Cherishing all the children, one unmarked grave at a time



Irish Mail on Sunday, 25th of May 2014

“Cherish all the children equally” is a defining Irish shibboleth, enshrined in Ireland’s Proclamation of Independence. It is one of our highest aspirations and, like most of the things we Irish hold dearest, it is build on a solid foundation of utter hypocrisy.

Cherish all the children? By all available evidence, we Irish don’t even like children. I’ve written about this before and I’m sure I will again. Ireland really is no country for small children.

The Irish Mail on Sunday reports that up to eight hundred children may be buried in an unmarked mass grave in Tuam, Co Galway, on the former grounds of an institution known locally as “The Home”. (Local knowledge says that there is no “may” about this.) Run by the Bon Secours nuns, “The Home”, which had previously been a workhouse, operated between 1926 and 1961 and over the years housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their “illegitimate” children.

Alison O’Reilly reports in the Mail that the causes of death for “as many as 796 children” included “malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia”. The children, some as small as babies, were interred, without the benefit of a coffin, in what is described as “a concrete tank” and “a water tank”. It would only be marginally more disrespectful to those poor kids if their bodies had been dumped in what I first suspected it was, namely a septic tank.

In 2014, a housing estate covers the land. There are real homes there now, proper homes where families live and children play. I hope it’s a happy place.

Expect to see the usual contortionist contextualising from the Irish Catholic and the Iona “Institute” as the Defenders of the Faith trot out their well-practised “few bad apples” lines. “The vast majority of Catholic institutions did great good for Irish children,” they’ll tell us if this ever makes it to Prime Time. They’ll wring their hands and drip sweet insincerity that times were different then and nobody knew how bad it was, as they are again “silenced” in their weekly columns in the Irish Times and the Irish Independent but the simple truth is they’ll be lying.

We knew. We just didn’t care.

In 1946 the internationally-acclaimed hero of “Boys Town”, Roscommon-born Father Edward Flanagan, visited the land of his birth. Flanagan, who had become a reluctant celebrity since the 1938 smash hit film starring Spencer Tracey immortalised him, had founded Boys Town in 1917 as a centre of education and shelter for poor and neglected boys in Omaha, Nebraska. His philosophy was built around a simple and powerful belief: “There is no such thing as a bad boy”.


Father Edward Flanagan with some of the boys of Boys Town

There were no fences around Boys Town because Father Flanagan said “This is a home. You do not wall in members of your own family.” Flanagan treated the boys in his care with compassion and respect and his kindness showed such success that he became known as “the world’s foremost expert on boys’ training and youth care.”

Father Flanagan was horrified by what he saw here, denouncing Ireland’s treatment of children in Church and State care as “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong”.

Flanagan told a public gathering in Cork’s Savoy Cinema: “You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go into these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it.” Calling Ireland’s penal institutions “a disgrace to the nation,” he said “I do not believe that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character.”

Nobody listened. The then Minister for Justice, Gerald Boland, dismissed in the Dáil Father Flanagan’s reports of children beaten with “the cat o’ nine tails, the rod, and the fist”.

“I was not disposed to take any notice of what Monsignor Flanagan said while he was in this country,” Boland told the House, “because his statements were so exaggerated that I did not think people would attach any importance to them.”

Nobody listened.

But we’ve changed now, seventy years later, of course. We’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and we really do cherish all the children now, don’t we?

Well, we’ve just had the European and Local Elections and turnout was high, by our standards, as 57% of the electorate went to the polls to administer to the Government a well-earned kick in the arse. Compare that to the turnout for the Children’s Rights Referendum of 2012. For all our guff about cherishing children and for all our crocodile tears, when we were offered the chance to enshrine in the Constitution the rights of children, only 33.5% of us could be bothered to vote.

That says it all.

Back home in the US, Father Flanagan addressed his Irish countrymen and women:

“What you need over there is to have someone shake you loose from your smugness and satisfaction and set an example by punishing those who are guilty of cruelty, ignorance and neglect of their duties in high places . . . I wonder what God’s judgment will be with reference to those who hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their God-given stewardship of little children.”

