Hundreds of children's bodies in mass grave

File Photo / Russell Lee / Wiki Commons
File Photo / Russell Lee / Wiki Commons

The bodies of nearly 800 babies are believed to have been buried in a concrete tank beside a former home for unmarried mothers in Ireland.

The dead babies are thought to have been secretly buried beside a home for single mothers and their children in County Galway over a period of 36 years.

It is suspected that 796 children were interred on unconsecrated ground without headstones or coffins next to the home run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam between 1925 and 1961.

Newly unearthed reports show they suffered malnutrition and neglect, which caused the deaths of many, while others died of measles, convulsions, TB, gastroenteritis and pneumonia.

The babies were usually buried in a plain shroud without a coffin in a plot that had housed a water tank attached to the workhouse that preceded the mother and child home.

No memorial was erected to the dead children and the grave was left unmarked. The site is now surrounded by a housing estate. But a missing persons' report just filed to Irish police, gardai, means the burial site may now be excavated.

A relative of one boy who lived there, William Joseph Dolan, made a formal complaint after she failed to find his death certificate, despite records in the home stating that he had died.


Number of bodies unclear



"No one knows the total number of babies in the grave," a source close to the investigation said.

There are 796 death records but they are only the ones known about.

"God knows who else is in the grave. It's been lying there for years and no one knows the full extent or total of bodies down there."

The existence of the grave was uncovered by local woman Catherine Corless, who compiled the records of 796 babies who died at the home. She has established a group called the Children's Home Graveyard Committee to erect a memorial.

"People who had relations there are the most interested. They are delighted something is being done," she said.

"When I was doing the research, someone mentioned there was a graveyard there for babies but I found out there was more to it than that."

With the help of the Births and Deaths Registrar in Galway, Mrs Corless researched all children whose place of death was marked 'Children's Home, Tuam'. Galway County Council has all the cemetery books for Mayo and Galway, and with the help of the archivist there, Mrs Corless cross-checked the grave records.

"There was just one child who was buried in a family plot in the graveyard in Tuam," she said.

"That's how I am certain there are 796 children in the mass grave. These girls were run out of their family home and never taken back, so why would they take the babies back to bury them, either?"

The records state that a young single mother called Bridget Dolan from Clonfert, Co Galway, gave birth to two boys who were placed in the home.

John Desmond Dolan was born on 22 February 1946 weighing 8lb 9oz. His birth was recorded as 'normal' but he died from measles on 11 June 1947. His brother, William Joseph Dolan, was born on 21 May 1950 and was said to have died the following year, but there is no death certificate for William.

His relative, who asked not to be named, said: "I just want to know what happened to him. He may have passed on, yet there is no death certificate. I believe he might have been fostered out, and then moved to the US.

"He could still be alive, or he's with his brother in the grave. I want to find out."


Children were malnourished, 'miserable'



A local health board inspection report carried out in 1944 reveals the conditions the children and their mothers lived in.

It reveals that in April that year, 271 children were listed as living there with 61 single mothers, a total of 333 - way over its capacity of 243.

One 13-month-old boy was described as a 'miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions and probably mentally defective'.

In the same room was a 'delicate' ten-month-old baby who was a 'child of itinerants', while one five-year-old child was described as having 'hands growing near shoulders'.

Another 31 infants in the same room were described as 'poor babies, emaciated and not thriving'.

The majority were aged between three weeks and 13 months and were 'fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated'.

The oldest child who died there was Sheila Tuohy, aged nine, in 1934. One of the youngest was Thomas Duffy, aged two days.

Teresa Kelly, the chairman of the Children's Home Graveyard Committee, said an excavation was long overdue.

"It's an awful story," she said. "It's a mass grave. Many of the babies were malnourished. We want to make sure those children's identities are acknowledged. They had names, they were human beings, not animals."


Young boys found grave



The grave was discovered in the 1970s by 12-year-old friends, Barry Sweeney and Francis Hopkins.

"It was a concrete slab and we used to play there but there was always something hollow underneath it so we decided to bust it open and it was full to the brim of skeletons," Mr Sweeney said.

"The priest came over and blessed it. I don't know what they did with it after that. You could see all the skulls."

The home, which closed in 1961, was one of several such establishments - Catholic and Protestant - for 'fallen women' across Ireland which had astonishingly high infant mortality rates.

Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary was another: in the first year after it opened in 1930, 60 babies died out of a total of 120. Those who survived, meanwhile, were often sold abroad to childless couples.

At a memorial service at the site of the home yesterday, it emerged that women who gave birth at Sean Ross and other homes plan to file missing persons reports in a bid to track down their children.

Philomena Lee, whose three-year-old son, Anthony, was handed over by nuns at Sean Ross to an American family 60 years ago, was among those at the memorial service.

"It's not about getting angry, it's about doing what's right and it's about opening all the files," she said.

Mrs Lee, whose story was made into the Oscar-nominated film, Philomena, added: "Maybe the State never thought the mass graves would be found out about. They seem to be wanting to push it under the carpet, but it needs to be told.

"I don't know how many bodies of mothers and children are in graves all over the country.

"I'm shocked at the latest news of the mass grave [at Tuam] - it's appalling and shouldn't be hidden."


Survivor speaks


An 85-year-old woman who survived the children's home in Tuam has told of the miserable conditions at the home, where she was placed in 1932.

The woman, who gave her name only as Mary, and now lives in the west of Ireland, spent four years in the home before being placed with a foster family.

"I remember going into the home when I was about four. There was a massive hall in it and it was full of young kids running round and they were dirty and cold.

"There were well over 100 children in there and there were three or four nuns who minded us," she said.

"The building was very old and we were let out the odd time, but at night the place was absolutely freezing with big stone walls.

"When we were eating it was in this big long hall and they gave us all this soup out of a big pot, which I remember very well. It was rotten to taste, but it was better than starving."

Mary recalled that the children were 'rarely washed', and often wore the same clothes for weeks at a time.

"We were filthy dirty. I remember one time when I soiled myself, the nuns ducked me down into a big cold bath and I never liked nuns after that."

- Daily Mail

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