It was in early 2012 that Mam called me with news of her findings regarding the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, managed by the Sisters of the Bon Secours from 1925 until it closed in 1961. The whole world knows about it now: the children who died; their number; their whereabouts. My own baby son was about 16 months old on that day. He was asleep in a sling wrapped about me, as I stood in the porch of the old Wexford house I was living in. In silence I listened to what my mother had to say over the phone.
“Are you there?” Mam’s voice queried gently at the other end of the phone when I made no reply. “I’ve upset you now.” She sounded dismayed.
Still holding the phone to my ear with one hand, I held tightly to my baby with the other. I let the information about hundreds of dead children, and the nature of how their remains were dealt with, seep in. I remember that I opened the front door and stepped into the fresh Spring air to sit on the granite steps outside, rearranging my son in his sling.
I was indeed upset. I had tears springing to the corners of my eyes.
“Oh Mam,” I implored eventually. “I am upset. But not because of you!”
I’m a wimp for this kind of thing; I’ve never even been able to watch a movie without first checking that nobody was going to die or be maltreated. I turn away from this negativity, I avoid. But I knew rightaway that it was a finding that had to be told. Mam wrote about it in the Journal of the Old Tuam Society, published later that year, as part of her piece on the Home and the people who were there.
Visiting my parents in Spring 2013, I was sitting with a cup of tea at the kitchen table whilst my son, aged 2 by this time, squabbled with his older sister on the floor near my chair. Beside me, Mam opened her cupboard full of history files and books, and pulled out a plastic sleeve containing a set of A4 pages. She slid it towards me across the table.
“These are the children,” she told me quietly.
“Oh,” I said, lowly. I hadn’t been ready for this, though she’d told me all about it on the phone. She had obtained the list of all of the children who had died at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.
All the names.
All the associated family addresses.
The ages they were when they died.
And causes of death.
The magnitude of this enormous loss bore down on me, as I read line after line. My shoulders slumped, and slumped again.
“It’s upsetting you now,” Mam said gently, in echo of what she’d said to me months previous. She moved to take the list away from me.
“No,” I resolved.
I pulled my chair around to the range, opened the door to let the heat out at my legs and, with resignation, I made myself read on. Every page, every line, every child. With each starkly recorded name, I felt myself think of that child, appreciate him, consider the truth of what she went through.
I knew enough, in spite of all my hand-wringing and avoidance, to know that what has happened has been grim. The testimonies – of inhabitants who survived and of those in the town who know details of what happened – would keep you awake at night.
796 children are lost but their story lives and demands to be told. A committee came together in Tuam to memorialise the site more appropriately. Fundraising commenced, and I understand that sufficient funds are now in place to commemorate the children with a plaque and to refurbish the area.
Of course the findings were never about a memorial alone, and the situation is not to be consigned to the past. The people who lived still carry the indignity of what happened to them, sometimes in deeply secretive and corrosive silence. Families of children who died are desperate for the truth of what happened at the Bon Secours facility.
“The Sisters are devastated,” said a Bon Secours sister to Mam when she met her about the news coverage of the findings (she was referring to the media attention).
“The people who come to me are devastated,” replied Mam.
People who survived the Home and the system that decided their lives have been contacting my mother for years; she listens to every heartbreaking story, and voluntarily helps with the resources necessary to trace lost family.
In a country that supposedly places such a high cultural value on heritage, personal heritages have been either needlessly confused or all-but-erased for individuals who were fostered or adopted from the Tuam and other facilities around the country. There is a strangely enduring bureaucratic discrimination that continues to hamper the search that adopted or fostered people must then embark on to trace birth families (check out the Adoption Rights Alliance website for an insight into the extraordinary challenges that adopted people face).
I manage to explain the situation to my daughter, as best I can. In her beautiful, straightforward, six-years-old world view, there is no problem:
“But Mammy, it doesn’t even matter if the mothers weren’t married! And nobody needs to keep the secrets now.”
“Exactly,” I tell her.
But this is easy for she and I to say; for many, the pain of indignity and grief and the shame of “illegitimacy”, is palpable, still. The grief of systemically having a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, an entire extended family taken, is breathtaking to consider. This suffering is the experience of vast (as yet, countless) numbers of individuals in this state. Often, it is in secret; for some, it is only now (since the Tuam Mother and Baby Home became highlighted) that they have found the courage and strength to open up to their own children about their experiences.
“Suffer us children that Ireland forgot” wrote Michael Hession, who was born at the Tuam Home.
In Tuam, there were 796 children who never got started and who were denied dignity in death, because somehow, nobody was able to speak up for them.
Last week my parents met with James Reilly, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to make their straightforward plea for the release of all records, for the recognition of all the burial grounds, and for justice for all affected.