Our past was cruel but decent people are righting wrongs
The Tuam babies story presents us with the usual depressing challenges, but some hope.
The challenges include distinguishing the facts from the hysterics and the blame-storming from the truth.
Rosita Boland in The Irish Times did us all a favour by interviewing Catherine Corless, who spent significant time and money researching the deaths at the home.
Boland reported Corless’ dismay that about headlines claiming that the remains of 796 bodies were dumped in a disused sewage tank.
No such discovery took place. No one even knows if the vault was ever used as a septic tank. And they think about 20 bodies were in it anyway. Considering the facts are horrendous in themselves, the distortions are inexcusable.
Historian Sean Lucey has revealed the social context of the “committals” to these Mother and Baby homes. He recounted one case of a girl sent to Bessborough - not by a priest - but by a council official in Kerry on the recommendation of a local “respectable” woman.
When the girl’s father asked if his daughter could come home, the official checked first with this bastion of social acceptability. She said it would be a mistake as it would give poor example to local girls and the official refused the request.
In other words, the regime that existed was not a straightforward case of an authoritarian Church crushing a desperate people. As with the Magdalene Laundries, Tuam existed with the consent and at the behest of the people.
However, this is where hope enters the story. Because although some people try to persuade us that these deaths have been ignored, that just isn’t true.
All over Ireland, good people like Catherine Corless have found ways to right the wrongs that were done to these innocents. In Tuam itself, locals knew the site was a burial ground and treated it accordingly. A grotto was built, roses planted and the site tended.
Corless’ research was motivated by the desire that the names of those buried there would be recorded on some kind of plaque or memorial.
There are people like Catherine everywhere and many have focused on cillini, the burial grounds for unbaptised babies, since the Church decreed that not having been baptised, they couldn’t be properly interred in consecrated ground.
Some groups have succeeded in having the grounds consecrated by the Church while others seek to have them re-interred somewhere appropriate.
My own mother did just that in our parish of Enfield.
During the construction of the M4 motorway, a cillin containing the remains of 62 infants was uncovered near our home.
The remains, along with those of over 400 adults from an adjoining medieval graveyard, were excavated and retained by the National Museum for archaeological research.
After some agitating by us, the Museum agreed to return the remains of the babies and our parish priest re-interred them in a lovely grave at our church.
The ceremony was attended by our entire congregation, which showed how strongly people felt about the issue.
To this day, we notice that someone is tending that grave and wonder if it was someone who lost a child. We’ll never know, but that’s not the point.
The point is that ordinary people, under the radar, are doing what they can to correct the injustice.
This is my cause for hope. Our history is both sad and cruel, but we have a future when this decency thrives.