TUAM, Ireland — In 1975, Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney were playing in an apple orchard just off the Dublin Road where the old St. Mary’s mothers and babies home used to be.
Frannie Hopkins, 12, jumped from a wall and whatever he landed on made a funny noise. Barry Sweeney, 10, followed suit and the hollow they felt made them curious.
They pulled back some weeds and found a concrete slab, pulled back the slab, and to their utter amazement saw a collection of skulls and bones.
“I’d say there were a dozen sets of bones,” Frannie Hopkins told me, standing on the spot. “It was a concrete chamber, a crypt or a tomb or a tank.”
For reasons both complicated and not entirely surprising, it is only now that the macabre discovery two boys made 39 years ago has become yet another exercise in Ireland’s ongoing, agonizing confrontation with its uncomfortable past.
Yet, in a sometimes frenzied rush to now consciously confront that ugly past, the concrete chamber that Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney found has been transformed, in some recent accounts, into a septic tank into which evil nuns stuffed the remains of some 800 children who died at the home for unwed mothers run by the Sisters of Bon Secours between 1925 and 1961.
During a recent reporting trip, I visited Tuam, hoping to sort out for myself and readers the facts of this strange case. It was quickly apparent that some things just didn’t add up.
For one, while it’s possible the chamber the boys found was a disused septic tank, its size makes it likely to be the final resting place of only a tiny fraction of the 796 children whose births and deaths at the home were documented by Catherine Corless, a local woman.
Corless was disturbed when she could find no record of them being buried in marked graves. She was horrified when she learned about the discovery Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney made in 1975.
But she was surprised, even aghast, at the way her research, which she’d reported in the local historical journal, was sensationalized by some in the media.
While some blame the tabloids, British-inspired and often British-owned Irish versions of the London scandal sheets, a cursory review finds that headlines from outlets as varied and respected as the Washington Post, the ABC television network in Australia, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, and the New York Daily News suggested that 800 babies had been stuffed into a septic tank.
“I didn’t set out to do all that,” Corless said. “I just wanted to know why so many children had died and why they were not buried properly. I just wanted to name them, so they wouldn’t be forgotten.”
As the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising approaches and Ireland struggles to commemorate its revolutionary past, it is having more difficulty reconciling how the most vulnerable and marginalized members of its society were treated in institutions run by Catholic orders in the first half century of its independence.
The quick and easy answer has been to blame abusive priests, brothers, and nuns, and a hierarchy long immune to secular complaint.
And surely the cruelty doled out by these so-called religious deserves unreserved condemnation. But less easy for many Irish to acknowledge and accept is that those institutions were carrying out a collective will; that they were used as social service agencies by a government that paid them; that many Irish people shared the official view, bolstered every Sunday at Mass, that unmarried women who got pregnant were sinners deserving of communal condemnation; that the children born to unwed mothers were undeserving of basic human dignity; that nuns had more say over those children’s lives than the mothers who gave them life.
In many cases, the frightened, usually teenage expectant mothers deposited here and at 10 other locations across Ireland were delivered to the nuns by their own families, who worried about what the neighbors and the parish priest would think.
One undeniable if disheartening explanation for the misleading, outrageous headlines is that, after years of horrific exposes about the cruelty directed at unwed mothers and their children in the backward, clerically dominated Ireland of the mid-20th century, the idea of nuns stuffing the remains of unwanted children into a septic tank didn’t seem, to many, as outrageous as it ought to have.
Mary Daly, a historian at University College Dublin, says much of the breathless reporting lacked context.
“Infant mortality rates were high everywhere in Ireland, and in institutions like these illnesses spread rapidly,” Daly said. “But I would ask, how were unwed mothers and their children treated in other countries during the same era? This attitude was not peculiar to Ireland.”
A recently ordered government inquiry into what happened at Tuam has the potential to expose not just hidden graves but unseemly truths about the adoption industry in Ireland, which landed children in Boston and beyond.
In the rush for sensationalism, it has gone largely unnoticed that the dead babies in Tuam were never forgotten by the good, decent people of this town of 8,000. As soon as Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney told everybody what they found, the local people put up a shrine in the corner of the field where the 8-foot, dull granite walls meet. For 39 years, the local people have tended to that memorial.
Catherine Corless began researching the fate of the unaccounted-for children, in part, because of a lingering guilt she harbored from her schoolgirl days. She said the nuns at the school she attended emphasized the difference of the “home” children, those who lived at the mothers and babies home, from the rest of the students, not by abusing them as much as ignoring them. They were segregated in the classroom and in the playground. The home children wore figurative scarlet letters in the form of heavy wooden clogs that announced their presence wherever they went.
Corless remains ashamed that, when she was 7, she once aped a common trick played on the home children, offering a rock wrapped in a candy wrapper to a home girl.
Whatever her motivations, the basic decency of Catherine Corless shines through this whole imbroglio. She, like so many others in Tuam, only wants to afford the children who died here the dignity they were denied in life.
Local people are divided on excavating the field where Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney found the bones. But that may be the only way to determine how many children lie in the ground.
Frannie Hopkins stood at the spot where he found the bones and turned to gaze at the nearby Tuam Martyrs monument, dedicated to six men who died for an Irish Republic that pledged to cherish all of its children equally. He shook his head.
“Those boys would be rolling in their graves if they knew these children never got a proper burial,” Frannie Hopkins said. “Rolling in their graves.”