Were it not for the tenacity of a housewife who has spent ten years researching her own family tree, the names of 798 children buried in an unmarked grave in Tuam would be lost for eternity.
Catherine Corless is on a quest to have the names of the children born to unmarried mothers in a home run by the Bons Secours nuns immortalised on a plaque which will serve not only as a guide to those in search of their lost family, but also as a spotlight into one of the darkest periods in Ireland’s history.
The project could well get international attention after journalist Martin Sixsmith filmed the graveyard last week as part of a new BBC documentary about mother and baby homes in Ireland. His story about Philomena Lee’s 50-year search for the son she was forced to adopt is the subject of an Oscar-nominated movie currently being shown in cinemas.
Catherine first learned of the unmarked graveyard when looking up records for the main graveyard on the Athenry Road.
“I was talking to people in the vicinity and someone said there’s a lisheen or plot for unbaptised babies across the road. I got a little hint it was something more than that so I went digging further,” reveals Catherine.
Surrounded on all sides by eight-foot walls, ‘The Home’ – officially called St Mary’s – was where women and girls from across Mayo and Galway would be sent to have babies out of wedlock between 1925 and 1961.
They would have their babies without pain relief, would be offered no stitches following the birth and were expected to work for a year in exchange for their confinement – all in the belief they must pay for their sins, according to Catherine.
“I got a day-to-day account of what life was like in the home from one lady who left there in 1956. When she first got there her job was to clean up after the one to three-year-olds who didn’t wear nappies and had constant green diarrhoea due to the bad diet. She said life was very harsh and the nuns were awfully strict.”
Babies and children were either adopted or fostered. Those who were not claimed by families were kept in the home until they made their first communion and were then transferred to other institutions. Catherine remembers the children coming into school.
“They were segregated and put to one side of the classroom. They were called the ‘home babies’ and we were told not to mind them. They came in ten minutes after us and left ten minutes earlier and we weren’t allowed to mix. People in the town remember the sound of the children marching down, they used to wear clogs in the winter and there would be a line of them with a minder in the front and back with a big stick.”
The home was knocked in 1972 to make way for the Dublin Road housing estate a half mile outside Tuam town.
In the corner of a green left in the middle of the estate, some children uncovered a big tank which had a collection of skulls and bones beneath a pile of rubble.
“I thought why would there be a crypt in the middle of nowhere. I went looking at old maps and found there was a septic tank marked on a 1891 map belonging to the home. The tank became defunct in 1938 when a new drainage scheme came into Tuam.
“It appears they made a crypt out of the old septic tank. I’d hope they’d have at least cleaned it out. It’s not nice to think about it.”
After consulting with the Civil Registrations Office, she made a shocking discovery. The unmarked grave was the final resting place to 798 dead children – among them infants just days old, many toddlers and children as old as eight. The cause of death was varied – from measles, gastroenteritis and various infections which would have spread easily in their dorm nurseries.
Most were buried only in shrouds and without coffins.
She spent €400 getting copies of their records, which included their names, dates of birth and the addresses of their mothers. She cross-checked with Galway County Council archivist Patricia McWalter to ensure they had not been claimed by families and buried elsewhere.
“These poor little things were just put down there. The saddest thing is to have that many children there who had nothing made of their lives when they were alive, here they are in death and there’s wilderness growing over them in an unmarked grave. It’s a scandal really.”
A local family, the Dooleys, took it upon themselves to get the county council to close the tank and put clay over it to create a kind of makeshift grave. They cut the grass, planted shrubs and roses and laid a small cross.
Catherine set up a committee a year ago to raise funds to erect a more permanent monument to the children.
They have plans to build a sculpture and a plaque bearing all their names, at a cost of €6,500. Tuam Town Council recently committed €2,000 to the project.
It was ten years ago when Catherine first dabbled in research while attempting to trace her own grandmother in Armagh. It became a pastime for the housewife from Brownsgrove after her own family were reared. Although she had no luck with her personal search, she has helped several other families reunite.
One Mayo man who was fostered from the home eventually traced his mother to Yorkshire. While she had passed away three years earlier, he found seven siblings and a whole new family he never knew he had.
She is helping another woman who is about to travel over from the UK to see her file being held by the Clann adoption service, a branch of the Health Service Executive (HSE). She is in contact with a woman whose brother was thought to have been adopted to an American family from the home.
“They deserve a bit of respect, they deserve to be remembered. If it’s not properly marked out it could become a dumping ground again. An injustice has been done to these poor little kids, it needs to be made right.”
Man arrested over stabbing in Galway City
A 19-year-old man is due to come before the courts in relation to a stabbing incident that occurred in the city earlier this month.
In the incident, a young man suffered a stab wound to his leg at Galway Shopping Centre on the Headford Road, and was subsequently removed to University Hospital Galway for treatment.
It is understood that the man has since been released after being treated for what weren’t regarded as life-threatening injuries.
Gardai, who studied CCTV footage available in the area at the time, had appealed for any witnesses or anyone with information to make contact with them.
The attack is not being treated as a ‘random assault’ by Gardaí – both the victim and assailant may have been known to each other.
The Galway City Tribune has learned that a 19-year-old man has been arrested by Gardaí in relation to the incident and will face charges relating to assault causing harm.
The stabbing occurred on the Tuesday evening of July 21 shortly after 8.30pm – according to Gardaí, there were a number of passersby in the vicinity at the time of the incident.
HSE challenged on cost of Covid hub in Merlin Park Hospital
The value for money of the Covid-19 Community Assessment Hub at Merlin Park has been called into question.
