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.

  • 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