Irish children’s deaths: Media may be returning to sanity

Are cooler heads finally prevailing in that story of the children who died at a nun-run home in Ireland? There are some signs. But the temp is not yet back to normal.

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.


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  • Mari Tatlow Steed

    Unfortunately, Jim, you’re not helping the situation. You state “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.’” While the establishment of the Commission may have begun in response to Parliamentary Questions posed in the Dáil after the Tuam story hit, its actual remit and terms of reference will be far more broad. A thorough, Statutory Commission of Inquiry into all aspects of the mother-baby homes, county homes, burial practices/mass graves, vaccine trials and a host of related issues has been twenty years in the making. Tuam was just the tipping point. So do yourself a favour and dig deeper into the story, beyond the lurid headlines, before attempting to add your tuppence to what is, for more than 60,000 of us, our lived experience and narrative. Try the Irish Examiner for the reporting they’ve done over more than ten years on the topic.

    And for the record, the vaccine trials that occurred in 1960-61, and 1970-73 are more than “alleged.” I have an FOI/DPA reply from GlaxoSmithKline that states otherwise, and that I was in fact a participant in the 1960-61 Bessboro trials, and that my mother did not give consent. (

    I’m not sure why you’ve chosen to opine about a topic that has nothing to do with you, on which you clearly have little understanding, and to which you are now adding to the void of non-reporting/misinformation. But sadly, you’re not alone. With a little bit of online research, it wouldn’t take you long to get to the truth – a truth many of us have known for a long, long time. The real story is why has it taken Ireland twenty years to tear up this last dirty piece of carpet, why do they continue to marginalise adopted people and deny them their right to identity, and why can’t we all recognise that in order to prevent human rights abuse in future, we must address and bring justice for those abuses of the past? And lest you think this a story confined to Ireland, the US will have to address its own ‘Baby Scoop Era’ as well. Just wait for it.

    • fredx2

      The story was presented as “800 babies FOUND in septic tank”

      Only after that story died, was all this other stuff brought up.

      The fact is, those drug trials were published in the mainstream medical journals of the time – indicating that under the standards of that day, nothing wrong was done. Now, you can argue that they should not have been conducted that way. But it seems that you are arguing with what was accepted behavior at the time.

      Remember how the Magdalen laundries were similarly touted as this great crime, and then when the official government report came out, it basically said that the whole thing was way overblown, a media creation. And that some of the eyewitnesses the media relied on there were actually people who were mentally ill.

      So yes, find out all of the facts. Find out how other similar homes were run in England and Wales, Let’s know how they did by the standards of the times.

      • Mari Tatlow Steed

        Nice try, but epic fail. Apparently you don’t read for content. Note I said many Irish newspapers of note (and some US/international) have been reporting on the mother-baby homes, forced/illegal adoptions, vaccine trials, trafficking of children to the US, etc for years. You just haven’t been paying attention. Hell, ABC 20/20 covered it in *1996*. Again, Tuam was just the tipping point, and yet ignorant folk in the US point to that one story as flawed, while ignoring the wider history and truth. But if it makes you happy to label Tuam a ‘hoax’ and place your head in the sand, by all means…I’ll leave you to it.

    • Julia B

      I’m a 70 yr old Yank. I’m very familiar with pre-”pill” homes for girls to give birth and then get back to their lives after giving up the baby for adoption. It was extremely common. There wasn’t much of a life for an unmarried woman and a baby in those days in the US.
      The homes were considered compassionate places and adoption wasn’t considered an awful thing (altho it was considered temporarily painful for the mother), but a good thing that gave the child a better chance in life and gave the girl the ability to avoid a truly limited life. Most of the women never told future husbands about giving up a child and would be shocked at being contacted later in life. It’s a different world today. Why hate on people who thought they were doing the right thing back then?

