Catherine Corless, an Irish historian, tells the story of the Tuam babies that many people couldn’t and wouldn’t hear because it was worse than anyone knew, The name Tuam literally means burial mound in Latin, and Corless would unveil that the Irish town where she grew up had decades of dark secrets buried deep. Catherine Corless revealed that 800 babies and young children died there at the Tuam Home for unwed mothers and children, and they died largely of preventable diseases. For her tireless work which took years and opened up a human rights investigation, Corless was given the Bar of Ireland Human Rights Award at a ceremony in Dublin on Thursday.
Reading about the things that Catherine Corless discovered at Tuam sound unreal, like something out of the book Angela’s Ashes. Corless was doing some of her research based on rumors she heard growing up and the story about a possible mass burial made her push until a commission was formed. The Tuam Commission took Catherine Corless’ research and helped turn something shameful in Tuam into something positive. The research into the Tuam Mothers and Babies Home was published confirming the mass burial of 800 bodies.
“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.”
Prior to the discovery of the mass grave adjacent to an old septic tank, the ground covering it was used as a playground for the local children of Tuam to use for soccer.
Catherine Corless always found the old Tuam Home to be a curiosity, and what started as an amateur’s research turned into discoveries which rocked Galway, the Catholic Church, and the world. Corless had attended school with those from the Tuam Home who made it to school age (always referred to as “home children”), but what about those who didn’t. Corless focused on those who didn’t make it past infancy. Dan Barry of the New York Times covered the story at length, Catherine Corless’ story and the story of Tuam.
“What, then, of Patrick Derrane, who died at five months in 1925, and Mary Carty, at five months in 1960, and all those in between, children said to have been ‘born on the other side of the blanket’? The Bridgets and Noras and Michaels and Johns, and so many Marys, so many Patricks, their surnames the common language of Ireland.”
The home, formally known as the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, opened in Tuam in 1846 as a workhouse, but then transformed into a home for unwed mothers and their babies. Young women mostly showed up at the Tuam Home when they had nowhere else to go, pregnant, and under the cover of darkness and shame. The Tuam Home was run by nuns and funded by the church with the motto “Good Help to Those in Need.”
But years later after the Tuam Home closed in the seventies and what was left of the buildings was abandoned, Catherine had questions about an area of the grounds that formed a grotto facing the Blessed Virgin. Local Tuam boys had found bones there, on the playing field, and Catherine was told they must have been the bones of famine victims, but she wasn’t buying it.
Through research in libraries poring over microfilm, old newspapers and even older maps of Tuam, Catherine placed a modern map of Tuam over an 1890 map of Tuam. It was then that Catherine discovered an old Tuam Home septic system (never used) with tunnels and warrens which had been disconnected in the 1930s located around where the boys had discovered the bones. Catherine says she struggled to make sense of it.
“Did this mean, then, that the two lads had stumbled upon the bones of home babies? Buried in an old sewage area?”
Catherine Corless then checked Tuam death certificates for the appropriate time against the Tuam cemetery burial records and found that only two children from the Tuam Home, orphans who had been born “legitimate” were buried in the cemetery.
With more and more digging, Catherine Corless started asking the hard questions about the Tuam babies and put them in an essay.
“Had Catholic nuns, working in service of the state, buried the bodies of hundreds of children in the septic system?”
Catherine Corless had answered her own question, but after reading through the death certificates of the babies and young children who died at the Tuam Home, she realized that most had died of treatable illnesses. They died of things like anemia, gastroenteritis, bronchitis, and influenza.
Catherine Corless thought that the research she did over the course of years was a calling of sorts as if the Tuam babies were calling out.
“I feel it at times: that those poor little souls were crying out for recognition, a recognition they never got in their little, short lives. It was a wrong that just had to be righted some way.”
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Catherine Corless kept pushing to make sure that it was never in doubt what actually happened to those 800 babies and toddlers from the Tuam Home. Though many in Tuam viewed her once as a troublemaker, Catherine continued her research. Eventually, she was even part of the creation of an appropriate final resting place for the little ones in Tuam.
Many of her discoveries along the way were grim, but that didn’t deter Corless. She is now being acknowledged not only in Tuam but throughout Ireland. Last week Catherine Corless was given a national award for her “tireless” work, the Bar of Ireland Human Rights Award.
The chairman of the Council of The Bar of Ireland, barrister Paul McGarry explained Corless’ research to the crowd.
“Catherine Corless has shown incredible courage and determination in her advocacy work on behalf of the survivors of the Tuam Mothers and Babies Home. She has worked tirelessly on their behalf and has shone a light on a dark period of our history, passionately represented the victims and their rights at all times, often in the face of adversity. She epitomises the very essence of a humanitarian and is a very deserving recipient.”
Catherine Corless said she was truly honored to accept the award, and accepted it on behalf of herself and the former residents of the Tuam Home.
“With each and every testimony, the truth is uncovered further and our campaign for justice to prevail is strengthened. I share this award with the all survivors – this is for them.”
Catherine Corless is the second recipient of the Bar of Ireland Human Rights Award.
Are you familiar with the story of the Tuam babies and the Tuam Home in Ireland? Are you shocked by the results of Catherine Corless’ Tuam research?
[Features Image by Three Lions/Hulton Archives/Getty Images]