Skip to main content

Catherine Corless and the Tuam Babies

 

Catherine Corless and the Tuam Babies              Gerry OShea

Reinhold Niebuhr was a renowned professor and author who taught in Union Theological Seminary for thirty years. He came from a strong Protestant Reformed tradition, and he is probably best remembered as the author of the Serenity Prayer, which is now primarily associated with the Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy.

A central theme of his teaching focuses on the knotty intersection of religion and politics. He was convinced that Christians have to be involved in public policy “to keep the strong from consuming the weak.”

Catherine Corless from Tuam in County Galway epitomizes the Niebuhr philosophy. An amateur local historian, she started an investigation into a local Mother and Baby Home which she remembered from her teenage years. She knew some of the girls who lived there and attended the same local schools that she did.

The Home closed in the early sixties and the area was developed as a housing estate. The Ordnance Survey map showed a mass burial area which the maps revealed included a septic tank more than a hundred years ago. Local belief suggested that this was an old famine grave.

In her article in the local historical journal, Catherine asked if the dead children from the Home were buried in a sewage pit. She continued her research and found 798 death records but no indication where these people were buried.

Many local residents urged her to “let sleeping dogs lie,” not to investigate old grievances that would surely add disgruntlement in the community. As the national media came to deal with the issue, Catherine heard from the Bon Secours Sisters, the religious order responsible for the Home, rebuking her for causing anguish for many of their senior members.

There were suggestions to memorialize the site with a large plaque or maybe a statue. Catherine objected strenuously: “A full exhumation is now needed. We must remove the remains of these innocent children – it is no place for them – and give them a respectful burial.” She promised that this would be part of the healing process for all of the families involved.

Mrs. Corless turned down an invitation to attend a reception when Pope Francis visited Ireland. Instead, she attended a vigil arranged for the same time as the papal mass, declaring that “she was taking a stand with the babies.”

In 2017 the Mother and Babies Home Commission, set up in response to public pressure, revealed that its investigations showed “significant quantities of human remains” at the Tuam site, confirming Corless’ research. Sample tests revealed that they were dealing with remains of children, ranging in age from premature babies to toddlers, most of whom died in the 1950s. It definitely is not a famine grave.

On March 1st of this year the government published the Institutional Burials Bill, which meets all of Catherine’s demands, including exhumation and provision of extensive DNA records which will allow for identification of families.

She wants an angels’ plot for babies without any live relatives, arguing that the local cemetery, which is just across the road from where the Home was located, should be used for the burials.

The airing of the whole Tuam babies catastrophe leading to the decision by the government to exhume and test all the little bodies was due almost exclusively to the perseverance of one exceptional woman, who, in the course of her research, discovered that her own mother was illegitimate with no father listed on her birth certificate.

Her interest in local history led her into many unexplored nooks and crannies that reveal a great deal about the dark corners of Irish life. She worked as a secretary in a textile factory, then like so many other Irish housewives, she gave up paid employment to be a full-time mother to the four children she shared with her husband, Aidan.

In October 2018 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland in Galway. During the ceremony, the awarding professor, Caroline McGregor, proclaimed that Corless’s research “sought to re-subjectify the children who had died and their families and relatives who in their moment of death were treated more like objects to dispose of rather than subjects with dignity.”

Who approved this ignominious behavior? The state paid  a religious order to take care of these children living on the margins of society. The presumption was that the nuns would ensure that they would be treated humanely and given a chance for a normal life.

The Bon Secours nuns failed to honor their commitments as did every other order of brothers, priests and sisters involved in caring for marginalized youth in those years. Disgracefully, none showed a humane - never mind a Christian – fidelity to helping the most vulnerable children in Irish society.

The core Christian message highlights the importance of every human being – it is a religion in all its denominations governed by subjectivities, completely rejecting any philosophy that objectifies people, that views the poor and the disadvantaged as expendable. Amazingly, all the religious communities, male and female, spend a minimum of one year in preparatory novitiates learning the basics of the Christian life.

Catherine Corless was completely perplexed as she tried to find some rational ground for the sisters departing from Tuam in 1961, abandoning their charges. She puzzled over how they could justify in their own consciences leaving behind 796 children buried in coffins in tunnels, many of them close to the sewage area. There was no inkling of respect for the children, no suggestion that they were treated humanely.

Irish President Michael D. Higgins summarized Corless’ amazing achievement in appropriately glowing terms: “She has demonstrated not only courage and perseverance but a remarkable commitment to uncovering the truth, to historical truth and to moral truth. All of us in this republic owe a debt of gratitude to Catherine for an extraordinary act of civic virtue.”

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Duffy's Cut: A Story for the Ages

    Duffy’s Cut: A Story for the Ages               Gerry OShea I attended the annual commemoration of the untimely deaths in 1832 of 57 Irish laborers who worked and died at a stretch of railway track in Chester County, Pennsylvania known as Duffy’s Cut. The service took place at Laurel Hill Cemetery located in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia where a monument is erected in their memory. The ceremony was conducted by Dr. William Watson, a History professor in nearby Immaculata University, and his twin brother, Frank, a Lutheran pastor in Whiting, New Jersey. They were the driving force behind the research into the tragic happenings at Duffy’s Cut nearly two hundred years ago. After the vivacious Vincent Gallagher sang the anthems, the professor spoke, the priest prayed and they were both part of the piping tribute. Dr.William and a lady from the Donegal Society, author Marita Krivda, talked about the tragedy of the bodies of the young immigrants   dumped in an improvi

Anger in America

  Anger in America                     Gerry OShea Rage is dominating the American body politic. The culture has become so toxic that we can no longer just agree to disagree.   In April of this year, reputable pollsters revealed that 70% of Republicans declared that the presidential election was stolen and Donald Trump should be re-installed in the White House. A September gauge of opinion showed that the figure of Republican disbelievers in the Biden presidency has grown to a whopping 78%. It is important to explain that there is not a scintilla of evidence supporting this erroneous contention. Mr. Trump’s lawyers’ claims of electoral impropriety were considered by close to sixty judges, some of whom were appointed by the former president, and none of them even allowed the case to be heard because no evidence of wrongdoing was presented in court. The Supreme Court with a strong influence of Trump appointees refused even to consider the case. The Department of Justice under Wil

Perspectives on Irish Unification

  Perspectives on a United Ireland                 Gerry OShea A few months ago, my son-in-law, Jimmy Frawley, who lives in Dublin, brought two of his children, aged 10 and 15, on a weekend trip to Belfast. He wanted them to become acquainted with a part of the island that they had never visited and knew little about. Jimmy had read positive comments about the tours provided by the Black Taxi service, and, on arrival, he engaged one at the train station to provide a trip around Belfast. They were lucky to get a talkative and knowledgeable guide who showed the main sites of interest with stops at murals and drawings representing the culture of both traditions in the divided city. His script was balanced and fair. However, towards the end of the hour-long tour he mentioned that his brother and uncle were shot at by Republicans back in the troubled 1980’s. Coming to the end, my son-in-law asked him whether he thought that a United Ireland would happen after the border poll promised