A shrine built to honour the children who were interred at St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home Image Credit: The New York Times

Clouds lie low and dark over the town, and there’s a cold drizzle hanging in the air. As local folk here in Tuam in County Galway in the west of Ireland will tell you, it’s a dampness that gets into your bones and chills your very core. And this is a town with a dark past and many winters of discontent – and knows too much already about old bones.

While today’s children are safely sat in local school classrooms this damp January morning, Tuam offers little warmth for those living in the present – and even less for those grappling with its past. This small town of 8,200 souls, where farmers drive solid cars pulling trailers of drystock cattle; where local mothers shop at Aldi; where women power walk in pairs in black leggings; where the energetic gather for pilates at the community centre; and where Burke’s buses leave a dozen times a day for Galway – is ground zero in a shocking chapter of Irish social and religious history; one only now being written where vulnerable children died by the hundreds here; and thousands simply went missing down the decades in state-approved care homes.

Close to the centre of Tuam, walled by semi-detached houses where a motley collection of television antennas sit crookedly in chimneys emitting the heavy smell of burning coal and peat against the January winter, a children’s playground and its grassy knolls and rusting slides will soon be an excavation site, all in to shadow of a statue to the Virgin Mary.

The site is where the remains of hundreds of children lie – deaths that the Government of Ireland vows to investigate. It was here that those who ran the nearby Mother and Baby Home in Tuam buried those who died, supposedly left in the care of the Roman Catholic Church and the order of nuns who ran the state-approved institution between 1925 and 1961.

One child died there on average every two weeks.

Catherine Corless, who investigated a burial site in St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam Image Credit: New York Times

But the Tuam institution of horrors wasn’t alone. Scattered around the Irish republic were 17 other homes that catered to an estimated 35,000 girls or women, and while the Dublin government has pledged a quick inquiry and full report into the scandal of mother-and-child homes, in January it said that the report would be delayed for at least a year – simply because the scope and scale of the deaths in institutional care was too large to be able to finish off the investigation without doing the countless victims and their families justice.

The probe will look at how the children were cared for, how so many were adopted into the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States without proper authorisation or records, and whether the children in the homes were used in drug-testing experiments.

In December, Ireland Taoiseach, (or Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar said the excavations at the Tuam site would begin in the second half of this year, acknowledging that his government was “unaware” of that it was getting into with the initiative. It may also have to turn to experts who investigated mass graves in for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Syria and Iraq. Sadly, many of the babies and young children were simply disposed of in former septic tanks that drained sewage and human waste from the former home.

The Bons Secours sisters, who ran the Tuam home, have offered €2.5 million towards the cost of the excavation – the Irish government believes it faces a bill in excess of €10 million to try and identify those victims.

“We’ve never really done this before in Ireland on this scale, so we’ve a lot to set up and a lot to learn before we do it,” Varadkar told Irish media in a year-end interview. “We’re not entirely sure what we’re getting into, but as a government we’re convinced this is the right thing to do, to remove the remains and to give those children a proper decent burial they didn’t get and, if possible, to identify them if we can, if the technology allows that.”

As a government we’re convinced this is the right thing to do — to remove the remains and to give those children a proper decent burial they didn’t get...

- Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach

In Tuam, Catherine Corless has been haunted all her life by childhood memories of the skinny children from the local home for unmarried mothers and their babies. Known locally as “the home babies”, the children lived in secrecy behind the dark, high walls of the home run by nuns, and some of them attended the same school as Corless – but they were kept apart from the other children.

Once, egged on by classmates, Corless played a trick on one of the home babies, handing over what looked like a sweet but was in fact only an empty wrapper.

“I’m so sorry for that. It’s stuck me with, that memory. It was only later I thought ‘that poor child never got a sweet, they would have loved a sweet’,” Corless says from her home in the rolling boggy fields outside the town. Now a grandmother and amateur local historian, Corless has spent years painstakingly researching records to discover what happened behind those high walls, where unmarried pregnant women were sent to have their babies in secret.

Alone, often met with silence and obstruction from Church and state bureaucracies that held long-forgotten records, Corless eventually exposed the existence of a mass grave of babies and toddlers in the septic tanks.

