In 1975 a group of local boys in Tuam discovered a slab in the former ground of what was locally known as The Home – one of eight ‘mother-and-baby homes’ throughout Ireland, housing unwed pregnant women and run by nuns – and underneath it they found little skeletons. This discovery was not reported until the recent publication of a report by a local historian, Catherine Corless of 796 deaths of babies in the St Mary’s home between 1925 and 1961. There were some media exaggerations, particularly reports of ‘800 babies found dumped in a septic tank’ and used for medical experiments.
The reality is not as scandalous but not less horrific. Corless confirms that at least 200 babies were put in a working sewer tank, leading William River Pitt in an article titled ‘Men’s rights and the septic tank of history’ (Truthout, 8 June 2014) to call these deaths and the targeting of sexually active Irish women ‘the septic tank of history’.
Despite recent reports on child abuse, the mother-and-baby homes still await a public investigation. These homes – denoting a deep hatred of female sexuality and the visiting of the mothers’ ‘sins’ upon their hapless children – were aimed to hide these unwed mothers’ ‘shame’; the fathers, be they the women’s lovers, abusers or rapists, were never targeted. Many of the babies born in these ‘homes’ were sold for adoption to wealthy American Catholic childless couples. Many of the women laboured for the nuns in these homes or in Magdalene Laundries, whose horrible story has finally been told in recent years.
The nuns, in this case the Bon Secours nuns – epitomising an Ireland steeped in Catholicism and governed by post civil war politics, happy to leave the education and health services to the Catholic orders (many of which sexually and physically abused countless children) – were in charge not only of the women, but also of their children. Many of the babies whose skeletons were found in St Mary’s in Tuam died of malnutrition, neglect, measles or tuberculosis, their remains not given a proper Christian burial. The child mortality rates in these Catholic ‘homes’ were between 10.5 and 50 per cent. The discovery of the Tuam mass grave unveils the deeply felt hatred of women in the new Ireland, which not only controlled their sexuality, but also inserted an article into the Constitution ensuring that (wedded) mothers’ place is in the home (while unwedded mothers were to be isolated and punished).
Ireland must live with many shames in relation to the children of the nation, who, as the 1916 Declaration promised, should have been cherished equally. The shame of abuse in industrial schools, the shame of high child mortality and mass graves in mother-and-baby homes, the shame of sexual abuse in religiously-run schools, and now the shame of depositing children of asylum seekers – also ‘children of the nation’, according to the amendment to Article 2 of the Constitution, but, since the racist Citizenship Referendum of 2004, not citizens – in direct provision. Children in direct provision, one third of all residents, are hidden from view and experience child poverty, malnutrition and social exclusion, and this too will one day also form part of Ireland’s ‘septic tank of history’.