The recent discovery of a mass grave of 796 children, dumped by an unwed mother’s home in County Galway, Western Ireland, has shocked the world, but strangely, not Ireland.
Little is known internationally about these homes that were run by the Catholic church until the 1990s for unmarried mothers, and what happened to the thousands of children.
Ireland’s history is deeply intertwined with the Catholic Church. Abortion was – and continues to be – illegal, and unmarried mothers were stigmatised. The plight of these women has been dramatised in films such as Philomenia and The Magdalene Sisters.
Speaking on Australia’s Radio National on Thursday, Irish journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes said the country appears reluctant to deal with its shameful past.
The burial site in Taum, County Galway, lies near where a mother and children’s home operated by the Catholic Church.
The mass grave containing hundreds of little corpses was first discovered in 1975 by local children playing above the site but no investigations were made. The children told a local parish priest who blessed the site but took no action. The grave was sealed up.
The site entered into local folk lore, with many believing that the remains belonged to victims of the mid-19th century Famine. But in recent years local Galway historian Catherine Corless discovered that the 796 children had died much more recently.
She believes they were associated with an unwed mothers’ home during its 40 years of operation from 1926 to 1961. Ms Corless checked the names against local graveyard burials but found that only one child had been buried in a family plot.
“I could not believe it. I was dumbfounded and deeply upset,” Ms Corless said in an interview with Irish Central this week.
“There’s nothing to say it’s a massive children’s graveyard. It’s laid abandoned like that since it was closed in 1961.”
Why has it created a crisis of conscience in Ireland?
Ireland remains a conservative country, with 84 per cent of the population claiming to be Roman Catholic.
Unmarried mothers were traditionally ostracised by the conservative society, forced into church-run homes up until the 1990s where they were usually made to give up their children.
In a Washington Post report, Ms Corless said that daughters were completely abandoned by their families.
“It was the worst crime a woman could commit,” she said.
The children of unwed mothers were also segregated by Irish society and were labelled ‘home babies’.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, said in a statement that the revelations were a shocking reminder of Ireland’s dark past.
Philip Boucher-Hayes, an Irish investigative journalist, told Australian radio that the event “speaks of how we don’t or do deal with our shameful past in Ireland”.
What happens now?
The discovery has made headlines around the world, but Ireland itself remains inert – seemingly unable or unwilling to take action over the investigation of the bodies.
A press officer for Garda, Ireland’s national police, said that they would not be investigating the burial site and the 796 bodies because there was nothing to suggest impropriety, according to a CNN report.
Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny is currently on a visit to the United States, and he and the Irish government are yet to make a statement.
Politicians like Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, have spoken out against the discovery this week, saying that an investigation has to take place.
Opposition politician Collin Keaveney, the Fianna Fáil Party’s member for Galway, said on Wednesday that Mr Kenny’s trip was “no excuse for silence on this issue”.
Ciaran Cannon, Minister of State for Education and Skills, said in a statement this week that he had spoken to other politicians and would take a cross-departmental approach.
“With each passing day more and more questions emerge – questions which cannot be ignored and need to be answered.”
While police claim that they will not investigate, a missing person report by a relative of one of the buried children may lead to an excavation of the burial site.
Despite the apparent reluctance, it appears the horrifying record of so-called mother and baby homes over several decades is being reviewed after campaigners forced renewed focus on the need to formally commemorate how 800 infants died.
A photo of some of the children at “the Home” in 1924 (Connaught Tribune, 21st June 1924) pic.twitter.com/foGFqAKJ8m
— Limerick1914 (@Limerick1914) May 27, 2014
Yesterday, at the little space where the dead Tuam “Home babies” are buried. pic.twitter.com/3ef77D3Ytp
— Adrienne Corless (@AdrienneJoCo) June 2, 2014
Very few photos of Tuam Home exist, on the left of this picture you can see the wall of the site on the Athenry Road pic.twitter.com/0LbatHFeFv
— Gerard Murphy (@gfmurphy101) May 30, 2014