Born in 1954, Corless grew up on a farm near Tuam, worked as a typist-receptionist as a young woman, then married and raised her four children at home. In the 1990s, she became interested in local history and took a part-time course on how to conduct historical research using primary sources.

In 2012, she offered to write an article for a local journal on the mother-and-baby home about which very little was known.

At first she tried archival newspapers, but all she could find were advertisements tendering for child-sized coffins for the home. There were precise size specifications and the coffins were required to have brass handles and a brass crucifix on top.

“That got me thinking, there must have been a lot of deaths in the home if they were putting out tenders for coffins every six months,” said Corless.

The breakthrough came when she obtained the death certificates of all the children who died at the home, paying €4 for each. She had no idea how many there would be. When the answer came, she was stunned – in the 36 years the home was open, from 1925-1961, 796 children died.

“It was like a bolt of lightning. It just went through me. Is that possible?” said Corless, describing that moment.

There was no trace of those children in any of the local cemeteries, and no written records of their places of burial.

Government records show that in the 1930s-1950s, more than one in four babies born out of wedlock in Ireland died, a rate more than five times that of children born to married parents.

The records do not show how many children were living in the Tuam home at any given time, but suggest mortality rates that were even higher. Now social historians and medical experts believe the infant death rates in the 18 mother-and-cold homes in Ireland were equivalent to the 17th Century.

In 1947, 49 babies were born in the Tuam home and 30 more admitted under the age of one. Forty-six children died there, most before their first birthday; the oldest was three.

The vacant home was demolished in the 1970s.

It had long been rumoured locally that there was an unmarked children’s graveyard on the site, and a grassy corner near the playground had been tended for years by residents who the statue of the Virgin Mary. By comparing old and new maps of the site, Corless established that the mysterious, informal children’s graveyard was located in the same place as a very old sewage tank.

Her research was published locally, and eventually made national and international headlines in 2014, causing widespread revulsion and prompting the government to set up a commission of inquiry into the Tuam home and 17 others.

So far, there have been two test excavations at Tuam and only a sample of remains were recovered for analysis. They were found to range from 35-week-old fetuses to three-year-old children.

“It’s only the start. They have to find out. Are they all there?” said Corless. “They have to be counted if it’s possible, because if they’re not all there the question remains: where are they?”

Since her research became public, Corless has been contacted by more than 100 people with connections to the home, and has helped some of them locate long lost relatives or the graves of mothers who were forced to part from them when they left the home.

Dr Lindsey Earner-Byrne, an historian at University College Dublin, has studied the period and said the new Irish state set itself up as a bastion of Catholicism and moral purity in opposition to its former master, Britain.

But she said a high price was paid for that puritanical intolerance.

“It was black and white and if you deviated you were ostracized,” she said. “And one way of deviating was having sex outside marriage. Women who did paid the highest price along with their children – and that was to be relegated to an institution or to take the boat to Britain.”

The Tuam grave issue is something the people of the County Galway town have given a lot of thought to.

One woman said that as, a single mother, a midwife asked her whether she wanted to give her son up for adoption as recently as 22 years ago.

Another said: “The church got away with it for so long and it’s not right”.

But an elderly man took a different view. “We all knew about the home for unmarried mothers and pregnant ladies. The babies had to be buried somewhere. It was a sign of the times.”

According to the BBC, as recently as 2012, more than 100 children in Irish state care were reported missing in the five-year period up until then.

In late August, Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s 1,2 billion Roman Catholics, visited the shrine of Knock some 60 kilometres away and addressed thousands of pilgrims, apologising for the actions of the church clergy in Ireland. Here in Tuam, hundreds also gathered that same day to remember the children who died at the home.

“My mother’s baby died in there at six-years-old, it’s an obscenity. We’re standing on a place where unburied babies, 796 of them, are in a septic tank,” said Annette McKay, 64, who travelled from Britain for the vigil. [Pope Francis’] church did this to 796 innocent children and their mothers. Tell me how you are going to change this.”

–With inputs from agencies

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.