Donal O’Keeffe.

Postscript. The Journal has picked up on the story. I was wrong. It was a septic tank. The Bon Secours nuns, the brides of Christ, dumped the bodies of 800 children, who died in their so-called care, in a septic tank.

Wednesday 28th of May 2014: Many thanks to Philip Boucher-Hayes, who featured the story of the Tuam babies on Liveline. Listen here.

A clear picture emerges. Mothers incarcerated until they signed over their babies, healthy children sold to wealthy Americans and disabled infants abandoned in “Dying Rooms”, their bodies dumped in a septic tank.

To quote Bob Dylan, “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do”.

Saturday 31st May 2014: My column in “Mass grave ‘filled to the brim with tiny bones and skulls’ shows how we cherish children

17 thoughts on “Cherishing all the children, one unmarked grave at a time

  1. Reblogged this on ancroiait and commented:
    Ní minic a chuirim Béarla ar mo bhlag ach is fiú é seo a léamh.
    Tá gá le admháil gur Dialathas atá againn in Éirinn.
    Tá gá le admháil go raibh agus go bhfuil córas faisistíoch againn gan rogha ag mná ná ag éinne i ndáiríre faoin cinéal oideachas a bhfaigheann siad mar níl oideachas saor ó iompúchán againn.
    Ar son ár gcearta daonna, ar son na tíre, ár son na daoine a d’fhulaing romhainn, na daoine atá ag fulaingt anois agus na daoine a fhulaingeoidh as seo amach tá gá le scaradh idir Eaglais is Stát.
    Ar son seans a bheith mar náisún amháin arís gan Rome Rule, tá gá leis.
    Tá cic sa tóin láidir ag teastáil ón Eaglais go dtuigfidh siad: os comhair na cúirte leo ag gach leibhéal anois. Muid ag fanacht i bhfad rófhada.

  2. And 800 dead babies is only the tip of the icebergs – as regards dead children! One Mother & Baby Home could possible have 2,000 deaths over the 40 years of its existence. There ARE some children that got out of these places alive – because they were sold on to rich American Catholics.

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  4. Donal well written!.

    “You are the people who permit ……………….. You can do something about it.”

    Those same words as true today as they have been through every atrocity – children then, the more recent sexual abuse by the clergy, the Magdalene homes nightmare and so much more.

    It’s the real tragedy of Ireland.

  5. Fr. Flanagan was condemned from the pulpit and all the way to the Oireachtas. He fell ill and died of a heart attack in Berlin, Germany, on May 15, 1948.

  6. i contacted Catherine to see if my brothers name was on the list she has.. he wasnt.. i hope he is alive and well.. the search continues .. he is my last remaining close relative ,,, thanks for this post Donal.. Regards Sean

  7. I had a beautiful Baby Boy, born in Bessborough in 1960 died at 6 weeks, my self lucky to have survived with the same infection was told a dirty needle. I hadn’t known where my Son was buried until 15 years ago, when I had plucked up enough courage to confront the nuns at Bessborough. I now know that although I was a so called inmate in Bessborough at the time of his burial I was not allowed to be at his burial. It breaks my heart not knowing if he was dressed in a gown or even if he was laid in a Coffin. Having read these horror stories nothing would surprise me. To this day 54 years after still trying to come to terms with the horror of it all. May God forgive them .

    • Just read your comment. I can’t even imagine your hurt, but I feel very real anger at the news coming out now. I wish there was a book with case histories of all survivors and their experiences at places like the Home in Tuam and Bessborroigh. People need to know what went on. Is there documentation from tribunals because I really want to know what happened? For what its worth, sorry you and your son were treated horrifically.

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  9. I have seen people already saying that “times were different”.

    The place was running from 1926 to 1961. In those days, they hanged Nazis.

  10. Great article. I was brought up an Irish Catholic. It’s a smug and ugly religion, built on shame and fear.

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