Mother And Baby Home In Tuam A ‘Chamber of Horrors’ For Survivor John Rodgers

John Pascal Rodgers was born in a home for unmarried mothers in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland. The home was run by Catholic nuns. In 2014 Rodgers visited the shrine that was erected in memory of up to 800 children who were allegedly buried at the site where the former home stood. As he stands there, he recalls two bitter images of his childhood at the “home for mothers and babies”.

The Washington Post reported that the first incident occurred when he was just 18-months-old, a story his mother told him about 48 years later. She explained that she discovered one day that she was about to be separated from her son, perhaps forever, by the nuns who ran the home, so she quickly cut off a lock of her son’s hair as a memento.

Sure enough, she was sent to an institution known then as the Magdalene Asylum in Galway: she was just 17-years-old. And there she stayed for 15 long years until finally she had the courage to escape.

Rodgers has his own very clear memories of the second incident, because he was older then and can recall the painful incident very clearly. He said that, even though there were probably 100 to 150 children on the so-called playground, he stood alone and friendless in the shadow of the home’s 10-foot walls. Being alone was a deliberate decision on his part because he’d learned the hard way that even if you did make a friend, you’d never keep a friend among the children at Tuam. In a phone interview with the Washington Post, Rodgers described his lonely childhood.

“I’d become friends with one or two of them and they’d disappear one after the other. And I cried. And a week later, I might have gotten over that, and then I’d become friendly with another little chap. And he’d disappear. And I cried.”

The question is: What happened to those children who disappeared?

“If he was a healthy little boy, he was probably just bought for a price and shipped off to America or Australia. Most went to America.”

And what happened to the children who were not healthy?

“There were children who were extremely ill. And they would disappear, too. But that was all kept from view. I wouldn’t have known about those underground vaults and passageways. They were accessible only to the nuns.”

It was on March 3 this year that the terrible memories of “the mother and baby home” at Tuam in Ireland came screaming back to Rodgers.

“The Home,” as he knew it, was operated by the Sisters of Bon Secours, and March 3 was the day that the Government commission which had been investigating what had only ever been a theory determined that it was no longer just a theory, it was more than likely a reality. The shocking reality is that as many as 796 children born to unmarried mothers had died at the home and been dumped in what appeared to be a disused underground waste facility.

What was discovered was truly horrendous: following a dig and forensic examination, the commission reported that significant quantities of human remains were found in 17 underground chambers, the remnants of children anywhere from 35 fetal weeks old to three-years-old – from the years 1925 through to 1961. According to the report, the concentration of samples was likely to date from the 1950s, which is when John Rodgers was living at the mother and baby home.

Today, Ireland is in shock, trying to absorb what Prime Minister Enda Kenny has called a “chamber of horrors.” And now there are calls for a wider investigation into all the homes used by Ireland’s counties to hide unwed mothers and their children by placing them in the care of the Catholic Church. This action resulted in the children being fostered out for a fee or being made available for adoption to affluent Americans, also for a fee.

Island is now wondering if the scandal at Tuam wasn’t really a secret, but perhaps more like something that everybody knew or should have known, but from which everyone looked away.

Lindsey Earner-Byrne is a social historian at the University College in Dublin, and she spoke on Saturday on RTE’s Marian Finucane show.

“From my own point of view, I would have a problem with the characterization of the story as an element of our hidden history. Because I think in fact it’s just the history we haven’t been willing to acknowledge. They knew that the institutionalization of these infants would leave them much more vulnerable to infectious diseases and so on, and that the price of that cultural and moral discrimination, if you like, was that these babies died at a rate six times that of other babies.”

John Rodgers’ own account of his time at the mother and baby home completely supports the fact that these institutions were breeding grounds for infectious diseases.

“They had old, horrible outdoor toilets on the playground. They were constantly full because there were so many children on the playground, to me it looked like 150, and only half a dozen toilets. The bowls were constantly full. I remember going in a corner to avoid them. The only reason for my being there five and a half years is I was a walking skeleton. And anyone who came in to pick up a nice infant, they wanted someone who was healthy.”

It was Katherine Corless, a local historian, who conducted the painstaking research which ultimately led to the establishment of the investigative commission. Her aim was to determine who exactly was buried in the graveyard for children on the grounds of the mother and baby home.

She obtained the death records of 796 children ranging from newborns to 9-year-olds who had died of a variety of illnesses at the mother and baby home. However, she couldn’t find the names of those children among the records of those buried in nearby cemeteries. She had heard that, in 1975, two boys playing in the area had stumbled across what appeared to be human skeletons in a pit, so using old maps of the mother and baby home she was able to determine that the site where the boys made the shocking discovery was the same site where a septic sewage tank had been located when the mother and baby home was a workhouse in the late 19th century through to the early 20th century.

John Rodgers said he was initially a bit skeptical about Corless’s story.

“I thought, ‘How could that be possible?’ It broke my heart when it was confirmed as being true. It was an awful thing to have to digest. And it reawakened so many memories. It was confirmation of everything my mother told me.”

When Rodgers was 6-years-old, he was removed by foster parents, who, according to him, were an older couple looking for someone to help with the chores.

His mother, whom Rodgers called “Bridey,” tracked him down at the home of his foster parents, but they advised her to flee before the police found and recaptured her. Roger said the experience of seeing his mother fleeing like a criminal left a very negative impression in his heart.

“I thought she was a woman of ill repute, running away from the police, running away from the nuns. Being a young boy, I didn’t know what this meant. I was horrified. Thereafter I disowned my mother completely for about 25 years. I didn’t love her. I didn’t understand her.”

Still trying to flee from his mother, he moved to Australia, and later settled down in Galway with his wife and three children. Then, the bad dreams started, so he decided to go to England to look for his mother. Three days after placing an ad in the newspaper his wife told him there was a telegram from his mother.

“That,” he said, “was the best day of my life.”

“We communicated. We phoned. We wrote every week. And then her and her husband came to meet me for the first time in 20 years. It was a very emotional occasion. One moment she didn’t have a living relative. And then all of a sudden she had a son, a beautiful daughter-in-law and three lovely grandchildren. And during this reunification, the most moving moment was when my mother Bridey went through her suitcase and presented this lock of hair to my wife.”

Rodgers said it was such an emotional moment when his mother spoke the following words to his wife.

“Julie, darling. I regret I wasn’t here to give my son away when you got married. I’m releasing him now. He’s yours.”

Six years later, his mother Bridey died. And Rodgers, who had promised to keep her secrets until her death, began to tell her story.

The Guardian reported that survivors of Ireland’s mother and baby home scandal deserve justice, but this can only occur if the official inquiry widens in scope.

As survivors have always said, the mother and baby homes of Ireland were run like punishment hostels for unmarried pregnant women, and the bodies of children who died in the Tuam home lie in unmarked graves by a playground. The stories are horrendous: some children were taken for fostering or adoption, and thousands died of neglect and malnutrition. Shockingly, the bodies of some children were used for dissection in medical schools.

The inquiry will deal with the 35,000 inmates and children of nine homes, including a small number of associated institutions and county homes operated by various religious orders on behalf of the state.

[Featured Image by Wil Tilroe-Otte/Shutterstock]