I’ve hesitated writing about the Tuam babies case. It’s not that I don’t feel strongly about it. It’s not that I’m afraid to write about it. It’s just that I will simply be one voice in many and surely this is a case where words mean very little unless something can be done about the attitudes that bring us back here again and again and again.
If you’re not familiar with the story, and I’m sure there are plenty who still won’t be, it’s this. On May 24th the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story. There followed the predictable social media outrage, the even more predictable empty words from those who allowed it to happen, the absolutely inevitable lack of action. Most things don’t happen here until the international press get the sniff of a story and sure enough, once thematter appeared in the Washington Post it really started being talked about.
So what happened? It’s a simple enough story. In Tuam, in County Galway, there used to be a home for Mothers and Babies. It stood on the site of an old workhouse and was run by the sistesr of the Bon Secours order. In this home, between the 1920s and the 1960s 800 babies and young children died. But that’s not it. It’s not that 800 dead over 40 or so years means an average of around 2 a month which might to the casual observer seem a wee bit on the high side. If that was all we would no doubt have already been mollified by those who would drag in every measles outbreak, every flu epidemic, every cholera, typhoid and diphtheria outbreak to cast a swathe through the Irish population in the last two centuries, to make the point that sometimes children die, sometimes a lot of children die. Life they would tell us, is a fragile thing and you can blame germs, or poverty, or ignorance to tidy away the significant numbers of dead babies of times past.
But that’s not it.
The problem with these 800 babies is that there is a good chance some or all of them ended up disposed of with no care or reverence, thrown in a septic tank. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. They were disposed of in a septic tank. Not buried in a euphemistically called “angel plot” for the unbaptised. Not placed gently in a little white coffin and honoured with flowers and favourite toys. These children were thrown where you would throw rubbish, in an empty concrete tank that had once held the workhouse’s sewage. There have been suggestions that many of the children who died were the sick, the weak and the disabled, left in what amounted to Dying Rooms to die a slow, sad death of malnutrition and avoidable illness. That these children were left because they were not as lucrative as the healthy children who could be sold to childless couples.
Already there have been those who have denied this. There are those who say that the only indication that there were bones in that septic tank were two small boys who investigated a crack in a concrete slab in the 60s and discovered a horror. There are those who are no doubt hoping that the bones turn out to belong to dogs or rats or sheep – if they are ever exhumed. If anyone bothers to try to find out what happened.
We need to focus on that septic tank because it doesn’t matter if there aren’t 800 babies there. If just one bone of one child is in there it tells us something we should never forget. It means that the body of at least one child was treated like rubbish, was denied the basic funerary rites that we have turned towards as a species since neanderthal times. It means that a child’s body was treated like a dead dog – and perhaps that dog would actually have had more care taken of it. It means that someone turned their back on the most basic human compassion, fought what is surely an instinctive need to treat the dead gently. If there is more than one child’s bone, if there are the dozen’s, hundreds, that have been described then that is an image from a scene of war. That is the piles of bodies in a concentration camp, the smoking piles of war dead. That is humanity lost.
Since the story broke the similar stories have come thick and fast. Just as when the first reports disclosed clerical sex abuse or the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries. There’s never a shortage of stories like that in Ireland. This country has a very, very dark past. Each time a story like this has been told it has caused outrage, anger and disgust. Each time there have been the harrowing first person narratives of what life was like in hell. Each time the Church has responded with platitudes and empty apologies that have never been followed up with action. Each time the apologists have gathered to sweep the dirt back under the now irredeemably bumpy rug. Each time, once a suitable period of chagrin has been observed the Church has sulked about anti-religious agendas and shut their doors yet again.
We don’t know what will happen yet with this. At this stage we don’t even know exactly what the situation is. Until things are clarified, and possibly even then, there will be those who ignore the absolute truth that has been staring us in the face for far too long. RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes has outlined what evidence is already available here and Catherine Corless, the local historian whose tireless work brought this story out into the open has put this summary of her findings on Facebook. These are both accounts that can be trusted. This is not a delusion, this is not an exaggeration. If one bone of one child found it’s way into that disused septic tank that is too much. This is not something we should look away from and this is not something we should allow to fade into the past.
The problem, the huge problem, with this is not simply that it is yet another account of a past full of unimaginable cruelty and heartlessness, it is because these attitudes have not been left in the past. The attitudes that allowed these things to happen that keep coming to light, that keep shocking us, the attitudes that dismissed life so absolutely are still here and they are all around us.
When a story like this breaks there are still those who deny it ever happened, who accuse the people who have brought the latest horror to light, of attacking the Church. The newspapers will still ask the local bishop what he thinks, will still listen to the response. The investigation will move slowly unless it gets indefinitely postponed while yet another inquiry creaks forward toothlessly. A lot of columnists will write elegant phrases about how hard the past was before moving on to the next outrage. Social media will get outraged for a while until the next thing turns up. Months down the road there will be a report or an investigation where more details come from the mouths of the victims. Outrage, disgust once again – until the next time.
Has the heart of the country really changed from the time when families were so soaked in catholic guilt that they would turn their back on their own? Isn’t it still a lot easier to listen to what those in power tell us to do than to stand up and demand change? Isn’t such deference hardwired into jaded souls so that certain views still have weight when they should have been resigned to the past.
It’s buried deep but there is still a checklist that weeds the good from the bad, a rigid code that places each of us in one pile or another. If you don’t check the right boxes you are bad, unsaveable, lost. In a mindset based on black and white, good and evil, ours and their,s that line is drawn deep. In my teens and early 20s I first noticed it. Because I was an “outsider” I could never be a good girl. I’ve seen what that does to the attitudes of the guys who were too sure in the discos we called nightclubs. I’ve seen it in the sneers from a certain type of dark-clad granny who would slowly look me up and down on the bus, making me blush and feel like dirt. That was what they meant to do. I was on the other side of the line. There would be no crossing over. I’m not comparing a few slights to what went on in the various homes but I recognise it.
Having a line like that is a dangerous thing as history never fails to show us. Lines like that destroy empathy. Lines like that cause genocide, brutality, slavery. We don’t even need to look to the world for proof of that. There’s ample evidence at home.
As long as that deference is there then so is the line. It goes deeper than prejudice, it’s the difference between black and white. It is hard wired into this country and it’s something that needs to be fought if the ground is ever going to be kicked over and humanity restored. As long as that line is there people find it easier to assume that those who have been hurt will lie – as the Irish Times managed to point out when talking about the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag (which I’ll return to another time). As long as it’s there the voiceless will never have a voice and the sins of the past will never be truly repaired.