      • Mari Tatlow Steed

        So then you have personal experience of the “homes” in Ireland? Who considered them “compassionate”, the nuns? And since when is relinquishing a child ‘temporarily painful’? I’m guessing you have lived experience of this as well? There were many in authority (including in the Catholic Church – US Catholic Charities, for starters) who thought it wasn’t the “right thing” and spoke out publicly. Again, unless you have some personal experience of this, I’d suggest you forego commenting. And from a US perspective, for the record, the St. Vincent’s maternity home in Philadelphia was NOT “compassionate” in 1978. Far from it.

        • Julia B

          I do have personal experience. Why are you so angry at me?

          • Mari Tatlow Steed

            I’m not angry at all, merely questioning your assertions. Why you’re reading anger into my comments is beyond me, unless it’s reflective or I’ve touched a nerve. I’ve backed up every comment I’ve posted on here and tried to educate with facts, evidence and far better journalistic resources than the piece that started this whole blogpost. I’m tired of listening to people who have no concept of the wider truth involved in what’s going on in Ireland express what they believe to be true, rather than do a simple bit of research. That doesn’t make me angry, just weary of humanity’s inability to see past their own noses.

            You made statements that are simply insupportable and in fact had been solidly debunked by millions of mothers of loss: losing a child to adoption is not “temporarily painful.” If it is something that you yourself experienced first-hand and you believe that to be true, I’d suspect you’re deluding yourself and took the nuns/matrons’ advice at the time to ‘move on and forget’ (a notion professionals find harmful in the extreme today). That’s commonly referred to as denial. No one forgets a child that was taken from them for adoption, unless they were some sort of callous monster to begin with. Neither my life nor my own mother’s would have been “limited” in any sense of the word, had we simply had the resources and support to parent. And being adopted is also a life-long experience – it doesn’t begin and end with the handing over of a warm bundle of joy. I’ve lived that for 54 years, and continue to live with prejudices, assumptions and stigma you may not be able to imagine. How do you think it feels to be considered something that was just “temporarily painful” to my mother? She certainly didn’t feel that way, nor do I feel that way about my daughter.

            And insofar as your “experience” with the situation in Ireland, you yourself stated you’re a 70-year old Yank. So in fact, you would have no personal experience of the Irish mother-baby homes, how they operated, or what women experienced there. True or no?

          • Julia B

            I never said I had experience in Ireland. In the US children were not taken away from mothers; they were given up voluntarily for adoption. The vast majority of people in the US are not Catholic; so most adoptions had nothing to do with the Catholic church.
            My point is that in by-gone times it was believed by almost everybody that a young single mother and her child without a father to stand by them were mostly better off with the adoption route.
            There was a time when electro-shock therapy was thought to be a good thing. Then it was considered horrific. Now the medical profession has decided that it is a useful procedure in some cases.
            Same with lots of happenings in life. SO – why castigate people in the past for things that are today considered awful, but then they weren’t. Women couldn’t get good jobs, they couldn’t get inexpensive child care, no guy would ever want to marry them, etc.

      • Erin

        ‘The homes were considered compassionate places’ were you ever in one as a mother and have a child taken from you?
        ‘Pre pill homes’……….far too simplistic.
        I was born in such a place, my mother never told her husband, I am a secret. Have you the first notion what pain lives on in our society or any of the reasons it is so important to acknowledge it as such?
        Sorry Julia but this level of ignorance makes me so sad. It is clearly evident the familiarity you clam is based in simplistic wishful thinking.

  • FW Ken

    If 800 bodies are stuffed into a septic tank, and we know where that tank is, what is the mystery? Go and look. Why aren’t the journalists pushing such a simple matter?

  • JoAnna Wahlund
  • Erin

    Perhaps Jim much of the old narrative is the truth. The implication …..between the lines written here… that there are too many of us telling lies. Why would we lie about pain? Why would we lie about any of our experiences at the hands of nuns, Magdalene Laundries, children’s homes,priests? I don’t get the point of sanctimonious reprimand even if it is meant to be at a subliminal level dressed up as logic. Once the truth is out there it sits for better or worse until appropriately dealt with. Part of today’s issues are embedded in a long history of heads stuck in sand.