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'Chamber of horrors': Remains of hundreds of babies to be exhumed from mass grave in Ireland

Baby shoes hang from railings on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin in memory of the children who died at the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway, 25 August, 2018.
Baby shoes hang from railings on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin in memory of the children who died at the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway, 25 August, 2018. Copyright Niall Carson/AP
Copyright Niall Carson/AP
By Rebekah Daunt
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Ten years after a dark discovery was made in the west of Ireland, Euronews takes a look at the grim legacy of the maternity homes that were still in operation until the end of the 20th century.

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Many parents might tell you that having a child is one of life's most fulfilling experiences. But for the thousands of single women who found themselves pregnant in 20th-century Ireland, the experience was deeply stigmatised and often shortlived.

Between 1922 and 1998, an estimated 90,000 unmarried, pregnant women were incarcerated in institutions called Mother and Baby Homes. Upon birth, the babies were handed over to the care of governing religious orders. 

In 2012, Catherine Corless, a local historian from Tuam, County Galway, reported that she found death certificates for 796 babies and toddlers born in St Mary's Mother and Baby Home between 1926-1961. However, the burial records were missing.

Her research gained international media attention and sparked fears that these children were buried in a defunct sewerage system on the grounds of the Bon Secours Home.

Soon after, the Irish government launched an inquiry and an independent Commission (MBHC) into the Mother and Baby Homes.

Almost a decade later, Ireland's Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, has finally appointed a former Red Cross envoy to oversee the exhumation of remains buried on the site.

Niall Carson/AP
FILE - This June 4, 2014 file photo shows the site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland.Niall Carson/AP

So why were unmarried mothers ostracised in 20th-century Ireland and why has it taken so long for the site to be exhumed?

How did the Mother and Baby Homes come about?

“The Mother and Baby Home system and the migrant asylums which are connected to it were all actually inherited from the 19th Century” Lindsey Earner-Byrne, a Professor of Irish Gender History at University College Cork, told Euronews.

Ireland gained its independence from Britain in 1922 and the Catholic Church gained partial or in most cases, complete control of these institutions.

According to James Smith, a Professor of English and Irish studies at Boston College, in Massachusetts, the Catholic Church and the Irish Free State were the self-appointed guardians of the nation's moral climate. 

At the time 94 per cent of the population was practising Catholics, therefore, the clergy's teachings on sexual immorality, and how women should behave in the eyes of the church, were hugely influential. 

In Ireland, there was a very strong sense of respectability, and that was associated with sexual morality. And, the idea that sex had no place outside marriage and certainly pregnancy had no place outside marriage.
Lindsey Earner-Byrne
Professor of Irish Gender History at University College Cork

There were huge ramifications for women who got pregnant outside of the wedding vow, even those who had pregnancies as a result of rape or incest. An unmarried pregnant daughter was thought to bring shame to an entire family, many left home or were sent away by their own parents.

While the Catholic Church maintained that these facilities provided a place of refuge for unmarried mothers, according to Earner-Byrne, these institutions admitted women "for a myriad of reasons". Ultimately this system of female incarceration was “dedicated to controlling female behaviour in lots of ways, not just in relation to motherhood, but all sorts of women,” she said.

Most women were detained in the Mother and Baby Homes for six months to two years however in rare cases, detainees remained for extended periods. The MBHC found that a woman admitted to Bessbourgh House in Cork died in 1974 aged 81 while another woman died in the same facility in 1984, aged 80.

Those incarcerated were subjected to unpaid labour in the form of cleaning, laundry work, clothes and jewellery making.

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Did the Mother and Baby Home system make money?

Once adoption was made legal in Ireland in 1953 almost all children born in the homes were put up for adoption. Others were transferred to industrial schools, some were later moved to Magdalene Laundries and other Mother and Baby Homes. 

