Mass Grave in Ireland Is Thought to Contain 800 Children's Bodies

Here's a heartwarming story from Ireland, stemming from the era in which children born out of wedlock (and their mothers) were thought disposable: A local historian from Tuam, Ireland, has documented almost 800 cases of children who died in a former children's home and are likely "buried" in a mass grave behind it.

The children's home in question, called simply "the Home," was run by Bon Secours nuns between 1925 and 1961. It was the kind of place where they sent women to give birth once they were "in trouble." It also took in children who were born to those women. Catherine Corless, the historian who dug up the records, says she herself remembers attending school with some of these children:

They were always segregated to the side of regular classrooms," Corless tells IrishCentral. "By doing this the nuns telegraphed the message that they were different and that we should keep away from them.

"They didn't suggest we be nice to them. In fact if you acted up in class some nuns would threaten to seat you next to the Home Babies. That was the message we got in our young years," Corless recalls.

Bad though this was, apparently many of the children met with an even worse fate, dying in the Home of measles, tuberculosis, and other diseases that result when you pack children into an institution and treat them badly. A government report on conditions there from 1944, cited by the Daily Mail, describes a scene of abject awfulness (which I would describe as "out of Dickens" except, you know, English):

A local health board inspection report carried out in 1944 reveals the conditions the children and their mothers lived in.

It reveals that in April that year, 271 children were listed as living there with 61 single mothers, a total of 333 - way over its capacity of 243.

One 13-month-old boy was described as a 'miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions and probably mentally defective'.

In the same room was a 'delicate' ten-month-old baby who was a 'child of itinerants', while one five-year-old child was described as having 'hands growing near shoulders'.

Another 31 infants in the same room were described as 'poor babies, emaciated and not thriving'.

The majority were aged between three weeks and 13 months and were 'fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated'.

The oldest child who died there was Sheila Tuohy, aged nine, in 1934. One of the youngest was Thomas Duffy, aged two days.

The death rate of children at the home, Corless told reporters, was more than four times the national average. Her interest seems to have been piqued by the discovery by schoolchildren of the mass grave some time ago. (Reports on this point are confusing, some saying the grave was found in 1995 and others in the 1970s.) When Corless requested the death records from County Galway authorities, she got back 796 certificates, listing name, age, and cause of death.

The story of the Tuam home has been making headlines in Ireland since it broke in the Irish Mail on Sunday a little over a week ago. Ireland's history of running homes like the one in Tuam is hardly a secret. Movies like The Magdalene Sisters and Philomena have made the story familiar to those of us who are not Irish as well. But the breaking of this story reopens some old wounds about the lingering stigma of it all.

There are questions about why, if the mass grave was discovered so long ago, it has yet to be excavated, and no memorial exists. An article in the Irish Daily Mail that is regrettably not online offers a hint at an answer:

Of the mothers who passed through the Tuam facility and who are still alive, none have come forward to recount their own stories in the press because 'they are still stigmatised', said Ms Corless.

'I have tried so hard to get people to speak about what occurred but these woman were stigmatised back then and that stigma still exists with some.' Ms Corless said the concrete tank where the children's bodies were buried was 'full to the brim with skulls and bones.' Ms Corless took action to research the mass grave after a lack of involvement from the local community. She established the Children's Home Graveyard Committee with the intention of erecting a memorial.

However, she is still stunned by the lack of interest in the case internationally or indeed on the part of the Irish Government which has not yet made a statement on the matter. 'If this happened anywhere in the world it would be a scandal. We should be talking about it,' she said. 'Only that way can we help reparation.'

Today reports came that the Irish Cabinet plans to discuss the matter. In the meantime one Irish historian has been posting archival documents and images from the Home on Twitter. The most affecting of them, I think, is this one:

[Image via.]