Journal Column: Questions remain unanswered over the Tuam mother-and-baby home

I found this column difficult to write. Actually no, not difficult. The words themselves flowed, in a way they don’t always. I found it hard. I suppose anyone with a heart would find this subject matter upsetting.

It’s a very important story and it isn’t anywhere near over. I’d really appreciate it if you’d take a look.


I think a memorial would be a very fitting tribute to the Tuam Babies – if they were of the past, if they were beyond living memory, if they were long-forgotten ghosts. They are not. They are real children, they are the real brothers and sisters, the real sons and daughters, of real Irish people who are still alive today.

More here.



Michael Kitt TD and the Tuam Babies: Irish history is a very small place too

On Thursday 5th of June 2014, Galway East TD Michael P. Kitt addressed the Dáil, adding his voice to calls for an inquiry into the Mother and Baby Homes.

I support the call for an independent inquiry into the deaths in the mother and baby homes. As someone who has represented east Galway and Tuam for over three decades, I am very saddened by and horrified at the information on the large number of deceased children involved. I have spoken to the Minister about this and thank him for giving me a hearing.

I understand there could be four Departments in the cross-departmental response to examine the situation and particularly the burial of children in the mass grave. Donal O’Keeffe, writing in quotes the historian Catherine Corless describing the mass grave as “filled to the brim with tiny bones and skulls”. It is a terrible indictment of how we cherish children.

The Minister would probably agree that the Bon Secours sisters must act on their responsibility in this matter as they ran the home for mothers and babies. I understand the sisters and the members of the local children’s home graveyard committee have met to discuss a memorial of the unmarked children’s grave in Tuam and that the names will be recorded. I ask the Minister and the Government to work with the local committee in Tuam and the families of the deceased to have a dignified re-interment of the remains of the children. When one thinks of children being discarded, it is time to find out exactly what records existed in the old health board, which preceded the Health Service Executive, HSE, and in Galway County Council because according to media reports there is some dispute about where the records are held. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some of this information. I hope to have a minute later to ask further questions.

Michael Kitt has indeed represented the people of Tuam and East Galway for over three decades. In 1975 he “inherited” his seat upon the death of his father, Michael Snr, who was first elected to the Dáil in 1948. No shame in that. The Taoiseach came to the Dáil by the same route, that same year.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Deputy Kitt is completely in earnest in his horror at what happened in the Tuam Home. But back to Deputy Kitt in a moment.

I saw a beautiful Tweet from Adrienne Corless the other day: “Am so proud of her but she won’t hear of it. She works with that pristine clarity on behalf of nobody, but those kids. Their advocate.” Adrienne is right to be so proud of her Mam. If not for Catherine Corless, we would never have heard of the Tuam Babies, of whom President Michael D Higgins said “These are children who while they were alive had rights, the rights to protection, and who, if dead, had the right to be looked after with dignity.”

Since Alison O’Reilly first broke nationally the Tuam Babies story in the Irish Mail on Sunday on May 25th, it took a while before the story gained traction. The Journal was among the very first to follow up on the story but it seemed that it was only when the international media reported on our latest scandal that some sections of our media deigned to cover the story in any depth, and then mainly to sniff snootily about sensationalism. I call it Oh Jesus We’re In The Washington Post Syndrome.

Until the story got widespread national interest, mainly by becoming first an international story, some of us on social media were baffled and frustrated that such an important story was not leading the news every day and night. It should be said that there were some honourable exceptions, among them and notably Philip Boucher-Hayes, who covered the story on both Liveline and Drivetime, and Carol Hunt in the Sunday Independent.

The naysayers, presumably completely unrelated to the Bon Secours Sisters’ expensive PR firm, have spread the word that coverage has been either “hysterical” or an outright hoax. They weren’t all babies, you know. They weren’t dumped. And it wasn’t a septic tank. And if it was, 796 bodies wouldn’t have fit in a septic tank. The Parish Priest in my native Glanworth singled out the real culprits: the media. (He also took a fantastic swipe at Gay Byrne and his twenty researchers who have but one purpose in life: to do down the Catholic Church. I can only assume that the PP is listening to the wireless from 1983.)

Context can never excuse brutality or neglect, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying. In an Irish Times opinion piece entitled “What twisted morality led to misery of Tuam home?” the Iona “Institute” Patron and (presumably) Twisted Morality Expert Father Vincent Twomey laid the blame squarely on “Victorian puritanism”. Still, I suppose no man ever went broke telling the Irish that it was all the Famine Queen’s fault.

As for “it wasn’t a septic tank” and/or “796 bodies wouldn’t fit in a septic tank”, I think Izzy Kamikaze has answered those arguments pretty comprehensively here. I wish she had called that piece “The Trouble With The Trouble With The Septic Tank Story Story”.

As I’ve said before, one thing at least is certain: there will be no saying a few prayers and covering this up again, as was done when Tuam’s mass grave was first discovered in the 1970s.

Update: Adrienne Corless has set the record straight with the Paper of Record.

One point upon which we can all agree is that the Bon Secours Sisters, for all their depravity, did not operate in isolation. The Catholic Church and the Irish State always worked hand-in-glove. Those of us putting money in the Sunday collection plate have always been complicit too.

Ireland has always been an open conspiracy. The nuns, the parish priest, the schoolmaster, the postmistress, the doctor, the nurse, the bank manager, the shopkeeper, the farmer, the publican, the vet, the county councillor, the TD and the Senator. All the respectable people. And all the people who wanted to be respectable too. We were all in it together. We Irish, crippled by our own insecurity, disfigured by our massive inferiority complex and warped by our craven need to look down on someone, we have always despised the vulnerable.

Oh yes. Michael Kitt. No, I didn’t just quote that Dáil speech above because I’m in it (though I’m grateful to Sinead O’Carroll for the tip-off). We all know that Ireland is a very small place. Turns out Irish history is a very small place too. If you’re on Twitter, you should be following the historian and librarian Liam Hogan. He tweets as @Limerick1914 and his coverage of the Tuam Babies story has been exemplary.

Liam sent me this from the Tuam Herald (25/6/1949). In 1949 the infant mortality rate in the Tuam Home was running at five times that of the general population, but members of Galway County Council “found everything in the Home in very good order” and stayed for the grub.

Notice anything?

Galway Co Co

 – Donal O’Keeffe


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