A “significant” quantity of human remains has been discovered in “underground chambers” at a former home for unmarried mothers and their babies in Ireland.
A commission set up to investigate alleged abuse at religious-run so-called mother and baby homes has been carrying out an excavation at the former Catholic Church institution in Tuam, Co Galway.
It said it was “shocked” by the discovery of “significant quantities of human remains” in at least 17 of 20 underground chambers being excavated in recent weeks.
“A small number of remains were recovered for the purpose of analysis,” the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes said.
“These remains involved a number of individuals with age-at-death ranges from approximately 35 foetal weeks to 2-3 years.
“Radiocarbon dating of the samples recovered suggest that the remains date from the time frame relevant to the operation of the mother and baby home.”
The Tuam home operated from 1925 to 1961.
A number of the samples are likely to date from the 1950s, according to the commission.
“The Commission is shocked by this discovery and is continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way,” it said in a statement.
“Meanwhile, the commission has asked that the relevant State authorities take responsibility for the appropriate treatment of the remains.”
A coroner has been notified.
Ireland’s Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone TD described the discovery as “very sad and disturbing news”.
“It was not unexpected as there were claims about human remains on the site over the last number of years,” she said.
“Up to now we had rumours. Now we have confirmation that the remains are there, and that they date back to the time of the mother and baby home, which operated in Tuam from 1925 to 1961.”
The minister urged a sensitive and respectful response to the discovery.
The commission was set up two years ago by the Irish Government to probe state sanctioned, religious-run institutions used to house pregnant mothers.
It was charged with investigating high mortality rates at mother and baby homes across several decades of the 20th century, the burial practises at these sites and also secret and illegal adoptions and vaccine trials on children.
It is thought about 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in one of 10 homes run by religious orders in Ireland.
An inquiry was ordered after massive national and international focus on the story of the Sisters of the Bon Secours in Tuam, where the remains of 796 infants are believed to be buried.
Outside of Tuam, three other mother and baby homes have little angels plots believed to hold the remains of another 3,200 babies and infants.
They are Sean Ross Abbey, Tipperary – where the story of Philomena Lee began – Bessborough, Co Cork, and Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.
Infant mortality rates ranged from 30-50 per cent in some of the homes in the 1930s and 1940s.
Joan Burton, Labour Party TD, said the findings at Tuam are “truly gruesome and no doubt deeply upsetting to anyone associated with the Tuam home”.
“The grim discovery also highlights the important work of local historian Catherine Corless in bringing this case to light,” she added.
“It now appears as though these children were interred in some kind of mass grave, possibly without normal funeral rights, and maybe even without their wider families having been made aware.
“There have also been allegations that there may have been similar instances with other mother and baby homes around the country.
“I believe the government should resource the commission so that all such allegations can be included.”
Ms Burton added: “It is now incumbent upon the Catholic Church to assist in whatever way they can, so that the truth should be set out in relation to these matters.”