The Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, St Mary's Mother and Baby Home, or simply The Home, was a maternity home for unmarried mothers and their children that operated between 1925 and 1961 in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland. It gained notoriety due to allegations in 2014 of the apparent burial of up to 800 children's bodies in a mass grave on the site, and the high death rates of its residents. This is now the subject of a judicial inquiry.
The Home was run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Catholic religious order of nuns. Unwed pregnant women were sent to the Home to give birth. Some of the poorer women were afterwards forced to work without pay, in reimbursement for some of the services rendered. They were separated from their children, who remained separately in the Home, raised by nuns, until they could be adopted - often without consent.
In 1975, two local boys had found a chamber filled with children's skeletons on the site. Some local people speculated it was a grave for Great Famine victims or unbaptised babies. In 2012, local historian Catherine Corless published an article documenting the deaths of 796 babies and toddlers at the Home during its decades of operation, primarily from infectious diseases and marasmus-related malnutrition. Her research led her to conclude that almost all had been buried in an unmarked and unregistered mass grave at the Home, some of them in a septic tank. Some sources questioned whether the bones found in 1975 were from the Bon Secours Home or from one of the previous institutions which had occupied the same building, as well as whether or not the structure Corless speculated was a mass grave was a disused septic tank or a 19th-century burial vault.
It has since emerged that the Health Service Executive had raised concerns in 2012 that up to 1,000 children had been sent from the Home for (then illegal) adoptions in the United States.
Between 1925 and 1961 in Tuam, a town in County Galway, the Bon Secours Sisters ran "The Home", an institution where thousands of unmarried pregnant women gave birth. Previously, it had been a workhouse and military barracks.
Workhouse and military barracks
The building that eventually became "The Home" had been built in 1841 as a workhouse under the Irish Poor Laws. Like many other workhouses, it had been designed by Poor Law Commissioners' architect George Wilkinson to house about 800 people. This workhouse opened in 1846, close to the peak of the Great Famine. As well as dormitories, the main building contained an infirmary and an "idiot's ward". Sheds were constructed on the property to house additional inmates and fever victims. A fever hospital was later constructed next door. After the Famine, the workhouse continued to house the poor and homeless for more than sixty years.
In 1916, during the uprising against British rule, British troops took over the workhouse, evicting the occupants and making the building their barracks. In 1923, during the Irish Civil War, six anti-treaty IRA volunteers were imprisoned and executed at the workhouse by Irish Free State forces, followed by two others, some weeks later. These were among the last executions of the Civil War. The nuns who took over the building later erected a crucifix in memory of the executed IRA members.
Mother and Baby Home
The order of Bon Secours Sisters, led by Mother Hortense McNamara, took over the Tuam Workhouse in 1925 and converted it into "The Home". This resulted from the prior closure of all workhouses in the county by the Galway Board of Health, and the transfer of the hospital wing of Glenamaddy Workhouse to Tuam.
Unwed single women who became pregnant were sent to give birth there, rather than at a hospital or at home. The nuns were trained nurses and midwives. In 1927, the Board of Health directed that a maternity ward be added to the Home so that the mothers could be segregated from the public wards. This was built in 1929. The mothers were required to stay inside the Home for one year, doing unpaid work for the nuns, as reimbursement for some of the services rendered. Some women who had had two confinements were sent directly to nearby Magdalene laundries after giving birth, as punishment for their recidivism. According to Professor Maria Luddy, "Such a stance, though not intended to be penal, allowed for the development of an attitude that accepted detention as a means of protecting society from these reoffending women."
For each mother and child in the home, the County Council paid the nuns £1 a week. At the end of the year, the mothers left while their babies were typically kept at the Home. The children stayed there until they could be adopted, fostered, or until they were old enough to be sent to industrial boarding schools. There were some complaints of fostered children being exploited. An October 1953 article in The Tuam Herald said "an effort was not always made to find the home that most suited the child or the child that most suited the home. The allowance given to foster parents was not always spent on the child's welfare". Local historian Catherine Corless also uncovered one case where a mother found work in England and paid the nuns to care for her son in the Home. The nuns did not tell her that her son had been fostered and "kept each instalment that she sent them". Some babies were sent to clergy in the United States to be illegally adopted by Catholic families there.
A 1947 report by an official inspector who visited the Home says some of the children were suffering from malnutrition, and 12 out of 31 infants examined were described as being "emaciated and not thriving". It also says that the Home was overcrowded, with 271 children and 61 mothers living there. Death rates were extraordinarily high: 34 per cent of children died in the home in 1943; 25 per cent died in 1944; 23 per cent died in 1945; 27 per cent died in 1946. The report states "The death rate amongst infants is high... The death rate had appeared to be on the decrease but has now begun to rise again. It is time to enquire into the possible cause before the death rate mounts higher." The report went on to say, "the care given to infants in the Home is good, the Sisters are careful and attentive; diets are excellent. It is not here that we must look for cause of the death rate".
An inspection two years later in 1949, conducted by inspectors from the Galway County Council, reported “everything in the home in good order and congratulated the Bon Secour sisters on the excellent condition of their Institution.”
