Tuam home survivors' fight for justice

Published Monday, 16 June 2014
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As an inquiry gets underway into the deaths of almost 800 babies and toddlers believed to be buried at a mass unmarked grave in Co Galway, two men have told UTV Live Tonight the stories of their life after being separated from their mothers.

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Catholic nuns from the Sisters of the Bon Secours order ran St Mary's Orphanage in Tuam between 1925 and 1961.

Within the grounds of the former orphanage lies a grotto shrine first thought to be a famine grave.

The Tuam burial site was discovered in 1975 by schoolfriends Barry Sweeney and Frannie Hopkins.

Locally it was referred to for years as a famine burial site where youngsters who had died in the 1840s disaster were buried in a mass grave, often on unconsecrated ground.

But historian Catherine Corless, through time, gathered the names of 796 children who died at the home in the 20th century, after she made repeated requests from the state for records.

Many children died from illnesses which were rife at the time.

"All these nearly 800 babies, toddlers, children, I did searches for them, no burial records, no one knows where they are and nobody seems to care. And that to me is just an atrocity," Ms Corless said.

It is important to say you were in this world, you mattered, you were something, you were a human being. And to bury them all together and forget about them, that is what the scandal is to me.

Catherine Corless, historian

John Rodgers was born at St Mary's Orphanage in 1947 before he was parted from his mother Bridie, who was just 17.

But not before she was forced to work for a year, paying back her debt to the state and the nuns as penance and punishment for falling pregnant.

Thousands of pregnant women were sent there to give birth. The harsh truth of what went on is only emerging now.

"You couldn't create a greater sin, it doesn't matter where you go," John said.

"To me, it is akin to living in the medieval times."

John added: "I suppose it was a prison. You see the height of the wall and the ivy, to a two or three year old little toddler, it is an impenetrable wall.

"It is so high. So you are not going anywhere."

I loved her with all my heart, that is why I wanted to pay the greatest tribute that any son could pay to his mother and that was to tell her story... no matter how painful or how bad or hard it was, I was going to do it.

John Rodgers, born at orphanage

John said: "One section, I have no doubt, of the nuns might have tried to do their best, but they were dictated to by greater powers. They were paid by the government to look after each child.

"So we don't know how they did it. We don't know who made the big decisions to separate mother and infants."

John's mother was moved on to another institution, a Magdalene Laundry. Children who survived were either adopted or fostered.

John stayed at St Mary's another four long years before a couple took him in.

"When I grew up I felt inferior because it was instilled in us, we were classed as second class citizens. We were considered second class citizens."

John was finally reunited with his mother in 1985, over 30 years after he was fostered. Bridie died in 2000.

We were bastard children, we were low echelons of society. And when I grew up going to school, I couldn't comprehend why I had two mothers.

John Rodgers, born at orphanage

Joseph Donelan was also born in the home. His mother Margaret was 28.

Joseph spent four years in the orphanage.

"It makes me cry actually thinking about it," he said.

Joseph never got the chance to meet his mother or his brothers and sisters.

Margaret passed away in 1974. A treasured picture was given to Joseph by his cousins. Many say he looked just like his mother.

David Burke, editor of the Tuam Herald newspaper, has lived in the town all his life and went to school with children from the home.

"We remember their pallor, their skinny little legs, their hobnail boots, their shaven heads. And we very much regret that we didn't interact with them in the way we now would as adults," he said.

Who were the fathers? The fathers, unfortunately, were often neighbours, employers and, disgusting as it is to say, family members.

David Burke, Tuam Herald newspaper

"These families were at risk of shame as far as they were concerned," he said.

"If they didn't put their daughter into the home she could go to England or in very worse cases, she could be disposed of in the nearest bog."

Children's bones were first found at the site in Tuam in 1975 in what is believed to be an old septic tank.

Frannie Hopkins was just 12 when he made the discovery.

He was in an apple orchard with his friend, and when they jumped back over the wall, they landed on a hollow sounding piece of ground.

"And the place was overgrown at the time, so we pulled back the brambles and we found a concrete slab. So we pried off the slab and under the slab we discovered what I can only describe as a pile of skeleton bones and even then it was apparent that the bones where that of a child or probably even babies."

I knew, we knew instantly. We were small but these skeletons would have been smaller than us.

Frannie Hopkins, who found the unmarked grave

Since the revelations, questions have been raised about other homes for pregnant mothers on both sides of the border.

The Irish Government has now ordered an inquiry as Taoiseach Enda Kenny admitted children were treated as an inferior sub-species.

The investigation will focus on the high mortality rates, burial practices, secret and illegal adoptions and vaccine trials.

The Bon Secour sisters have welcomed this inquiry and Catholic bishops in Ireland have apologised for the Church's role in all of this, urging anyone who knows anything including clergy to come forward.

© UTV News
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5 Comments
Kate in Belfast wrote (44 days ago):
We need to stop judgement by today's standards. My mothers two sisters are buried in an unnamed grave we assume,the family had no money, and no records exist. My Great grandfather likewise (civilian war dead in the Easter Blitz)My still born daughter in the grave of a relative. My late husband, not in a grave but his ashes sit on my dressing table (a great comfort)My late mother in law was more concerned that her son would be removed from her and sent to Australia or Canada, a practice that continued until quite recently. Ian was born in 1950."luckily" Ian's father married her A grave is not everything. Judge by the standards of the time. Poverty was the problem.
Veritas58 in NY wrote (44 days ago):
Can we make some pretense at being Journalists with this story? The story of 796 children dying is bad enough, that they are no being used as "Mouse Bait" for Internet tabloids s sickening. There is no evidence yet that the stone structure (and that is the only known fact) is indeed a septic tank, nor is there any evidence yet that the remains inside are connected to the Mothers home. Note I keep saying "there is no evidence yet", all this speculation may be true, but let's not conflate speculation with fact. The building in question was for 80 years prior a Victorian Workhouse and who knows what the property was before that? A noted professor in Northern Ireland has stated that the structure sounds more like a common form of old crypt used for burials. That is his speculation. How about we hold judgement till we bring in archeologist and forensics and see what it really is? All we have so far is a lot of unsubstantiated speculation that has been shamelessly been exploited g For sensational headlines and sound bites.
Greta V. in Dublin wrote (45 days ago):
I watched the film about those poor babies in Tuam on your news last night - I have been following the story and this was the best piece I have seen anywhere. I finally understood the real impact on children born in this home and on the community as a whole. The pictures were very evocative too and I had a lump in my throat listening to some of the people telling their stories. I hope the truth really is uncovered now. Well done to all involved.
A.P. in The Netherlands wrote (45 days ago):
It looks like Ireland has gone mad in her outrage against the Church. Why did some of these children die under the care of the sisters? Because now one else looked after them. If not for the sisters, they would have died al together. The mortal rates, were the same as they are now under poverty. And 21 children a year died from ordinary diseases like tbc, measels, etc. Now in Holland they abort 30.000 healthy children every year, because of al sort of trivial reasons, and not because poverty, but because of luxury: that is much worse. These children are not known by name. These children are not buried but go to the industry for "scientific experiments".
Kieran McPartlan in Australia wrote (45 days ago):
Another one of Ireland's past dark secrets is being revealed. Thw blame game will not solve the problem. We owe it to the sad innocent victims and the family's affected to reveal the full truth as to why this terrible tragedy was allowed to take place in Irish society.
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