County Councillor Donagh Killilea said it was now time to ‘row back’ on the hub, which has cost €18,000 per week to see an average of seven patients.
Breda Crehan Roche, Chief Officer of Community Healthcare West, confirmed at the latest HSE West Regional Health Forum that the facility was currently not costing anything.
She said that three such hubs were set up in the West at the height of the pandemic; two have been stood down, but Merlin Park was on ‘stand-by’ in case of a winter surge or a second wave of coronavirus.
Cllr Killilea suggested it was not sustainable.
“It’s seen 107 Covid-19 related patients in the four months that it has been operating. That’s 0.9 patients per day, and you’ve 13 staff there at a cost of €18,000 per week. Is this sustainable? We need to row back on it,” he said.
Ms Crehan Roche confirmed that the total number of staff re-allocated to the unit and the number of full-time staffing already there included a GP, a trainee GP, six nurses, two assistant public health nurses, one physio, one admin staff and one cleaner.
“The estimated cost of the operation and capital expenditure of same was €125,000. The cost of catering for the unit since the setup of the Covid services was €2,100,” she said.
(Photo: Staff at the opening of the first Community Assessment Hub in Merlin Park).
Galway City Council brands new PorterShed design “monotonous”
Plans for the development of a technology ‘hub’ on Market Street have stalled after Galway City Council said the design of the building is “monotonous” and of insufficient quality for such a prominent location.
And the Department of Culture and Heritage has ordered that a programme of archaeological excavations must be carried out on the site, which currently houses the Connacht Tribune offices.
Last April, the company behind the PorterShed business incubation hub near Ceannt Station sought permission for the redevelopment of the Tribune building, including the addition of a lightweight floor over the existing two-storey building and a small extension to cater for a lift and stair core. The plans also involved will be a roof garden/decked area overhead.
There would be a partial demolition of a two-storey element to the side and rear of the building, which would be replaced by a new enlarged area over four floors. In total, it would create office space for around 220 people.
However, the City Council last week wrote to PorterShed, acknowledging that while the proposal was acceptable in principle, they wanted a redesign.
“Whilst noting that the existing building is of poor architectural quality, it is considered that the design/visual appearance of the proposed building does not provide the most suitable design resolution for such a prominent urban site, which is located within a sensitive historic environment, being located within the Galway City Core Architectural Conservation Area and in close proximity to the historic St Nicholas Church.
“Whilst it is acknowledged that the refurbishment/extension of the existing building is challenged in terms of meeting the needs of modern office accommodation, it is considered that the architectural quality of the building is not of a sufficient standard for such a prominent and sensitive site.
“It is considered that [the proposal] does no integrate appropriately with the existing streetscape, nor does it provide a positive contribution to the visual integrity of the area.
“This is largely due to the uniform, monotonous design of the building, which incorporates a palette of inappropriate external materials, such as steel cladding, brick cladding and render,” the Council said.
PorterShed must also hire an archaeologist to carry out a programme of excavations at locations on the site in consultation with the National Monuments Service. A written report must then be submitted to the Department of Culture and Heritage.
In a submission to the Council, the Bowling Green Residents’ Committee said that while it was informed by PorterShed earlier this year of the plans to redevelop the Tribune building, it was not aware of the plan to build another storey with a roof garden.
The residents said that while they do not object to the plans for the building, they want strict conditions enforced on any events which take place in the roof garden.
The Council acknowledged these concerns and asked PorterShed to comment on the matter.
“In the event the roof gardens are to be retained, a management plan shall be submitted, outlining the exact nature of use/operation of the roof garden, along with operating times,” the Council said.
The local authority noted that there will be a loss of parking spaces on the site and advised the applicant to address this issue, as a contribution to transportation infrastructure costs will be required.
Finally, the Council said the proposed signage is unacceptable and would have a negative impact on the streetscape, and asked that an alternative design should include bilingual signage.
The Connacht Tribune – which publishes the Galway City Tribune – sold the building on Market Street in 2018 and will be moving to new offices in Liosbán Business Park later this summer.
Meanwhile, a separate PorterShed planning application to redevelop a warehouse adjacent to Market Street carpark – creating 130 co-working desk spaces – has run into similar difficulties.
The Council has sought a redesign of the plans as the proposal “does not integrate with the fabric of the existing urban environment . . . largely due to a mix of inappropriate external materials”.
Test excavations must also be carried out at this site by a qualified archaeologist and the same concerns were raised about signage.
“Pedestrian access through the commercial carpark places pedestrians at risk,” the Council said, asking for the proposal to be revised.
The local authority has also asked the applicant to address the fact that cycle parking spaces are unsheltered under the existing proposals.
The proposal involves a change of use of the 1950s two-storey warehouse and a new two-storey extension with modern design – it will house desk space for 130 people.
The Bowling Green residents, in a separate submission to the Council, said they welcomed the application because the site had been left in an unsightly and neglected state for many years.
However, they asked that a bin storage be brought within a gated area to avoid it becoming a “probable focus for antisocial behaviour”.
The Council agreed and has sought for this to be addressed also. PorterShed now has until the middle of January to submit the revised proposals or the applications will be deemed to be withdrawn.
Planning permission already exists on the site of the former Tribune printworks for a 10,500 square foot indoor artisan food market with around 30 food stalls, as well as beer and wine vendors, similar to the Milk Market in Limerick and the English Market in Cork. The developer intends to proceed with this in tandem with the PorterShed plan.
(Main image: the PorterShed proposal for the Connacht Tribune building, which Galway City Council has ordered to be redesigned).