As you may recall from a previous column of mine, a local historian determined that hundreds of children died at St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, between 1925 and 1961. She couldn’t find their graves in nearby cemeteries, and she concluded that most of the children were buried on the premises.
That birthed an avalanche of stories about mass deaths, mass graves, even mass dumpings of dead babies into a septic tank. A headline on the radio station Newstalk even quoted a media priest screaming that “Tuam mass grave like ‘something that happened in Germany in the war’.”
Numerous articles at the start of June also parroted the accusation that babies born inside Irish mother-daughter homes were “denied baptism” and, if they died there, were “also denied a Christian burial.” As Kevin Clarke of America magazine points out, the claim is repeated with no attribution or attempt to prove it.
Over the last week or two, though, sanity may be creeping in. Some media are dialing back the hysteria, keeping more in line with what they really know. What a novel idea, eh?
The Limerick Leader follows the Irish Times — by six days — in saying that Corliss has “distanced herself from more sensationalist reports of 800 babies “buried in a septic tank.” Most of the story is a cautious profile on a young computer expert who is compiling a narrative on the children’s deaths from contemporary newspaper archives.
The “updated” stories still include much of the old narrative: The nuns were callous and negligent; teachers and classmates disdained the “home children”; their mothers were likewise scored by society as “fallen women”; and there was a pattern of abuse at Catholic children’s homes around Ireland.
Some stories have even alleged that children at some homes were used as “guinea pigs” in vaccine trials. St. Mary’s has not been implicated in those accusations, but hey, as long as you’re hitting out at the homes …
Nor has every news outlet evolved at the same rate. Just last week, the Irish Independent announced an investigation of all the nation’s mother-and-baby homes by a national commission. Well and good, but what launched the investigation? “The discovery of a mass grave in Tuam containing almost 800 babies’ remains.” You know, that grave that authorities have yet to find.
Belfast-based UTV on Monday ran a decent interview with a man who said he was born at St. Mary’s, and who told of the terrible conditions in which he was raised. Then UTV had to damage the report with an intro mentioning “the deaths of almost 800 babies and toddlers believed to be buried at a mass unmarked grave.”
Worse, the story mentions a Marian grotto on the grounds of the home, insinuating that it’s more than meets the eye:
Locally it was referred to for years as a famine burial site where youngsters who had died in the 1840s disaster were buried in a mass grave, often on unconsecrated ground.
But historian Catherine Corless, through time, gathered the names of 796 children who died at the home in the 20th century, after she made repeated requests from the state for records.
The heavy suggestion is that the grotto was put up as a prayer site for the children buried right there in the yard.
As I said in my June 11 column, Ireland is more than right to address the cesspool of terrible childcare from that period — whether or not that cesspool ever contained dead children. As one survivor of that period said, St. Mary’s was apparently crowded and gave children inferior care. And other such homes around Ireland may well have done the same.
But the priorities are rather clear. Investigate first, then point fingers. And when you post or publish, draw your headline from the facts, not your prejudices or someone else’s screaming heads.