A mass grave containing the remains of babies and young children has been discovered at a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children in Ireland, an official report revealed today.
The remains were found in a disused sewer during excavations at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway.
The ages of the dead ranged from 35 foetal weeks to three years old and were mostly buried in the 1950s.
In a statement today, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission said ‘significant quantities of human remains have been discovered in at least 17 of the 20 underground chambers which were examined earlier this year’.
The inquiry was launched after local historian Catherine Corless said there was evidence of an unmarked graveyard at the home, where records showed almost 800 children died between 1925 and 1961.
However, there was a burial record for just one child.
Pictured, a plaque erected in memory of the adults and children buried on the site
In the mid-1970s, local boys playing in the field had reported seeing a pile of bones in a hidden underground chamber there. Pictured, the home when it housed women and children
The find also dispels a popular argument that bones seen at the site might predate the orphanage’s opening, when the building was a workhouse for the adult poor. Pictured, a group of children at the home in 1924
The Mother and Baby Homes commission is investigating 17 other church-run institutions. Others have claimed that the pile of bones found dated back to the Great Famine in the 19th century
In the mid-1970s, local boys playing in the field had reported seeing a pile of bones in a hidden underground chamber.
Today’s announcement dispels a popular argument that bones seen at the site might predate the orphanage’s opening, when the building was a workhouse for the adult poor.
Some have even claimed that they were from people who died in the mid-19th century Great Famine.
My grandmother died in Tuam but we had no idea where she was buried. Until 2015…
Kathleen Tully (centre) died in the home from scepticaemia four months after giving birth to daughter Catherine
Ms Corless also revealed that nine mothers died in the home during its existence.
Burial records only existed for four of the women.
It is unknown where Mary Hickey, Mary Joyce, Bridget O’Reilly, Annie Roughneen and Margaret Henry are buried.
Annie and Margaret had children – Annie and James respectively – who also died and are among the 796 children believed to be in the mass grave.
In 2015, the Irish Mail on Sunday were able to tell the family of Kathleen Tully that she was buried in the family plot in Dunmore – but that her name was never carved on the headstone.
In 2015, the Irish Mail on Sunday told the family of Kathleen Tully that she was buried in the family plot. But daughter Catherine had already died not knowing she had visited Kathleen’s resting place in 2008
Catherine’s dauther Teresa (pictured left, right) said: ‘It is a bittersweet tragedy’. Pictured right, Catherine taking holy communion as a child
Her daughter Catherine, who was born in the Tuam home, came from London to search for her mother.
She visited the family grave but died in 2008 without ever learning that her mother was buried there.
Kathleen Tully gave birth to Catherine in the home but died four months later from septicaemia.
Daughter Catherine (centre) stayed at the home until she was five and moved to London to search for her mother. Kathleen had been buried in Catherine’s grandparent’s graves due to the stigma attached to marriage out of wedlock
An orphaned Catherine stayed at the home until she was five years old.
Unknown to Catherine, Kathleen’s body was buried in her grandparents grave, but it wasn’t marked because of the stigma associated with illegitimate births.
Catherine’s daughter Theresa McHugh Waldron, from London, said it was a ‘bittersweet tragedy’.
Ireland’s Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone said today’s news was ‘sad and disturbing’, adding that the commission of inquiry would work with local authorities to investigate further and decide what should happen to the remains.
Historian Catherine Corless said: ‘Everything pointed to this area being a mass grave.
‘All that matters now is the truth is out there. I always knew the children were buried there and now we have the facts.
‘It is such an important story, I’m totally shocked and speechless but I’m happy and it is important now to remember the families of these little angels, their loved ones and how badly they were treated.
‘I have worked so hard with the families of these children, they all need to be found and identified and matched to their birth certificates.
‘The Commission needs to continue its work and we need to full facts of what happened here.’
Ms Corless said she found records stating that the sewage systems were used until 1937, when the home was connected to a modern water supply.
The government’s commissioner for children, Katherine Zappone said: ‘It was not unexpected as there were claims about human remains on the site over the last number of years.
In 2014, local historian Catherine Corless found death certificates for nearly 800 children, but a burial record for only one child
‘Up to now we had rumours. Now we have confirmation that the remains are there and that they date back to the time of the mother-and-baby home, which operated in Tuam from 1925 to 1961.
‘We will honour their memory and make sure that we take the right actions now to treat their remains appropriately.’
The Bon Secours Sisters order of nuns, which ran the home until its closure, said in a statement that all its records, including of potential burials, had been handed to state authorities in 1961.
It pledged to cooperate with the continuing investigation.
Corless criticised the Bon Secours response as ‘the usual maddening nonsense. They must apologise and take responsibility for what happened there.’
She called on the nuns to promise explicitly to help the state organise proper marked burial places for every dead child once each set of remains could be identified.
The ages of the dead ranged from 35 weeks to three years old and were mostly buried in the 1950s. Pictured, workmen putting up scaffolding before a preliminary excavation in October 2016
A helpline has been set up to support people who are affected by the news. Test excavations took place in October 2016 and took around six weeks to complete (file photo from 2014)
‘That’s the least that can be done for them at this late stage,’ she said.
The Irish police, the Galway coroner and the Galway County Council have all been notified while a helpline has been set up for anyone affected by the news.
The three-year investigation
The investigation was formed in 2014 by the government when local historian Catherine Corless warned that there could be up to 800 children buried at the site.
Ms Corless revealed that nine mothers also died at the home, but there are only four burial certificates.
The five remaining women were Mary Hickey, Mary Joyce, Bridget O’Reilly, Annie Roughneen and Margaret Henry.
But excavators found children’s remains inside a neighbouring connected structure that may have been used to contain sewage or waste water.
In 2014, the Archbishop of Dublin said that ‘if something happened in Tuam, it probably happened in other mother-and-baby homes around the country.’
The Mother and Baby Homes commission is investigating 17 other church-run institutions.
Test excavation at the site of the children’s burial ground began in October 2016 and took around six weeks to complete.
The inquiry was established to investigate 14 mother and baby homes where unmarried mothers and their babies were placed in order to avoid the social stigma in what was then a deeply Catholic country.
The Commission said it was shocked by the discovery and is continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way.
The mother and baby home era is one of the last dark secrets of Catholic run Ireland.
The ages of the dead ranged from 35 weeks to three years old and were mostly buried in the 1950s (file picture from 2014)
The Bon Secours Sisters order of nuns, which ran the home until its closure, said in a statement that all its records, including of potential burials, had been handed to state authorities in 1961 (file photo from 2014)
Mother-and-baby homes in Ireland in the early 20th century
The Church ran many mother-and-baby homes where tens of thousands of unmarried pregnant women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth.
Unmarried mothers and their children were seen as a stain on Ireland’s image as a devout Catholic nation.
Government records show that in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the mortality rate for ‘illegitimate’ children was often more than five times that of those born to married parents.
On average, more than one in four children born out of wedlock died.
Further investigations carried out by Ms Corless reveal that nine mothers died in the home during its existence. But burial records exist for only four of the nine