Old horrors uncovered in Ireland

Infants’ corpses cast light on unholy system

By Dale R. Herspring

Some people argue that we should let the horrible things that have happened in the past remain there and move on. 

There is considerable logic in that position. However, I believe we should learn from the past to the degree possible. That’s especially true when there is a humanitarian aspect, as is the case with the discovery in Ireland of infants’ corpses in a former septic tank in Tuam, County Galway.

Catherine Corless, an Irish historian, discovered records showing that from 1925 to 1961, 796 infants who had been in a home in Tuam run by The Sisters of the Bon Secours, died.  She found death certificates but no burial certificates. The home was closed down 53 years ago.

These were the children of unwed mothers — and may only be the tip of the problem. Some 35,000 unwed mothers spent time in one of the 10 homes run by religious orders in Ireland. Also, there are reports that 3,200 children in 24 residential institutions as well as 40,000 children in the general population were given experimental vaccines. In the 1930s and 40s, infant mortality in at least one home ranged from 30 to 50 percent.  

Unfortunately, this scandal follows another one — the disclosure that some clerics were sexually abusing young boys, further hurt the status of the Catholic Church in Ireland. 

Rumors have long circulated about what went on in the homes for unwed mothers, but little firm information emerged.  But when Ms. Corless sent the results of her study to a newspaper, attention turned to the Irish government to do something to try to restore Ireland’s reputation both at home and abroad.  

Ireland is a small country, with about 4.5 million people, and politics are intensely local.  When something like this happens, the Taoiseach — the prime minister — gets involved in local issues to a far greater degree than would be the case in many other countries.  

In the case of the children, the Taoiseach, Edny Kenney, went to the Dail (the legislature), asking for action. On June 10, a commission was set up to look into issues associated with religious-run homes for mothers and babies across Ireland. The commission will look at burial practices, secret and illegal adoptions and vaccine trials on children. The Minister for Children, Charlie Flanagan, said, “It is essential that light is shone on this dark period.”

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmud Martin did not excuse the church’s failure to expose this situation. He called the discovery “sickening” and encouraged anyone with information about the mass graves to come forward.

The discovery of the infants’ graves also publicizes the horrible treatment women endured during the “dark days.” One report focused on the Magdalen Laundries, which were run by various Catholic orders. The Irish government sent thousands of women and girls to “harsh and physically demanding” workhouses, where they worked and lived without pay, sometimes for years. These laundries operated from 1922 to 1996.

Unwed mothers came in for especially harsh treatment.  They were put into two categories — those who could be reformed and those who could not. As one writer put it, “Ireland operated a caste system in which those who strayed from the strict mores of the time were deemed subhuman — reviled, debased and ignored.”  In the late 1940s, members of the Dail were outraged about “illegitimate” children being given children’s allowance as it would “encourage the women of the country to have nothing but illegitimate children.”

Ireland’s Catholic Church has been hurt badly in recent years.  Secularism, which is rampant in Europe, has taken its toll in Ireland. Also, clerical misbehavior has been a source of shame, and the treatment of unwed mothers and their children has made the situation worse.

Archbishop Martin appears to be on the right road. While he notes that there is joint government-church responsibility, he has apologized for what happened and he said that once the investigation ends, all of the babies involved will be given funerals and re-interred. That is a start, but only a start.   


Dale Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.

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