The sisterhoods profited from the adoptions but they were also endorsed by the state and local councils as Earner-Byrne explains: “The local authority would pay a capitation for the religious orders to ‘take care of her’ (a referred or self-referred women). So, there was a transfer of funds, if you like, from the state to the church through a capitation system and the same sort of system applied for the industrial schools where the children were held”.

Some homes even demanded ransoms of £100 [approximately €4000 in 2023], from wealthier family members who pleaded for their daughters to be released back into their care after giving birth.

Niall Carson/AP
A memorial for the formally unidentified babies buried at the Tuam site in Co. GalwayNiall Carson/AP

The laundry work, clothes-making and jewellery-making services provided by the inmates made the Mother and Baby Home scheme a lucrative business: “There were lots of ways in which it was a huge untapped labour force that had no rights and was not paid for the labour. So it's very, very hard to actually quantify the degree to which there was a financial benefit, but there was a huge financial benefit,” Earner-Byrne said.

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The MBHC also found that children at the institutions were used as participants in unethical vaccine trials. 

Why were children experimented on?

Some 43,000 children were involved in vaccine trials in Ireland during the last century. Glaxo Laboratories and the Wellcome Foundation, two companies that became part of the tenth largest pharmaceutical company in the world, GlaxoSmithKline, were involved in these trials between 1934 and 1973. The Commission confirmed that at least 1,135 participants came from church-run institutions and more than 223 of these were from Mother and Baby Homes.

According to the MBHC, neither the mothers nor their children consented to the trials, in addition, many of the tests did not comply with regulatory standards and the necessary licenses were not in place.

"The independent researchers, as the individuals conducting the trials, were personally responsible for ensuring they were carried out with the licenses, permissions and consents required under Irish law and practice at the time,” a GSK spokesperson told Euronews. 

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We are disappointed that, based on the available evidence, there were failings in the conduct of the trials, particularly in the context of seeking and/or receiving appropriate consent.
GSK Spokesperson

Following the publication of the final Commission report, Minister O’Gorman promised that compensation would be provided to survivors and called on the Catholic Church and GSK to contribute but so far neither the church nor the pharmaceutical company have contributed to the scheme.

However, an Irish investigative platform, Noteworthy, discovered that several governing religious organisations made payments totalling €27 million to the State from 2016–2022.

“While the findings of the Commission’s report are extremely upsetting, they do not question Wellcome or Glaxo’s responsibilities and duties in developing, manufacturing and supplying vaccines for the purposes described. For this reason, we do not propose further reparations in response to the issues raised,” the GSK spokesperson said.

Why has it taken so long for the Tuam site to be exhumed?

The MBHC was established on 17 February 2015. As part of the investigation, a number of excavations took place at the Tuam site between 2016 and 2017. The Commission discovered a large quantity of buried baby remains inside 20 chambers of a disused waste tank, carbon dating determined the bodies were buried while the home was still in operation.

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The former Taoiseach of Ireland, Enda Kenny, described the site as a "chamber of horrors".

The Commission decided it would focus on 18 institutions around the country in its report, however, several support groups called for all burial sites connected to former State and church-run institutions to be examined. 

In 2018, the Irish government announced it would facilitate a full excavation and exhumation of the Tuam site. After five interim reports, the Commission finally published its full report in 2021.

I think we have to see this as a whole system of incarceration. So you had orphanages, Mother and Baby Homes, industrial schools and Magdalene Asylums. People were moved around within these institutions... so, some generations were lost entirely to the system.
Lindsey Earner-Byrne
Professor of Irish Gender History at University College Cork

The report made international news and the Catholic Church faced fresh accusations of child neglect. 

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Some members of the government praised the findings of the six-year investigation for shedding more light on gender discrimination and a deeply misogynistic culture in Ireland. But many campaigners and survivors slammed the final report claiming it did not reflect the true experiences of many survivors and rejected a number of accounts in the final report.

The Irish High Court also found the Commission proceeded illegally in denying the survivors the same opportunity given to religious and State institutions to comment on the Commission's draft findings and subsequently breached the 2004 Commission of Investigation Act. Survivors also said the report lacked detail on forced incarceration, forced labour and forced adoptions. 

