News of Tuam babies lands in Italy – More lessons from Catholic Ireland


In Italy last week on a break, it took me a moment to realize what the hotel owner was talking about when we were chatting after I had checked in.   

"The babies -- what a sad event," he said. "But in Italy too we had such things. The church ..." he sighed, shaking his head and shrugging at me in understanding and sympathy.  

Two things struck me about this. It was an indication of how the appalling story of the remains of hundreds of babies found at the former unmarried mothers and babies home in Tuam in Co. Galway had traveled. We were staying in a small town in northern Italy, not somewhere you expect to be up to speed on news from Ireland

But the graphic and shocking story had made the Italian newspapers, complete with references to skeletons of babies uncovered "in a septic tank."

On that basis, it's probably accurate to say that the story went around the globe. And it is extremely damaging to the image of Ireland, exposing the cruelty and hypocrisy of our recent past for the whole world to see.    

The other thing that struck me was the way my host immediately pinned the blame on the Catholic Church, and as an elderly Italian that institution is one he would know a good deal about.   

In Italy and Spain, like in Ireland, the church had enormous power and influence 50 years ago. Terrible things were done in the name of the church by both it and the repressive societies it dominated.   

This new scandal makes it seem like there is no end to the damage which the Catholic Church has been implicated in in Ireland.  

In the last two decades we have had the exposes of what went on in orphanages and in Magdalene laundries, both run by religious orders on behalf of the state. We have also learned about the rampant sexual abuse of children and the way the bishops shielded the priest perpetrators, the priority always being to protect the church rather than the victims.   

The aftermath of these revelations is still with us and we are still working through that. Investigations into abuse in some areas have still to be undertaken.  

But there was a general feeling recently that we had uncovered most of the awful things that had been done in our recent past involving the church. Now we know different.  

The mothers and babies homes that operated around the country is a new sector we had forgotten and which we must now examine. 

It seems extraordinary that after all the other investigations that have been going on, somehow we missed this. Now, belatedly, the government is setting up an inquiry into all the mother and baby homes, not just the one in Tuam. 

In fact we would still not have known about this except for the work of a local historian in Tuam, Catherine Corless, who had heard about the deaths in the home and decided to investigate. And because of the memories of two local men who remembered playing as kids in a small field behind where the home once stood and seeing bones in a space beneath a concrete slab.      

It was the work of Corless, not the authorities or the police, that has brought this matter to public attention, revealing that 796 babies and young children died at the mother and baby home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961.  

There were 10 of these mother and baby homes spread around Ireland at the time and they all had an incredibly high mortality rate, varying from 30 to 50 percent and sometimes even higher. Tuam was not the worst.  

Of course this was the era before effective vaccination programs and antibiotics and other drugs. But the death rate in these homes was around five times that among babies and young children in the general population. Yet no one in Ireland shouted stop.  

Or almost no one. The chief medical officer in Ireland in the 1940s, Dr. James Deeny, closed down the mother and baby home in Bessborough in Cork when the death rate there was over 50 percent.  Deeny personally inspected the place and discovered that the children had skin infections and severe diarrhea, all carefully covered up for his visit.