The Home closed in 1961, and most of the occupants were sent to similar institutions, such as Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea. The building lay mostly disused until its demolition in 1972, and a new housing estate was built on the site.
In 1975, two 12-year-old boys were playing at the site of the former Mother and Baby Home. Underneath a concrete slab they found a hole or chamber "filled to the brim" with children's skeletons. One of them later said he had seen about twenty skeletons. The slab is believed by some to have covered the former Home's septic tank. Locals speculated that these were the remains of victims of the Great Famine, unbaptised babies, and/or stillborn babies from the Home. The number of bodies was then unknown, but was assumed to be small. It was re-sealed shortly afterwards, following prayers at the site by a priest. For the next 35 years the burial site was tended to by a local couple, who also built a small grotto there.
Press reporting on the discovery
In 2012, local historian Catherine Corless published an article revealing that 796 children, most of them infants, had died at the Home during its years of operation. She studied their state death records and found that they listed a range of ailments such as tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, and influenza. She then cross-referenced the names with those in local graveyards and found that only two had been buried in any of them. Her research led her to conclude that the only possible location for the bodies was the site where the skeletons were found in 1975. Maps showed that this was the site of the Home's septic tank, and Corless believes that some of the skeletons found are inside the septic tank. This common burial ground, described as a "mass grave", was unmarked and not registered with the authorities; no records were kept of any burials there. Her conclusions were backed by some locals who recalled seeing nuns and workmen apparently burying remains there late in the evenings. In 2010, the bodies of 222 infants from another maternity home had been found in a mass unmarked grave in Dublin. In April 2014, Corless's research was publicised during the dedication of a memorial at that location. Corless is campaigning for a similar grave marker to be placed at the Tuam site.
Numerous news reports alleging the existence of a mass grave containing 800 babies in the septic tank were published - first by the Irish Mail on Sunday and later by international media outlets in late May/early June 2014. The story sparked outrage in Ireland and around the world, and the Irish government came under pressure to launch an investigation. The government called the allegations "deeply disturbing"; shortly thereafter, the government and police began a preliminary investigation with the aim of launching an inquiry.
Columnist Patrick Kenny questioned whether the bones found in 1975 were from the Bon Secours Home or from one of the previous institutions which had occupied the same building, as well as whether or not the structure Corless speculated was a mass grave was a disused septic tank or a 19th-century burial vault. Corless herself corrected portions of the media coverage, telling the Irish Times, "I never used that word 'dumped'. I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank."
Local Gardaí initially surmised that any bones on the site likely dated from the Great Famine in the 19th-century: "These are historical burials going back to famine times. There is no suggestion of any impropriety". Bones of famine victims were found nearby in 2011, and archaeologists determined that they were 19th century "paupers" from the same Tuam Poor Law Union Workhouse which had originally occupied the building later used for the Bon Secours Children's Home. The Gardaí were later ordered to investigate and issue a report on their findings by the Minister for Justice.
Some news outlets reported that all 796 child remains were found in the septic tank, but on 5 June 2014, an RTÉ Prime Time television report by Mark Coughlan, "Home Babies", reported that "We don't know for sure, as yet anyway, if the babies who died in the Tuam home were buried in a septic tank: no burial location is listed on the death records." Two days later, on 7 June, The Irish Times quoted Corless as stating that the story had "been widely misrepresented" in the days since it broke nationally and internationally ("I never used that word 'dumped.' ... I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank.") She said the skeletons found in 1975 had most likely been in the septic tank, but added that only 204 of the babies had died when the septic tank was in use, saying it "seemed impossible" that all of them could have been "put in a working sewage tank". One of those who found the skeletons told the newspaper he had seen about 20 skeletons. The Garda Síochána said claims that all the children may be buried in a septic tank had not yet been "properly tested".
Reaction to the press reportage
The Associated Press, in a commentary on its own early reporting, criticised the reporting of the case, saying it "offers a study in how exaggeration can multiply in the news media, embellishing occurrences that should have been gripping enough on their own."
Patrick Kenny stated in The National Catholic Register that the deaths were clustered during epidemics, especially during periods of national deprivation: "Details of the death certificates of the babies have been released and were published in mid-June. They reveal regular outbreaks of infectious diseases that seem to have spread quickly amongst children living together in close quarters. For example, 24 children died in just six weeks in a serious measles outbreak in the spring of 1926, while measles also killed 13 in the early spring of 1932, and bronchitis and pneumonia killed 10 in 1954. Four children died in four days from gastroenteritis in 1942, while nine died from whooping cough during a two-week period in 1943. Significantly, one-third of all deaths at the home occurred during the years of World War II, a period of widespread economic hardship." Others pointed that Ireland being a poor country was irrelevant, as for each mother and child in the home, the County Council paid the nuns £1 a week,and 1947 data from the National Archives showed that, during the preceding twelve months, the death rate of children in Bon Secours was almost twice that of some other mother and baby homes. A government inter-departmental report into the records stated that an "assessment of mortality rates will need public health specialist/historical analysis of statistics on children born and resident at the home in Tuam."
