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The truth behind Ireland’s dead babies scandal

The entrance to the site under investigation at the former Bons Secours home for unmarried mothers in Tuam, Ireland.

The dead babies scandal in Ireland has taken a new turn, as investigators have confirmed that significant quantities of human remains were found in two underground structures, one a decommissioned septic tank. A sampling of the remains suggested they were from human infants, ranging from fetuses at approximately 35 weeks of development to children 3 years old. These remains seem to date from the 1925 to 1961 period when a Catholic order of nuns, the Bon Secour sisters, ran a home for unmarried mothers on the premises.

Early reports suggested a mass grave for 800 babies

When this scandal first broke in 2014, much reportage, including two stories published by The Washington Post, claimed that the bodies of 800 babies had been discovered in a disused septic tank. There is — as yet — no count of the number of bodies in the sites that have been discovered.

However, a local historian, Catherine Corless, discovered death certificates for nearly 800 babies and children at the home. Two local men said that they found some kind of crypt beneath a concrete slab in the area containing a number of skeletons when they were playing as boys in the early 1970s. One of the men estimated that 20 skeletons were in the space.

Presumably, this is one of the spaces that has now been found. However, the new discoveries — there is another space with 20 compartments, at least 17 of which have some significant amount of human remains — suggests that the number of burials may be much larger.

How did this happen?

Until relatively recently, the Republic of Ireland outsourced most of its education system and large parts of its social welfare system to institutions associated with the Catholic Church. (The smaller Protestant Church of Ireland ran a separate set of institutions for its own congregations.) Religious orders received money from the Irish state or from local taxes to run schools, orphanages, hospitals and other institutions. State supervision of these facilities was at best spotty, although state officials appear to have tried to correct especially outrageous situations.

Funding was politically controversial. The payments per child and mother to the nuns running the Bon Secours institute were described in a debate recorded by the Connacht Tribune in 1927 as “something terrible,” with one local worthy inquiring of the matron, “Would you not think the sum of [26 pounds] a year is too much to be paying for an infant?”

A combination of violent prejudice against unwed mothers and their children, inadequate supervision and pressure not to spend money is likely to have played a key role in high infant mortality rates. The extent to which such neglect might have shaded into something more deliberate and active is unclear.

One expert on health and mortality in Ireland believes that the death rates are much higher than they ought to have been and deserve further investigation. Contemporary debates in Ireland’s Parliament reveal that children born out of wedlock in Ireland in the 1920s had a mortality rate five times higher than normal, in part because of semi-deliberate neglect. In some years in some institutions, the mortality rate for such children seems to have been above 50 percent.

Why wasn’t there public outcry at the time?

Not only were unmarried mothers and their children marginalized from society, but religious institutions were politically powerful. Occasionally, scandals emerged, as in the notorious Cavan Orphanage Fire in 1943, in which more than 30 young girls died in a fire without any effective effort to save them, reportedly because the nuns who ran the orphanage didn’t want male volunteers to see the girls in their nightclothes.

However, these scandals were soon buried — the judicial inquiry into the fire improbably concluded that the nuns bore no responsibility. Brian O’Nolan, who under the pen name Flann O’Brien was one of the great Irish novelists of the 20th century, was the secretary to the inquiry. Afterward, he wrote a piece of doggerel: “In Cavan there was a great fire, / Judge McCarthy was sent to inquire, / It would be a shame, if the nuns were to blame, / So it had to be caused by a wire.” The deliberate artlessness of the lines concealed the genuine anger he shared with many other writers and thinkers at the apparent impunity of religious organizations.

What happens now?

When the scandal first broke, the Irish government established a Commission on Mother and Baby Homes to investigate what happened. This commission is responsible for the excavation and is expected to issue a report after it finishes its investigation into this and other homes.

It is hard to see how the report will avoid harsh conclusions both about the ways in which religious orders behaved toward those in their charge (a death rate of greater than 50 percent is hard to explain except as the product of conscious policy) and how politicians either turned a blind eye toward their behavior or actively collaborated in protecting it. If there is any surviving evidence of motivation, it will most likely be found in the archives of the institutions themselves or the national and local government agencies charged with overlooking social welfare.

[An earlier and significantly different version of this article was posted in June 2014. That version is available here for archival purposes.]