In February 2023, the Minister of Children published a five-point update stating the draft legislation to excavate the site was now "fully-operational" but it lacked clear deadlines which was met with criticism by some survivors and families.

After a director was appointed to oversee the excavation at Tuam in May, Catherine Corless said, she was optimistic that the director, Daniel Mac Sweeney, would do a thorough job and bring closure. However, survivor representatives and family members have said they doubt any progress would be made this year.

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The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth which will oversee the operation, said the director's first priority is to meet with relatives and survivors of the Tuam home.

Are there other mass graves?

There are several other burial sites around the country connected to former homes. While the government and Commission have called for the church to come forward with burial records they have struggled to gain access. The Catholic Church has stated that many records were lost or never existed in the first place.

In addition, legislation enabling someone in Ireland to register a stillbirth wasn't enacted until 1996, but it still wasn't mandatory. 

"There were also challenges when it came to registering births in certain geographical areas so until the 50s and 60s there was a poor registration of births... It was very difficult to know what they (the church) were doing and the fact that there was that grey area in the registration of births that resulted in death very shortly afterwards meant it was possible not to record them," Earner-Byrne said.

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More than 900 children died in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork however the Commission was only able to establish the burial places of 64 children. For now, there are no plans to conduct excavations of the ground of Bessbourgh House, a decision which was met with outrage by survivors of the institution and campaigners.

However, the Planning and Development Act 2000 currently enables local authorities to protect potential burial sites from possible harmful development. In January 2023, Cork City Council refused planning to developers looking to build a €40 million apartment complex on the grounds of Bessborough House.

Niall Carson/AP
People hold up names of children as they gather to protest at the site of the former Tuam home during the Pope's visit to Ireland, 26 August, 2018Niall Carson/AP

Redress for survivors

Following the report's publication, the Bon Secours Order issued an apology in January 2021, acknowledging it did not live up to its Christianity at the Tuam home.

We failed to respect the inherent dignity of the women and children who came to the home. We failed to offer them the compassion that they so badly needed. We were part of the system in which they suffered hardship, loneliness and terrible hurt. We acknowledge that infants and children who died in the home were buried in a disrespectful and unacceptable way. For all that, we are deeply sorry.
Sister Eileen O'Connor
Congregation Area Leader, Sisters of Bon Secours

According to the Minister of Children in 2021, there were as many as 58,000 survivors, mothers and their children included, still living. However, many survivors are in the later years of their lives so this figure is dwindling. 

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As part of redress efforts, survivors will receive financial payment and an enhanced medical card, however, former residents must first prove they spent six months or more in an institution, meaning 24,000 could be excluded from the scheme if the terms are not revised.

There are several organisations that provide support to survivors and their families. Katie Doyle is a Magdalene Laundry and industrial school survivor who serves as a survivor liaison at the London Irish Centre

The reason why this service (the London Irish Centre's Survivor Service) is survivor-led is simply to bring a level of trust and support that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Katie Doyle
Survivor Liaison, London Irish Centre

"Anyone who has survived any of these institutions, has a deep understanding of the lived experiences of others, no matter what institution they resided in," she told Euronews.

"We unite, we resonate."

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The London Irish Centre's survivor service includes a national response line to provide individuals with advice relating to the upcoming payment scheme. It also signposts service users to external agencies and provides a wide range of social and emotional support.

Katie added: "For the people who come to us, as soon as they know that both my colleague Séan and I have survivor backgrounds, they relax, they engage and more importantly, they trust. 

"And that's a huge asset to this service. We need that level of trust to enable impactful service outcomes."

The Irish Government published the Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme bill in October 2022, amendments to the bill were debated by the Seanad, the upper house of Parliament, and were referred back to the lower house (the Dáil) on 28 June 2023, where it is likely to be debated again.

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