Wild exaggerations piled on Tuam story

We must distinguish hysteria from facts

Sometimes I think it will take generations for the consequences of our traumatic history to wash out of us. Reading about the fate of those born in mother and baby homes my heart sank once more.

First, there’s the usual task of trying to distinguish the hysteria from the facts. In an all too rare moment of reporting triumphing over emoting, Rosita Boland in The Irish Times, interviewed the local historian whose painstaking (and expensive) research revealed some truths about the 796 deaths.

Catherine Corless was appalled at world headlines like ‘Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves’ from The Guardian. Mrs Corless never said the bodies were dumped anywhere, least of all in a septic tank. Rather, through years of examination of birth and death certificates, she was able to establish the total number of deaths (based on the documentary evidence – no doubt there were more undocumented). She never claimed the vault was a septic tank. Rosita Boland tracked down one of the boys who actually found the crypt and he thought there were about 20 sets of remains in it. Locals had always known the garden at the back of the home was a burial ground and a grotto was built there. So the poor little things had not quite been forgotten.

Since it was common practice at the time not to inter unbaptised infants in consecrated ground, there was nothing exclusively awful about Tuam. Indeed, I’ve observed previously, the irony of mothers being told by priests that their little babies weren’t somehow fully human and therefore undeserving of the normal rituals. The irony being the eruption of the abortion wars and the hierarchy’s insistence that life is life from the moment of conception. Such reverence for the unborn would have avoided untold pain for grieving mothers for much of the 20th Century.


The wild exaggerations piled onto these stories annoys me because the truth is horrible enough as it is.

The story here is the appalling death rate. While I was as familiar as anyone with the existence of mother and baby homes, I had no idea the mortality rate was so high – three times the national average, which was dismal in itself.

I had always assumed that the nuns were nurses and midwives. It never occurred to me that they weren’t trained.

Given their lack of expertise, one can therefore make the usual excuses about poverty and ignorance providing a context for the deplorable care.

But there are no excuses for the condition of the babies who managed to survive birth. The story of the government inspector in the Bessborough home in Cork is just horrible. On arrival the babies all seemed well. They were in clean clothes and lying on clean sheets. But suspicious, he ordered them to be undressed and discovered horrific sores and green diarrhoea.

I will never understand how anyone, especially a woman, could fail to take care of the very simple needs of a tiny baby. They need to be cleaned, fed and held. There’s no major skill involved; just the very basic instinct of anyone with an ounce of humanity. Were we really such a brutalised people? Were the babies really considered the products of sin and so perhaps deserving of neglect? Does it take money to keep a baby clean? As I said; my heart sank.

Again, one tries to make sense of it by looking at the historical and social context. The reports of the inspectors meant that a political consensus emerged that the State would have to provide better maternity care, and so in 1946 Fianna Fáil developed the White Paper containing the proposal that would later become known as the Mother and Child Scheme.


As we know, the proposal was opposed tooth and nail by both the Church and the medical profession. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid claimed it was against Catholic moral teaching and I still have no idea why this was so.

The medical profession was clearly mindful both of its control over medicine and their private practices. Both disgraced themselves in preventing women getting access to proper care. Sadly one can’t help but draw parallels to modern debates. James Reilly’s efforts to introduce free GP care for under-6s has galvanised opposition from GPs.

There are many reasons for doctors to oppose free care for children, but you can’t help wondering if the dismantling of their private practice is one of them.

Some things change; some things stay the same.