The Bones of Irish Babies

A survivor of abuse by the Church in Ireland marches in a procession in the town of Tuam to remember 796 babies left my nuns in a sceptic tank. Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press video-journalist Luigi Navarra. August 26, 2018

Dear Blog Readers,

I spent four days in Ireland last week for coverage of Pope Francis’ visit there and it was probably the most eye-opening trip I have ever taken with a Pope.  I was shocked and appalled by the horrifying treatment of women and children by the Catholic Church in Ireland for decades.  I had heard about it before but had never paid close attention.

Perhaps the most chilling story of the visit was that of the bones of the babies in Tuam.

On Sunday afternoon as Pope Francis held his final Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, hundreds of protesters on the other side of the country gathered in the small village of Tuam to march in a procession to an old septic tank with the bodies of nearly 800 babies.  The tank is next to the plot where the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home once stood, a church-run institution for unwed mothers and their children.

A few years ago, local historian Catherine Corless, after pouring over the documents from the home, birth and death records and local burial lists, discovered there were 796 children’s bodies piled up in the deserted septic tank.  The nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours had not bothered to have them buried, preferring to quietly dump them.

These were the children of the unmarried mothers forced to live at the Mother and Baby Home, the children who died while there and not given a proper burial.  The care of these children in these homes was abysmal and death rates far above the rest of population.  Malnutrition, whooping cough and measles are among the causes of death listed for the babies.

On Sunday the protesters read out all of their names: Mary Cafferty, 3 months; John Joseph Murphy, 10 months; Annie Tyne, 3 months; Baby Byrne, 1 day, Mary O’Brien, 4 months, Patrick Mullaney, 18 months, Thomas Connelly, 3 months; Keiran Hennelley, 14 months…

They placed little baby shoes with black mourning ribbons on them on the ground.

Baby shoes became a symbol of protest against the Catholic Church during the Pope’s visit to Ireland. These shoes are hanging outside the last of the Magdalene Laundries to close. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 27, 2018

A woman who lived in a Mother and Baby Home tightly gripped a teddy bear as she walked towards the tank, the anguish and pain written on her face.

Peter Mulyran who once lived in the home was among the group.  When the names were done, he spoke up: “100 meters away from here is the graveyard and yet these babies were put in a sceptic tank,” he said. And the crowd answered, “shame, shame, shame.”

Annette Mckay spoke up: “to my sister Mary Margaret who lies in that sceptic tank – I am coming for you.  You are not going to stay there.”

Mckay’s mother was born in Galway and got pregnant when she was 17-years-old.  She was brought to the Mother and Baby Home.  She gave birth to Mary Margaret who died after six months of whooping cough and measles.

“We want them to excavate the site, they can take the DNA from us, the relatives,” Mckay explained to the AP team. “And they can give me Mary Margaret and I will take Mary Margaret back to England to be with her mother.”

Mother and Baby Home survivor Peter Mulyran speaks to Associated Press in Tuam, Ireland. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Televisin video-journalist Luigi Navarra. August 26, 2018

Mulyran lived in the home with his mother Delia until he was four and given away to a violent foster father.  Delia had been taken away from her family at age 17 by the same parish priest who has impregnated her and delivered to a baby home. In an interview with Irish national television, he described his mother Delia as simply “afraid to talk.”  After she got pregnant a second time, she was forced into a Magdalene laundry where she lived the rest of her life as a slave.

Mulyran did not know he had a sister until recently when Catherina Corless reached out to him telling him about a name, Marian Bridget Mulyran, who died at nine months in the home in 1954, but never was buried.

“I don’t know why the order, the nuns, did such a cruel thing.  They didn’t even put them in coffins.  They just wrapped them up in a towel or something and put them down underground, never to be seen or heard of again,” said Mulyran.  He has vowed to recover his sister’s remains before he dies.

The Irish government will decide this fall whether they will remove the remains and do the DNA testing.

I started getting a sense before I left Rome about the abuses of the church in Ireland when my colleague did an interview with activist and head of Ireland’s Amnesty International, Colm O’Gorman.  He said he was among the millions of Irish Catholics who thronged to see John Paul II when he visited Ireland in 1979 and it was not long after that that he was raped by a priest.  He eventually learned that his personal pain was part of something much wider.

“When we talk about abuse in Ireland we are not simply talking about the rape and abuse of children by diocesan priests, we are talking about abuses on an industrial scale on a systemic level, in state-funded, Catholic Church operated institutions where children were subjected to depraved physical violence and abuse, to acts that constituted torture, to forced labor, to illegal detention, to really vicious treatment,” explained O’Gorman, adding, “Ninety-percent of witnesses who came forward to give evidence to the commission that was established to investigate what happened in these institutions reported physical abuse.  As well as being beaten, they spoke about being burnt and scalded, whipped and held under water, these are extreme acts of violence.”

