In January this year, the Irish Government released the long-awaited Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Final Report. The Commission was formed in 2015, following press attention given to the research of Catherine Corless.
Trigger warning: Though this article does not feature any graphic testimony or language, it is about harm and hardship in Ireland’s institutional facilities, and responses to this, which could be upsetting for some readers. Please proceed with care.
In January this year, the Irish Government released the long-awaited Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Final Report. The Commission was formed in 2015, following press attention given to the research of Catherine Corless. Corless asserted that the Bon Secours (meaning ‘good help’) Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway) held within its grounds the unlocked secrets of 796 baby and child deaths. This created a discourse that revealed many more deaths and crimes in other homes across Ireland.
The Commission’s report (and subsequent dissolution) has been highly criticised, due to its disregard for the testimonies of the victims, despite their involvement in the process, and a perceived inability for the report to pursue accountability. This has led to the preparation of an ‘Alternative Executive Summary’, which asserts that ‘involuntary detention’, was -by and of itself- a form of harm. For more visit irishtimes.com and search “cannot be let stand”.
In response to dissatisfaction with Commission’s procedures, staff members at National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) set up the Tuam Oral History Project. Its aim is to enable survivors of the Tuam institution -and their families- to tell their own life stories in the way that they want them to be told. Project team members record and archive the histories and life stories of survivors and their families, as well as the memories of others connected with the institutions or those who spent time there. This gives agency and voice to people who wish to speak, but also the power to withdraw their testimony from public view at any time.
In:Visible Women day 2021
This year the Festival will host -in partnership with NUI Galway – an In:Visible Women Day (Mon 25 Oct), which continues to focus on improving female visibility and responds to the release of the report. Historians Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley and Dr John Cunningham, founders and leads for the project, speak about its intentions.
John Egan was born in the Tuam Mother and Baby Institution in 1951 and separated from his mother soon afterwards. While his memory is hazy about the seven years he spent there, he vividly recalls one evening on his way from school when he encountered dogs at the entrance gate. Afraid of dogs, he turned back; “I was gone for quite a while… At that time, we had a big long table in the home –a huge big long table– and there could have been a hundred boys around it. But when I came back, everything was cleared, everything was gone; it was straight to bed”.
Others, including Anne Kelly Silke, recall not being allowed to mingle with classmates in the nearby Presentation* school; “I remember a child one day, and we’re going home, and the mother said, ‘No, you’re not supposed to talk to them’. That was it, the child was dragged along with her. You couldn’t talk to anybody, you weren’t allowed”.
* Presentation schools were Catholic schools for girls, following the teachings of Nano Nagle, foundress of the Presentation Congregation in Cork, 1718.
John’s and Anne’s memories were recorded for the Tuam Oral History Project, based at the NUI. They are examples of some of the hardships people faced and show how memories persist in to older age.
Disrespect and disregard
The Tuam ‘Home’ was one of many such institutions dating from the establishment of the Irish state. It became notorious as a result of painstaking research by local historian, Catherine Corless, who discovered that 796 children had died during the period of its operation, 1925-1961, and also that that the remains of the dead children had been treated with extreme disrespect. Due to Corless’s research, together with the pressure from advocacy groups, a Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation was established by the Irish government in 2015. Its final report was published in January 2021. While containing useful detail on the institutions investigated, its disregard of survivor testimony -collected by its own researchers- and the conclusions in its Executive Summary –substantially excusing the state and church authorities– have been widely criticised. The Commission disbanded in February 2021, but there are a number of legal cases being taken to challenge its findings and a group of twenty-five academics recently published an Alternative Executive Summary.
The Tuam Oral History Project was prompted by dissatisfaction expressed by survivors at the means available to them of telling their life stories, after the Commission and mass media proved unsatisfactory. The key aim of the Project is to enable the survivors of the Tuam Mother and Baby institution -and their families- to tell their own histories, in the way that they want them to be told. Interviews conducted by members of the project team are preserved at the Hardiman Library (NUI Galway) along with relevant personal documents.
A secondary aim of the Project is to disseminate the material, which we do by making transcripts and recordings available on the Project’s website nuigalway.ie/tuam-oral-history (if interviewees wish), and by facilitating scholars, artists and educators who wish to engage with them.
The online production, Nochtaithe, created during the pandemic by NUI Galway drama students is the result of such engagement. We are extremely excited to share the project’s work and also hope that as a result of our involvement with the Liverpool Irish Festival, we might encourage others who wish to share their stories -or gain knowledge of this part of the history of Ireland and the Irish- to make contact. We invite anyone who wishes to do so to contact us at [email protected]. W: nuigalway.ie/tuam-oral-history
Children born in the Tuam institution usually remained until the age of 5 or 6 years, when they were ‘boarded out’ to foster families who were financially compensated for looking after them. Two former residents recalled their experience of ‘boarding out’:
Tom Warde: I have no memories of the Home because we were never let out. I never seen out of that room, wherever it was… So, I arrived to Hayes’s in 1947 at 5 years and 2 months… I remember leaving the Tuam Home in a green van… When I arrived to the family —I don’t even know where they picked me up or where the green van left me— I went running after turkeys and hens, because I had never seen anything like that… Now -when I look back on it- we were only taken out for the money, really, that was out of it; and to be slaves to do that work around…
Carmel Larkin: My upbringing was very good because my [foster] mother was a very frugal woman and my [foster] father was a hardworking man… I went to a school [in] Knocksaxon. They were very good teachers… Then I left there and I went to Balla convent… but I absolutely hated the nuns. They always told me I was stupid. I wasn’t stupid. I was a foster child and they looked down on people with any marks like that… After that then, my mother got a stroke… She [the daughter] obviously got my father to sign over the house. Once she got the place in her name she gave me four days’ notice to get out of the house… It was either get out of the house, go to England, or whatever you like, but get out of here!
- Support Services: If you have been affected by any of the content of this article, please consider consulting one of the following services, if not the Tuam Oral History project itself:
- Connect Counselling: An anonymous professional telephone counselling service for survivors of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Freephone in the UK and Northern Ireland +44 (0) 800 477 477 77 connectcounselling.ie
- ICAP: icap is the only specialist British-based counselling and psychotherapy service supporting people from the Irish community facing a range of emotional issues, including depression, anxiety and stress. Helpline: +44 (0) 207 272 7906 icap.org.uk
- Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation: To access the Irish Government’s report and additional information, visit gov.ie/en/collection/mbhcoi
- My Data Rights: A resource for people affected by the ‘historical’ human rights violations in Ireland provides information for survivors of the Irish industrial and reformatory schools about using GDPR protocols to gain access to personal information. The website contains downloadable guides and template letters for requesting personal data and for complaining to the Data Protection Commission if necessary. This is a project of the Human Rights Law Clinic at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway. mydatarights.ie
- Samaritans: Samaritans offer a non-judgmental listening service, whatever you are going through. Call free, 24-7 in the UK, on 116 123 samaritains.org
- Sexual Violence Support (North West): A new service has been set up to help locate the relevant support services for those who have suffered sexual violence across the North West. sexualviolencesupport.co.uk
- Survivors Trust: The Survivors Trust has 120 member organisations based in the UK and Ireland which provide specialist support for women, men & children who have survived rape, sexual violence or childhood sexual abuse. thesurvivorstrust.org/find-support
- Tuam Home Survivors Network: Survivors helping survivors tuamhomesurvivors.com
This information was all correct and accessible on 11 Aug 2021. It is not an exhaustive list of services available. You are not alone. Make contact. You will be heard.