The Church, the state and 800 dead babies

Naoise Dolan

Online Editor

Those who rely on RTÉ for their news will have learned on 31 May that a septic tank in Tuam has been found to contain 796 babies who died in Catholic-run state care between the 1925 to 1961.

Locals had known the area to be an unmarked burial ground for decades. Catherine Corliss, a local historian who discovered the number of infants interred, reported the story to the Connacht Tribune on 14 February and told the Journal on 27 May – four days before RTÉ touched the story – that she was surprised that this state-sanctioned mass grave had not received more coverage. In the interim, our state-funded broadcaster apprised us of hot-button issues like water charges and gender bias in hurricane naming.

Being brutally accustomed to revelations of this nature, the Irish state and the Catholic Church have perfected a ready-made apology to trot out after their silence becomes embarrassing. The formula goes something like this: one reminder that it was in the past, one claim that the revelation was a ’shock’ (read: not something the Church or state could have known until it came to public attention), and no acknowledgement of current ongoing abuses.

Today (a week after the story went national), Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary made a statement that followed this template to the letter. Aside from expressing the stock levels of horror and surprise, Neary said he was ‘was made aware of the magnitude of this situation by media reporting and historical research’ and that ‘the diocese did not have any involvement in the running of the home in Tuam’ and ‘do not have any material relating to it in our archives’.

Note that the records to which the Archbishop refers were available to Catherine Corliss, a layperson. Perhaps Neary did not know about the mass grave, but he had at least as much ability to unearth the truth as did someone without his position of authority over the Tuam diocese. Arguably, he also had a far stronger moral imperative to do so. The facts were there. It is telling that a church appointee left a local woman to do the digging, then made a statement implying that the Archbishop himself could not have been expected to discover the grave and bring it to public attention.

Nor can the Irish state pretend to be flummoxed by Corliss’s revelation. As early as 1924, the Poor Law Commission had alerted the government that the mortality rate for illegitimate children like those in the Tuam home was five times the national average; in 1934, Dáil records show that the report was being debated. The records that Corliss found of the 796 Tuam babies were publicly available. The state knew that these children were dying en masse of largely preventable causes, and presumably did not believe that their bodies then vanished into thin air. At most, they can claim they were unaware of the exact manner of burial. The fact of the death rate was always clear.

Like Neary, Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan issued a statement a week after the mass grave received national coverage – and like Neary, he was keen to emphasise his shock at this ‘reminder of a darker past’. He then assured us that ‘relevant Government departments have been tasked with working together in preparation for the Government’s early consideration and determination of the best course of action’. The vagueness of his wording ill-befits the very quantifiable human lives involved. 796 dead babies, to a head – but we cannot yet tell which government authorities will be dealing with this, what they will do, or how they propose to make sure it never happens again. Flanagan, along with his fellow shocked-and-appalled, echoes the state’s professed horror at the existence of the Magdalene laundries that washed their sheets.

It is reasonable that the state should need some time to address genuinely new revelations. But activists like Adoption Rights Alliance Director Susan Lohan have been contacting government ministers about mass infant burial for years. Given that the government and the Catholic Church colluded to keep their abuses secret for most of Irish history, it seems necessary that the state should now actively work to undo these cover-ups. Failing that, they should take action as soon as someone else brings information to their attention. Failing that, they should take action as soon as information is brought to public attention. Failing that, they should not claim that their failure to take action as soon as information is brought to public attention is only because they could not have known sooner.

There are innumerable levels on which the state has failed in the past few years alone – but by my count, that’s at least four to start with.

Let’s now address the utter mendacity of the ‘dark past’ rhetoric. Under Direct Provision in present-day Ireland, the state keeps 2,000 children living in enforced poverty. Like the Tuam children, they are forced to live in confined, unsanitary spaces, stand a high risk of malnutrition, have little or no access to play facilities, often face social stigma and are segregated from children not in state care, develop physical and mental health problems, and are trapped through no fault of their own until the government decides to release them.

In the case of the Tuam babies, the state punished their mothers for getting pregnant out of wedlock. In the case of children in Direct Provision, the state punishes their parents for fleeing human rights abuses and seeking asylum in Ireland. Both parties turned to the Irish government because they had no other option. In both cases, the state treated them as outsiders, as less-thans.

The analogy might seem lazy: there are many differences. But these key similarities are enough to highlight that while the state will decry institutions no longer in existence, it is happy to replicate them for other groups it deems undesirable. In much the same manner that it curtails asylum seekers’ freedom of movement and cuts them off from full community participation, it planned similar strategies to deal with single mothers who committed the same crime (viz. ‘existing in Ireland’):


It is probably better than not for opposition TDs like Colm Keaveney to call for government action. But it should not escape our attention how easily these practices passed from Fianna Fáil to Fine Gael and back again. The Magdalene laundries outlasted any government. Both our main parties have stoically overseen state neglect and enforced poverty with roughly the same apathy. Our right-right divide is so profoundly undivided that these gross abuses carry over seamlessly; neither party can threaten the other’s ideology even to the extent of destabilising its most straightforwardly horrific institutions.

Similarly, the Catholic Church matches a lot of reformist talk with considerably less reformist action. The Pope, for instance, assured an Italian newspaper that ‘no-one else has done more’ than the Church to address child abuse – no-one else aside, that is, from the UN investigators with whom he refuses to co-operate, the whistle-blowers who bravely expose its wrongdoings, or the survivors still lobbying for full compensation. Similarly, for all the profuseness of the apologies currently delivered and those yet to come, the Bon Secours nuns whose order ran the Tuam home have donated only a ‘small amount’ towards a commemorative plaque for the dead babies.

The Irish state and the Catholic Church are never sorry for what they are currently doing. At best, they are sorry for what they have done – and in this case, they are sorry they were caught.