Ireland mass graves: Unearthing one of the darkest chapters in Irish history

The "Irish Holocaust" saw hundreds of babies left to die – and the practice may have been more common than first thought

The first glimpse of the horror came in the 1970s when two boys prised up some cracked concrete slabs in the grounds of a home run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours in Tuam, County Galway. One of them, Barry Sweeney, then 12 years old, vividly recalls the moment: “There it was,” he says, “skulls piled on top of each other. It was just bones and bits of rags and whatever, just a jumble.”

He and his friend took to their heels. “We just ran,” he recalls. The adults they ran to were also shocked, but at the time it was not regarded as a sensational discovery, for Ireland holds many unmarked graves, often containing the remains of victims of the 19th-century famine.

The bodies of the infants had been stacked – buried is too formal a word – in a disused septic tank. The scene was sealed, a priest gave a blessing and locals erected a grotto.

Only now is the realisation dawning that for decades the Galway earth has held the skeletons of 800 babies and toddlers in “a jumble” that is one of the country’s most unthinkable secrets.

Each new detail of what is being called the Irish Holocaust brings fresh horror. The children were the offspring of unmarried mothers who were housed in a nearby home run by nuns. Many died of malnutrition, at a mortality rate suspiciously well above the national average.

They were stacked on top of each other, in shrouds not coffins, their bodies consigned to the septic tank over a period of decades. No one yet knows whether they bear any marks of identification: it sounds unlikely. If not, they may never be individually identified.

 

The episode has already produced shock but worse may be to come: there were numerous similar homes throughout the country, and it is not known what kind of burial arrangements applied there.

Irish nuns have in recent decades gained a reputation for harshness and cruelty towards unwed mothers and their offspring.

Institutions they controlled, such as the Magdalene laundries, were described in official reports as frightening places where inmates were subjected to “rigid and uncompromising regimes with harsh and physically demanding work”.

Food was poor, malnutrition common. In a loveless atmosphere, many children were separated from their mothers and subjected to forced adoption – a story told recently in the film Philomena, starring Judi Dench. about Philomena Lee’s experience.

The Catholic church has taken a pounding from revelations of child sexual abuse by its priests and cover-ups by their bishops. But the burial site at Tuam has conjured up fresh nightmare visions and allegations of nuns behaving with disregard for life: one politician has said what happened was manslaughter.

“They were allowed to die of neglect,” is the accusation from campaigner Susan Lohan. “We have anecdotal evidence from women that babies who had an obvious disability or frailty at birth were not nurtured. They were set aside in a separate room and were just allowed to pass away.”

The grave of Michael Hess, nurtured son of Philomena Lee. Her story was made into a film The grave of Michael Hess, nurtured son of Philomena Lee. Her story was made into a film (PA)
Such scalding allegations are now to be investigated by government ministers in response to a wave of astonishment and disbelief. A full inquiry has not been announced, but the depth of feeling makes one almost inevitable.

The contempt of the nuns for the children appears to have extended not just to their physical health but also their spiritual well-being. Even in death they were not given Christian burials: their funerals, it is said, were perfunctory affairs before they were put into the septic tank by workmen.

The records show that the children often died of disease in the Tuam orphanage while it was in operation between 1926 and 1961. It came to light by accident when Catherine Corless, a local genealogist and historian, was researching the home.

Today a local committee has been set up to press for a proper memorial which would bear all the children’s names.

Church figures have been quick to respond.  The Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, said it would be a priority to obtain “a dignified re-interment of the remains of the children in consecrated ground”.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, went further, calling for “a full-bodied inquiry” into such homes, describing what had emerged as “sickening.”

The Bon Secours Sisters said they were shocked and deeply saddened, promising to cooperate with any investigation  “to establish the full truth of what happened”.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea