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.”