O’Gorman organized a demonstration during the Pope’s visit during which hundreds of protesters marched through the streets of Dublin to the last Magdalene Laundry to close in 1996.

Thousands of protesters demanding truth, justice and love march through the streets of Dublin demonstrating against the Catholic Church during Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video journalist Alex Turnbull for AP Television. August 26, 2018

Ireland once had many Magdalene Laundries in which “fallen women,” a category that apparently included prostitutes, unwed pregnant women, even flirtatious girls, were closed up to work as slave laborers washing laundry under the strict control of nuns.  Their children were given away.  At least 10,000 women went into these homes, many, like Delia Mulryan never came out.

Here is how activist Colm O’Gorman describes the laundries: “women were detained illegally and subjected to forced labor, they were forced to wash the dirty sheets of the church and of society, simply because they were women, because of their reproductivity. So when we talk about abuse in Ireland, we are talking about widespread systemic abuse on an industrial scale that was covered up, and permitted by the Roman Catholic Church, where known offenders were allowed to abuse with increased depravity and with absolute impunity.”

During his visit the Pope met with eight victims of the abuse and Associated Press got a chance to interview two of them after the meeting.

Paul Redmond was born at the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home and adopted when he was 17 days old.  He told the AP that the Pope “didn’t really seem to have a deep understanding of what happened in Ireland in terms of institutional abuse… while the rest of the world closed down institutions from 1900, the Catholic Church kept them going in Ireland into the 80s and 90s. And Pope Francis was quite shocked by the fact that 150,000 women and children went through those institutions. He was taken aback when I told him about the banished babies being sold to America, over 3,000 babies, and that the babies in the homes were used for medical experiments and vaccine trials and that at least 6,000 babies died in all of the homes.”

Clodagh Malone was born in the St. Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home in Dublin and adopted at 10 weeks old.  She said she has always felt distanced from the Catholic Church because “the church just saw us as bastards.”

The nuns would tell the mothers they needed to dress up their baby nicely one day and then the mother knew her child was about to be taken from her.  She had no choice in the matter.

Malone and Redmond explained that mothers who lost their children were told by the nuns that looking for them would be a sin and if they did so “they were evil, the devil,” and they would “burn in hell.”

Malone and Redmond asked Pope Francis to help all those Irish mothers who are still alive by declaring that looking for your own child is not a sin.

“There are a lot of elderly women, particularly in the countryside who have lived 30, 40, 50, 60 years in fear. That would mean a lot to them,” Redmond told the Pope.

Pope Francis on the altar at Phoenix Park in Dublin shortly before he delivered his sweeping apology for abuses by the Catholic Church. Freeze frame of pool video. August 26, 2018

The Pope did meet this request.  During his Mass the next day in Dublin the Pope began with an un-scheduled speech in Spanish in which he made a sweeping apology for the abuses.  In it he said the words that Malone and Redmond had requested, “We ask forgiveness for those children who were taken from their mothers, and for all those times those single mothers looked for their children and were told that looking for their children from whom they were separated, was a mortal sin.  That is not a mortal sin. It is the fourth commandment.  We ask forgiveness.” (The Fourth Commandment is “Honor thy Father and Thy Mother”)

Surely it is too little, too late for the church.

Irish newspapers reacting to the Papal visit and apology for church abuses. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 27, 2018

I am still coming to grips with the horror of all these stories.  A lovely Irish woman I met on the plane to Dublin told me that sex was always considered a dark and evil thing in Ireland and was used by the church to oppress women.  But the idea of priests and nuns being so beastly with women and children is difficult to fathom.  And why did it go on for so long?

As I headed to the airport on my last day, I asked the taxi driver if he could stop by the last of the Magdalene Laundries to close in 1996, an austere, grey-brick building which still stands on Sean McDermott street.  He took me by, and I jumped out to photograph some of the baby shoes and notes that protesters left during the Papal visit.  As I stood there, an elderly man walked up and told me he lived in the neighborhood and he remembered when it was still open, everyone knew but no one could do anything.  He was eager to tell me his story.  But my taxi was waiting, meter running, and I had to rush off.  So, I left him there on the sidewalk staring mournfully at the little baby shoes.

An elderly man stares at the baby shoes hung by protesters on a fence outside the last Magdalene Laundry to close in 1996. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 27, 2018


22 thoughts on “The Bones of Irish Babies”

  1. Such a tragedy. Thank you for writing so movingly about this horror. I read your story while listening to Danny Boy sung during John Mc Cain’s funeral service. It’s hard to understand how a country of so much deep emotion also abided such horror to women in the name of god.

    1. I agree. It makes no sense whatsoever to me. I also can’t understand how the nuns could participate so vigorously in all this abuse and that women could not rise up and fight back. It is horrifying.

