The potential discovery of a grave containing the remains of as many as 800 babies at a former home for unmarried mothers in Ireland is yet another problem for the Irish Catholic Church. The mother and baby home at Tuam in County Galway was run by the nuns of the Sisters of Bon Secours and operated between 1925 and 1961. It took in thousands of women who had committed the “mortal sin” of unwed pregnancy, delivered their babies and was charged with caring for them. But unsanitary conditions, poor food and a lack of medical care led to shockingly high rates of infant mortality. Babies’ bodies were deposited in a former sewage tank.
Sadly, the mass grave possibly located at Tuam by a local historian is probably not unique. I visited the site — the home was demolished in the 1970s — and spoke with locals who remember babies’ skulls emerging from the soil around their houses. When boys broke open the cover of the sewage pit, they found it “full to the brim” of skeletons. Tuam was only one of a dozen mother and baby homes in Ireland in the years after the Second World War, all of which treated their inmates in a similar fashion.
During 10 years of research into the Catholic Church’s treatment of “fallen women” — I wrote about one of them in my book, Philomena, later turned into a feature film starring Dame Judi Dench — I discovered that the girls were refused medical attention, including painkillers, during even the most difficult births; the nuns told them the pain was the penance they must pay for their sin. In the home where Philomena gave birth, an unkempt plot bears the names of babies and mothers, some as young as 15. There are undoubtedly many more there who have no memorial.
For those who survived, the psychological trauma has endured. Philomena and thousands like her were forced to look after their babies for up to four years, bonding with them before they were taken away to be adopted. Many went to families in the United States in return for substantial “donations”; lack of proper vetting meant some were handed over to abusive parents. The mothers were told they were moral degenerates, too sullied to keep their babies. The nuns said they would burn in hell if they spoke to anyone about their children or what had been done with them.
That sense of guilt and shame remained with the girls for life. One woman whose child was born in Tuam told me she felt it was wrong of her to talk to me even now. At first it was hard to persuade Philomena to tell me her story, too. But when my book was published, she received letters from other “fallen women” saying how grateful they were that someone had had the courage to break the Omertà.
The warped code of honour behind the decades of silence had been inculcated by an all-powerful Catholic Church. For much of the late 20th century, the Irish civil authorities were in thrall to the hierarchy; Archbishop John Charles McQuaid threatened pulpit denunciations if the government contradicted his policies. So the state connived in the mother and baby homes, paying the nuns at Tuam and all the other homes a per capita rate for every inmate.
With hindsight, the church argues that it was performing a socially necessary task, helping to solve the problem of “illegitimate” children. It is true that pregnant girls would have been shunned by their families and left with no one to turn to. But the fact is that the church itself had created the problem by the stigma it attached to unmarried sex — and by its refusal to allow contraception or sex education in any form. Philomena was typical of the thousands who became pregnant through ignorance. She says she “didn’t even know which end the baby would come out.”
It is too late to bring back the dead babies of Tuam or to undo the damage done to thousands of innocent mothers and children. But there are ways that a modicum of justice could still be done. The Irish government has offered financial compensation to former inmates of the Magdalene laundries, where women were confined for reasons ranging from prostitution and sexual indiscretion to disobedience and mental deficiency. But the compensation scheme specifically excludes the far greater numbers of women — estimated to be as many as 60,000 — who suffered in the mother-and-baby homes. The state could extend the scheme.
My impression, though, is that the victims want more than money. A full and unreserved apology would help. Even more importantly, the state and church could open the records to assist the hundreds of parted mothers and children who are still searching for each other. The nuns blocked Philomena in her quest to find her son. They thwarted others whose children were taken from them at Tuam and elsewhere. That shouldn’t be allowed to continue.
*Correction: The original subheadline on this story was “The corpses found in an Irish septic pit resulted from a larger problem.” No bodies have been found yet. The historian believes they are there based on her research. The Irish government is investigating. The language at the of the story was also changed to reflect that status.