The Irish Mail on Sunday


‘Illegitima­te’ children who died in institutio­n for unmarried mothers run by nuns were buried in an unmarked plot

- By Alison O’Reilly

A MASS grave beside a former home for unmarried mothers may contain the bodies of almost 800 babies, the Irish Mail on Sunday can reveal.

The unmarked site hides the tragic secret of the young single women and their children who were housed in the home run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam, Co. Galway, for much of the 20th century.

It is suspected that as many as 796 children were interred in a concrete tank beside the home between 1925 and 1961.

Inspection reports unearthed from files of the local health board show that the home housed hundreds of children, many of whom suffered deformitie­s, malnutriti­on and neglect. Causes of death included malnutriti­on, measles, convulsion­s, tuberculos­is, gastroente­ritis and pneumonia.

The babies were usually buried in a plain shroud without a coffin in a plot that had housed a water tank attached to the workhouse that preceded the mother and child home.

No memorial was erected to the dead children and the grave was left unmarked. The site is now surrounded by a housing

estate. But thanks to a missing persons report to gardaí, the burial site may now be excavated.

The Irish Mail on Sunday can reveal that a relative of one boy who lived there, William Joseph Dolan, has made a formal complaint to gardaí after she failed to find his death certificat­e, despite records in the home stating he had died.

A source close to the investigat­ion said: ‘No one knows the total number of babies in the grave. There are 796 death records but they are only the ones we know of.

‘God knows who else is in the grave. It’s been lying there for years and no one knows the full extent or total of bodies down there. It’s only all coming out in the past year.’

The existence of the grave was uncovered by local woman Catherine Corless, who

compiled the records of 796 babies who died at the home. She has establishe­d a group called the Children’s Home Graveyard Committee to erect a memorial. She said: ‘People who had relations there are the most interested. They are delighted something is being done.

‘When I was doing the research, someone mentioned there was a graveyard there for babies but I found out there was more to it than that.’

With the help of the Births and Deaths Registrar in Galway, Mrs Corless researched all children whose place of death was marked ‘Children’s Home, Tuam’. Galway County Council has all the cemetery books for Mayo and Galway and with the help of the archivist there, Mrs Corless cross-checked the names against the grave records.

Mrs Corless said: ‘There was just one child who was buried in a family plot in the graveyard in Tuam. That’s how I am certain there are 796 children in the mass grave. These girls were ran out of their family home and never taken back so why would they take the babies back to bury them either?’

According to the records seen by the MoS, a young single woman called Bridget Dolan from Clonfert, Co. Galway, gave birth to two boys who were placed in the home.

John Desmond Dolan was born on February 22, 1946, weighing 8lb9oz. His birth was recorded as ‘normal’ but he died from measles on June 11, 1947.

His brother William Joseph Dolan was born on May 21, 1950, and died on February 3, 1951. However, there is no death certificat­e for William.

His relative, who wishes not to be named, said: ‘I just want to know what happened to him. He may have passed on yet there is no death certificat­e. I believe he might have been fostered out and then moved to the US.

‘He could still be alive or he’s with his brother in the grave. I want to find out. It could be another illegal adoption and this is a case for the gardaí – that’s why I’ve made a report.’

An inspection report carried out by the local health board in 1944 makes for harrowing reading.

On April 16 and 17, 271 children were listed as living in the home along with 61 single mothers, bringing the total of occupants to 333. The home only had the capacity for 243.

‘Poor babies, emaciated and not thriving’

John Desmond Dolan, who was just 13 months old, was described as a ‘miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions and probably mentally defective’.

In the same room was a ‘delicate’ 10-month-old baby who was a ‘child of itinerants’. One five-year-old had ‘hands growing near shoulders’.

Another 31 infants in the ‘sun room and balcony’ were described as ‘poor babies, emaciated and not thriving’.

The majority were aged between three weeks and 13 months and were ‘fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated’.

In a third nursery called St. Teresa’s, a nine-month-old was described as ‘emaciated with flesh hanging loosely on limbs’. The child’s mother was described as ‘not normal’

The report said the mortality rate was ‘high’ with 300 deaths between 1943 and 1946.

The oldest child who died there was Sheila Tuohy, aged nine, in 1934. One of the youngest was Thomas Duffy, aged two days.

Teresa Kelly, chairman of the Children’s Home Graveyard Committee, said an excavation was long overdue.

‘It’s an awful story,’ she said. ‘It’s a mass grave. Many of the babies were malnourish­ed. We want to make sure those children’s identities are acknowledg­ed. They had names, they were born to some woman and man, they were human beings, not animals.’

The grave was stumbled upon in the 1970s by Barry Sweeney and Francis Hopkins, then aged 12.

Mr Sweeney recalled: ‘It was a concrete slab. We used to be in there playing but there was always something hollow underneath it so we decided to bust it open and it was full to the brim of skeletons.

‘The priest came over and blessed it. I don’t know what they did after that. I had nightmares over it, I could see all the skulls, it’s like what you would see on the Discovery Channel.’

The home closed in 1961. The children were sent to Letterfrac­k and Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea. From 1952, many of the children were sent to the USA for adoption.

In a statement, the head of the Congregrat­ion of the Bon Secours sisters in Ireland said: ‘I can confirm that the Congregati­on of the Bon Secours Sisters were requested by Galway County Council in or about 1925 to assist the council in relation to a nursing home which became known as St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, Tuam. I can confirm that the Bon Secours Sisters under the auspices of Galway County Council assisted in the running of the home until 1961 when the home was closed. The Congregati­on had no further involvemen­t thereafter.

‘When the home closed in 1961 all the records and documentat­ion were handed over to Galway County Council and I understand from enquiries that I have made these documents and records would either be held by Galway County Council and/or were handed over to the Health Board when it came into existence and may now be held by the Health Service Executive.

‘Through the passage of time, the sisters who would have served at the home are now deceased. Unfortunat­ely, I cannot put the matter any further.’

An account has been set up for donations towards the memorial: A/C number 12747355, sort code 90 39 71, quoting reference No: 497047

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