny those dead children, and deny the women who were abused because they gave birth.

Samantha Long, whose mother Margaret Bullen died of long-term industrial injuries caused by her unpaid forced labour for the Catholic Church:

I would like the state to apologise for keeping those young girls behind bars, literally and figuratively. I would like the church and state to apologise for forcing them to do slave labour.

I would like the church, the state and society to redress their reputations and apologise for keeping them down, for denying them education, freedom, money, their babies and their lives, all of those things.

And I would like that the circumstances that they find themselves in, through the missing pieces that the rest of us get in life, because they had no education, so how could they make it?

They were sitting ducks, keep them down, keep them unaware of their rights, keep them without money, keep the roof over their head, feed them a little bit, keep them alive, just enough for work. Give them their wages now, give them their wages.

Update: The new story about “Catholic Irish babies scandal: It gets much worse” – “New revelations about unauthorized vaccine trials” – appears to be sourced exclusively to a Daily Mail story, so unless/until there is any independent verification I will assume it’s false.

(There is direct evidence of children from the homes receiving injections (and documentation of the trials thanking the Chief Medical Officer):

However Sister Sarto, who is former social worker at Bessborough House, said that parental consent was sought there for the trials.

“The doctor would come here and say could they carry out this experiment, and the mothers would bring the child into the doctor’s.

“You couldn’t do it without the mother’s permission.”

You have to wonder, if the mother was one of the women held in the Home, how much was her “permission” taken for granted?


Filed under Children, Human Rights, Poverty, Women

3 responses to “The deaths at Tuam: a voiceless testimony

  1. James

    Excellent contributions on the DT. Thank you. Not many can stand up to the well-known odious troll who confronted you – a man of many names.

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