28 January 2021, The Tablet

The roots of the mother and baby homes scandal

The roots of the mother and baby homes scandal

The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in Galway run by the Bon Secours Sisters.
Photo: PA, Niall Carson


The Church failed the women and children who entered mother and baby homes in Ireland; but, as a recent official report showed, a complex web of social and economic history lay behind the shameful treatment of women who gave birth outside marriage

Using her own money, local historian Catherine Corless spent €3,184 over several years obtaining the death certificates of 796 babies who had died in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961, when it closed. She could only find burial records for two of them. Her work in local history magazines and newspapers was largely ignored until a sensational article in the Irish Mail on Sunday in 2014 suggested that the bodies of the 800 babies had been dumped into what appeared to be a septic tank. The home had been owned by Galway County Council and run by the Bon Secours Sisters. Catherine Corless believed that some of the babies were buried in underground structures that appeared to be related to water or sewage but had not used the word “dumped”. The site was thought to be a famine-era burial ground, and had been tenderly looked after for years by a small number of people; a small grotto had been set up there. The international outcry after the publication of the Mail article was a catalyst for the Irish state setting up a commission to investigate not just the Tuam home but mother and baby homes in general. Some county homes (successors to workhouses) were also included in the investigation.

When the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was published earlier this month, outrage ensued. The chair of the commission, Justice Yvonne Murphy, had also chaired the 2009 Murphy Report on sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Dublin diocese. The reactions to the two reports could not have been more different. The Murphy Report was applauded for its unflinching honesty; within a few weeks the resignations of two former auxiliary bishops had been accepted. But words like “whitewash”, “cold” and “legalistic” have been used to describe the latest report, perhaps because, in the words that open its executive summary, “The story of mother and baby homes in Ireland is complex and its nuances cannot easily be captured in a summary.”

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