Columnist Dr. Maurice Gueret, who conducted his own research into the institution's history, criticised the media coverage and said there was a need for more historical context, saying: "It was no secret that many children died young, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. They were dying all over Ireland from infectious diseases. This was the pre-antibiotic era. You were considered lucky if all your children lived to adulthood." Others, such as Professor Dr Liam Delaney, said the high child death rate at the Home cannot be explained by higher overall child death rates at the time, nor by the higher death rate among "illegitimate" children. He added: "This points to something serious within these institutions". Kevin Higgins, a solicitor representing former residents, said that the number of deaths recorded at the Tuam home over a period of over more than 30 years was "off the scale" compared to the rate of children's deaths elsewhere at the same time.
Journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes said other media sources had misreported his words in order to erroneously claim that nuns had deliberately starved children to death: "Today on BBC TV I said malnutrition was listed as cause of death at other mother-and-baby homes. Several outlets [are] now quoting me as [a] source for the unsupportable claim that ‘nuns starved 800 babies to death’ before dumping them in a septic tank. So just in case this needs clarification, I said nothing of the sort." Boucher-Hayes also spoke of embarrassment felt by locals at the revelations: He said:
The criticism of the reporting itself attracted criticism, with Tanya Gold writing in The Guardian:
An RTÉ documentary in the Would You Believe series, on the topic of the Tuam Babies, was broadcast on Sunday, 12 April 2015.
Commission of Investigation
Following the revelations, there were calls locally and internationally for an investigation of the Tuam site and an inquiry into all such 'mother and baby homes'. The Gardaí had initially released a statement saying “These are historical burials going back to famine times. There is no suggestion of any impropriety and there is no garda investigation. Also, there is no confirmation from any source that there are between 750 and 800 bodies present." On 4 June 2014 the Irish government announced it was putting together representatives from various government departments to investigate the deaths at the home and propose how to address the issue. The then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Charles Flanagan said any government inquiry would not be confined to the home in Tuam and that officials would advise the Government on the best form of inquiry before the end of June 2014.
On 6 June, two senior Gardaí were appointed to lead a "fact-finding" mission. They were asked to gather all surviving records and to carry out preliminary tests on the suspected mass grave. Gardaí said there was no criminal investigation as yet because there was no evidence of a crime, but senior sources said the review may change that.
On 16 July 2014, the Irish Government appointed Judge Yvonne Murphy to chair the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby homes. In October 2014, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly, announced that the draft terms of reference for the inquiry had been circulated to government departments for comment.
In September 2014, a legal representative of former residents of the home has called on the Attorney General to order coroner's inquests to be carried out into the deaths. This would necessitate excavations and exhumations of the site, which is authorised under the 1962 Coroner's Act.
On 19 February 2015, the Minister for Children, James Reilly, announced that the terms of reference had been set out for the "establishment of the independent commission, which has a three-year deadline and which will cost approximately €21 million, followed the signing by the Taoiseach of a Government order at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting". The three-person Commission comprises Judge Yvonne Murphy as Chairperson, with international legal expert on child protection and adoption Dr William Duncan, and historian Professor Mary E. Daly, appointed as Commissioners.
On 25 May 2015, a remembrance ceremony for those who died at the Home was organised by a coalition of survivors' groups and was held outside Government Buildings. The organisers also sought:
- "A separate and immediate acknowledgment, apology and redress to an aging survivor community."
- "Full Inclusion. All single mothers and their children who were forcibly separated are to be included in the Commission of Inquiry as well as any home or institution related to these activities including all illegal activities."
- "Senator Averil Power’s Adoption Bill to be passed within six months to open all lifelong sealed adoption files."
On 3 June 2015, the Irish Examiner published a special report which claimed that the Health Services Executive had voiced concerns in 2012 that up to a thousand children may have been trafficked from the home, and recommending that the then health minister be informed so that "a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and state inquiry" could be launched.
The issue had arisen within the HSE when a principal social worker responsible for adoption discovered "a large archive of photographs, documentation and correspondence relating to children sent for adoption to the USA" and "documentation in relation to discharges and admissions to psychiatric institutions in the Western area." The HSE noted that there were letters from the Home to parents asking for money for the upkeep of their children and notes that the duration of stay for children may have been prolonged by the order for financial reasons. It also uncovered letters to parents asking for money for the upkeep of some children that had already been discharged or had died. The social worker had compiled a list of "up to 1,000 names." HSE reports mentioned the possibility that up to 1,000 children had been trafficked for adoption with one speculating that it was possible that death certificates were falsified so children could be "brokered for adoption", which could "prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State." The Bon Secours Sisters in a statement said "As the Commission of Investigation has now been established the Sisters of Bon Secours do not believe it would be appropriate to comment further except to say that they will co-operate fully with that commission."
The October 2012 HSE memo recommended that due to the gravity of the issue, the then Health Minister be informed with a view towards launching a full inquiry. However, that did not happen, with the Minister only becoming involved following the revelations of a mass grave at the home in May 2014.
The report states that if thousands of babies were illegally adopted to the United States, without the willing consent of the birth mother, then this practice was facilitated by doctors, social workers, religious orders, and many more people in positions of authority. The report states that there is a real danger that some of these people may still work within the system.