    1. Oh No!! I had not heard of this Burlington, Vermont story. It never ends!!! This is horrifying! How have they gotten away with it for so long!

  2. Chris Montemayor

    I read the original story in the times a few months ago and I found it appalling and shocking. Your reporting also make me worried about the hypocrisy and cruelty of the church. We are now only hearing about the abuse in first world countries and I worry about how the church has behaved in places like Central and South America, and Africa where women and children are still afraid to speak up and speak out. I’m sad to say that I’m sure it’s probably worse in these places where women and children are not empowered to speak out against something as powerful as the church.

    1. I also read the story on the Tuam babies by Dan Barry in the New York Times and it was brilliant reporting. I agree on the hypocrisy and cruelty of the church. What I cannot figure out is what made it so bad in Ireland. Italy is just as Catholic, and has the Vatican in its midst and has been a truly patriarchal society. And yet, there is nothing in Italian history that I recall to be quite as depraved as the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Baby Homes. While the Irish woman on the plane said to me that the Irish Church saw sex as “evil”, I think Italians have a more Mediterranean attitude towards sexuality, perhaps more tolerant, forgiving and accepting. I am not sure. That makes me think that other countries in Central and South America and in Africa have all superimposed their own cultures and traditions on top of Catholic morality and traditions. I know, for example, in Africa the Church has had a huge problem with priests and bishops just assuming and insisting that nuns must provide them with whatever sexual demands they want. I have no clue about central and South America. Altogether, it seems to me celibacy leads only to abuse and perversions all around.

  3. Dear Trisha,
    Thank you for sharing a sad and distressing story. I also had heard of some ideas of the Ireland problems, but knew little until reading much about what you have written in the newspaper stories I read on line and some in the two papers I subscribe to. And when reading I didn’t know much of the more horrors to come here at home with the Pennsylvania grand jury report and lastly the 11 page letter of former Nuncio Vogato’ (sorry if I spelled this wrong) in which he accuses Pope Francis of hiding former Cardinal McCarrik’s abuse after Pope Benedict had sanctioned him already. Pope Benedicts secretary says this is not true. But unfortunately all the very conservative Catholic bishops, priests, and lay people have jumped aboard. I hope that after Pope Francis chose not to comment on this while on the plane back to Rome, he has spent some time thinking and will soon answer these charges.
    Some writers especially in National Catholic Reporter already are speaking out about the inaccuracies in the letter, but also hoping the Pope will speak soon.
    Frankly, Trisha, for the last few months, maybe longer I have wished I did not read news as I do. There have been the political stories here; then in the Italian newsletters I receive I began to feel like I was reading the same type of story about Italy especially with immigration sounding just like here. Now come all the sad stories about a religion I’ve loved for many, many years though at least for the past 30 or so, I have also felt it needs work and not just about the abuse. Yet, I keep reading, and hoping about many things.
    Sorry to get so carried away and long. I am sad about many of my favorite things but keep working on my January return to my favorite city.
    A presto,

    1. Oh Joan, I do understand your sadness and your frustration with reading the news. I feel the same way. It seems that everyone is reporting on the global-warming related disasters and yet there is nothing out there that gives us hope that people are actually doing something to stop climate change. Politics has become unbearable from the United States to Europe. I, too, just want to turn off, shut down and forget about it all. And then there is the Catholic Church. There also I can relate to your frustration. I have interviewed Cardinal Mccarrick in the past and he seemed to me a truly good man, convinced in creating a “zero-tolerance” towards pedophiles policy in the church. I was as shocked as you are by the revelations. As far as Vigano’ is concerned, I will give you my opinion. He is part of a group of extreme conservatives in the Catholic Church who despise Pope Francis. They want him out at all cost. The leader of the group is American Cardinal Raymond Burke. This group is very much against moves by Pope Francis to allow communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, for starters. They are also very homophobic (Vigano’ has expressed his homophobia farely openly). Vigano’ worked together with a well-known anti-Francis former journalist, Marco Tosatti, to release his accusations while the Pope was in Ireland, disrupting the trip and taking attention away from issues like the Tuam Babies. I think you should trust the reporting you are reading in the National Catholic Reporter. I know their Vatican correspondent Josh McElwee and he is very good and you should also read John Allen in Crux, he is excellent. You can trust both of them. Sometimes I must say the Vatican gets on my nerves…it can be such a nest of vipers, I mean talk about Machiavellian! My impression on this is Vigano’ could care less about sexual abuse and protecting children, he just wants Pope Francis out. That said, Pope Francis now needs to prove that he really did know nothing about Mccarrick’s misdeeds. Pope Francis a Jesuit. For all his straight-talking, humble-pie populist style, he is very canny and certainly much more able to handle an internal challenge than Pope Benedict. I am not sure but I think me might even thrive on the challenge. That said, he is 81 and it has to be tiring. We shall see.

