Ireland Wrestles With Cruel Legacy of Church-Run Children’s Homes

A statue of the Virgin Mary stands in a corner at the site of a former institution where unwed mothers and their children were housed in brutal conditions between 1925 and 1961 in Tuam, Ireland. Hundreds of children were allegedly buried on the site, many inside a sewage tank, after dying of neglect, malnutrition and disease. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

TUAM, Ireland (CN) — The ground underfoot seems to emit an eerie cry. It’s here where the bones of potentially hundreds of children lie in a mass grave inside a sewage tank on the former site of an institution for children of unwed mothers once run by nuns.

As a weak sun dips behind the rooftops and chimneys of nearby houses, this forlorn place becomes even chillier and lonelier. In the corner of a stone wall, a visitor is drawn to a statue of the Virgin Mary evoking sadness. She looks down on pairs of baby shoes and flowers arranged below her feet.

This was the site of the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, a church-run institution in Galway County where unmarried mothers and their babies banished from Irish society were kept in miserable conditions from 1925 until 1961, when the home closed down. Today, this site lies at the center of an unfolding scandal in Ireland over the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of unwed mothers and their babies in its care.

In Tuam, nuns with the Sisters of Bon Secours ran the home and allegedly treated children so badly many died from disease, neglect and malnutrition. Investigators believe about 800 children were buried on the home’s grounds without proper burial and that most of their bodies were put into an underground chamber that was part of a sewage system, according to a government report.

A street in Tuam, Galway, a town in Ireland where a former institution housed unwed mothers and their children in brutal conditions between 1925 and 1961. Hundreds of children were allegedly buried on the site, many inside a sewage tank, after dying of neglect, malnutrition and disease. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

The inhumane treatment of children and the burying of children inside a cesspit was revealed in 2014 by Catherine Corless, an amateur historian in Tuam whose own mother was born out of wedlock. Corless found death certificates for 796 children who died in the Tuam home but no official burial places for them. Since then, the story she uncovered has led to a judicial inquiry and numerous stories in the media.

Children at the Tuam home were separated from their mothers, and if they survived beyond a few years, were often sent to live with other families as foster children. A quarter or more of the children sent to the home died.

The Irish government is investigating what happened in Tuam and at a network of similar institutions around Ireland. The government is considering exhuming the remains in Tuam and other institutions to allow for identification and proper burial.

No criminal charges have been brought against anyone connected with the Tuam home. The Bon Secours say only one nun who served there is alive and she is unable to help, according to a report issued in March by a commission investigating the homes. The Tuam home was owned by Galway County and public officials were aware of the abysmal conditions.

Children who made it out of the home are leading the drive to shed light on what happened and to bring the church and government to account.

“Definitely crimes were committed,” said Peter Mulryan, a 74-year-old man who spent the first four and a half years of his life at the Tuam home. He helps run the Tuam Home Survivors Network, a group of people who lived at the children’s home.

They want the remains to be exhumed, identified and given “a dignified burial.” Mulryan said the group also wants the government to examine how and why children at the home died.

He said in an interview with Courthouse News earlier this year that the church destroyed many of the files connected with the Tuam home.

He said children who died at the institution were thrown into a septic tank connected by a tunnel to the back of the home. He said dead children were wrapped in cloth and “put it in the tank in the dark of night.”

Mulryan said people in Tuam and those in public office knew what was going on but said nothing out of fear.

“I’m afraid people were overpowered by the church and state,” he said. “They knew wrong went on there, knew babies died there unnecessarily, the way they were treated and all that. But the people were afraid to open their mouth.”

Officials at the Catholic bishop’s office in Tuam declined to comment about what happened at the children’s home. In comments to the government inquiry, the Sisters of Bon Secours said they were “shocked and devastated by what has come to light to date” and apologized for the failure to provide proper burials.

Today, the mother and baby home in Tuam is gone. It was demolished in the 1970s and a housing estate was built on parts of the site. A section of the area though was left undeveloped, including the spot where children’s bodies were left in a cesspit. Today there is a large playground near where surveys found children’s remains in the sewage tank.

A marker on a wall commemorates children buried on the grounds of the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, a nun-run institution in County Galway, Ireland, where unwed mothers and their children were housed in brutal conditions. Hundreds of children were allegedly buried on the site, many inside a sewage tank, after dying of neglect, malnutrition and disease. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

“We used to call it the buildings. It was all grass. We knew it was a babies graveyard. But we didn’t know what it was,” said Louise Furey, who grew up at the housing estate.

She, like so many others in Tuam, was perturbed by what has been revealed. As a single unmarried mother, the story felt personal, she said.

“For me it hit home, being a single mother,” she said. If she had been alive when the home was operating, she imagined herself among those sent there and then separated from her child.

“If I had been there at that time, I probably would have been there too,” she said. “I don’t believe in having a priest tell me what to do. I’m outspoken. I don’t follow rules.”

She said it was shocking to discover what happened at the home and said she came to understand the depth of the horrors after attending commemorative events and speaking with people who survived.

“The kids in that home could never speak because they came from single mothers,” she said. “They were malnourished.”

She reflected upon a growing rebellion against the Catholic Church in Ireland today.

“It was a shock how much power the priests and nuns had in Ireland,” she said.

Another resident of the housing estate, 45-year-old nurse Owen McGinn, showed up at the playground on the grounds of the former children’s home. Dusk was settling in.

He recalled how the place was derelict when he was growing up. He said people found baby clothes in the rubble and that dogs dug up bones. He wondered now if those bones were from children who had died at the home.

Mulryan, the Tuam Home Survivors Network chairman, said there is a good chance bones of children who died at the home are buried under the playground and under houses built atop the grounds of the Tuam home.

McGinn said he wanted to see the Irish government take steps to right the wrongs of the past, including identifying through DNA the remains of those buried near to where he was playing with his two small children.

“There are people out there who don’t realize they have siblings who died here,” he said. “I know if I had siblings who died here, I would like to know.”

Tuam is an Irish town with a proud history; it was a seat of power during the Middle Ages. Many residents, though, were reluctant to talk about what happened at the children’s home.

In one hardware store, a woman in her 60s whose family owned the store opened up and talked. She declined to give her name, saying she needed anonymity to speak freely.

She said it was an open secret in the town that conditions at the children’s home were dreadful. The home’s children walked barefoot to school and were not allowed to play with other children, she said. She said her mother was slapped for speaking with children from the home.

She said her father was upset about the inhumanity shown to the children, but even so people like him felt they could not question the authority of the church.

“It’s about a whole way of life at that time,” she said. “Ireland was 50 years behind in all fairness. I think that if you would compare this, Ireland was Third World. People went hungry in the countryside besides in our wonderful, great institutions.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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