      1. Thank you, Trisha. Your answer is pretty much what I believe and have read in NCR. I appreciate your taking the time to write this detailed answer.
        A presto,

  4. Thank you for sharing this sad story. We all need to know what is really going on and pray for those who have been affected. I’m glad that the Pope was able to let the families know it was ok to try and contact their lost children. I’m in shock that this was going on as late as 1996. The remains of those dear children need to be identified and given a proper burial – a respect that they have been denied.

    1. I totally agree with you Cyndy and I am guessing that the Irish government will do the right thing and take all those bones out of the sceptic tank and do the DNA testing. They just cannot remain there. It is just wrong.

      1. 100 meters away from here is the graveyard and yet these babies were put in a sceptic tank,” […]

        Annette Mckay spoke up: “to my sister Mary Margaret who lies in that sceptic tank – I am coming for you.”

        Sceptic tank. . . Is that where they throw the doubters?

  5. A plague on ALL organised religious institutions – there is no good in any of them. Here we are at ‘the end of days’ (global climate disruption) and still people believe in heaven, hell, purgatory and fairies at the bottom of the garden. The adulation for this pope – a monster who sold out his own priests to be tortured and murdered by Argentinian junta is beyond me – utterly sick!

    1. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Growing up in Boston, I had such a love of all things Irish. And I had no clue that all this was going on.

  6. First of all Trisha, I’m glad to see you back on the blog. It’s been too long since we heard from you. But just reading about this appalling tale of women and children in Ireland is difficult. My heart goes out to the women and children who were affected directly. The Catholic Church is really under attack and rightly so. It’s unfathomable that the people whom you considered ethical, honorable and spiritual leaders are the very people who so cruelly abused so many under their guidance. I find it difficult to attend mass in my parish these days, where not one thing is ever mentioned about these atrocities. I do hope that Pope Francis can provide evidence that he is blameless in the current scandal, but even so, I can’t see how he can survive this. But who knows, maybe this is the first step of a much needed housecleaning and a revamping of the Catholic Church. I sincerely hope so.

    1. Hi Linda — Well I guess I am sort of back on the blog. It has been a complicated year. My husband and I have just separated so that has been taking the wind out of my blogging sails a bit. I have also been wondering if it is worth it to me to dedicate so much time and energy to my blog, that maybe I should be trying to do more for AP. I have tried to dovetail them, writing about things I cover for work, but I have noticed that those are not my most popular blogs. I think that blog readers prefer funny posts about silly experiences living in Italy or observations on Italian culture and society. What do you think as a blogger and a blog reader? That said, I do enjoy the blogging and I especially enjoy the feedback I get so I don’t want to give up.
      On the Catholic Church…I guess I won’t comment right now. So much to say and not enough space here. Hope you are well. Baci

  7. Hi Trisha, truly a very disturbing story, I also read the story when it came out in The New York Times and I was very distressed by it. I had already heard stories but not on this scale and quite frankly in such a barbaric and heartless way. What makes me equally disturbed now is the amount of stories that are coming out and how less shocked I become, after watching the Spotlight case and the analysis, the percentage rate of abuse is terrifying. Very sad times ..

    1. Hi Mandy — I agree, it just keeps coming out more and more and more and we all do become less shocked and less interested in reading all the horrific details. In this particular case, I was covering for work so I had to pay attention, and I am actually very glad I did because I learned a lot. The New York Times did an excellent job on that story.

  8. Hi Tricia,

    I have followed your blog for some time now and relish the notification for your new post and savour it for after work on a Friday afternoon. Firstly, hang in there with your change in circumstances (never easy) and secondly, although I have enjoyed your funny Italian living stories I do love your inside view of the news. As a Catholic and granddaughter of 2 grandparents that grew up in catholic orphanages, understanding the day to day of the church and politics keeps me so interested. I’ve also used some of your blog information to help my son with assignments for his religious instruction classes as he attends a catholic secondary school. This recent post on Ireland is heart wrenching. For any readers interested I read a book a few years ago titled The Light in the Window by June Goulding who was a nurse that worked in a mother’s and babies home. Very distressing but a story needed to be told. My grandfather was in a babies home in Australia and we do not know anything about his mother. Records do not seem to be kept and he was born on the early 1900’s. I divert…. thank you for the insights to Pope Francis and the tactics used to oust him. If energies were focussed on the challenges at hand and not personal, ridiculous issues (my mother went to the church after her divorce to seek the right to communion and left in tears) maybe many news stories about many varied topics may have a more positive outcome. Keep blogging when you have the energy, your stories are truly wonderful and informative to read.

    1. Donna, thank you so much for this lovely long message. Sorry that I have not responded sooner. I am just seeing it now. As I mentioned, I am blogging a lot less and, yes, dealing with some changes in personal circumstances. You words are a huge encouragement to me. I am very grateful. Best, Trisha

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *