Neglect and death of 800 kids in Galway happened in plain sight

Limerick historian uncovers a damning trail of news reports on the Tuam Children’s Home, including this 1924 photo of children at the earlier Glenamaddy Home.

The 796 infants and children buried in an unmarked mass grave in the septic tank behind St. Mary’s Mother and Baby home in Tuam, Co. Galway made headlines around the world after their shocking story broke in May 2014.

But this is not the first time the Home and the ‘Home babies,’ as locals call them, have been in the news.

Following early reports on the research of Tuam historian Catherine Corless, who brought the story to light, Liam Hogan, a Limerick-based historian and librarian, began uncovering a trail of damning news clips dating from before the Home’s founding in 1925 to after its closure in 1961.

The articles show that the Home was very much a matter of both public and governmental knowledge. And the way in which they discuss the Home’s occupants (or “inmates” as they are more often referred to) makes clear the totally normalized disdain with which all the “illegitimate children” and “fallen women” were held.

The Tuam Children’s Home, it turns out, is a scandal that emerged from an even earlier scandal – The Glenamaddy Children’s Home, less than 20 miles away.

A June 1, 1924 article from the Connacht Tribune speaks of the ‘dire conditions’ at the Glenamaddy Home, a former workhouse that began housing orphans and unwed mothers in 1921, under the supervision of the Bon Secours nuns.

“Tragedy in its most poignant form lies concealed beneath the childish gurgles of these tiny toddlers,” the article reads. “There are 130 in the house. These include 87 children from infants in arms to little boys and girls of nine, and 26 mothers.”

The writer praises the “wonderful, motherly nuns, who know every child by name” for the “marvels” they have achieved given the home’s poor conditions, which include gloomy rooms, walls “reek with damp” in winter and a total lack of any permanent bathing facilities. Blame for these conditions is placed upon local authorities for their failure to do anything beyond sending inspectors to take note of the issues.

“There are certain features about the children’s home in Glenamaddy that need not be touched upon,” it continues. “Sufficient has been said to show that it is vital for the interests of child welfare in the country that certain classes of entrants should be kept apart and be afforded the opportunity of separate treatment.”

The infant mortality rate, it notes, is higher than it should be. “A few of the older children died from whooping cough, but the death rate amongst the infants has been higher than it ought to have been because of the difficulties of rearing motherless babies.”

Ultimately, the article commends a plan to transfer the Home’s occupants to the site of another former workhouse in Tuam, which originally opened in 1846 to house the Famine poor. The hope is that “a place might be found for one of the most noble, charitable and important works in the social life and welfare of County Galway.”

Included in the article is a photo of some of the children at Glenamaddy. The incongruously cheery caption reads “A delightful snapshot of children at play in the fields surrounding Glenamaddy Children’s Home. Note the little tot peeping out at the ‘Tribune’ man with the camera.”

At a 1925 Galway County Council meeting, it was agreed that the Tuam workhouse site would be a suitable new location for the Children’s Home. The people of Tuam had previously opposed the idea, preferring that the site be put to industrial use instead, but this opposition was withdrawn.

Because “paying patients” in the Galway county hospital objected to being cared for in the same ward as “unmarried mothers,” in 1927 the Board of Health directed that a maternity ward be added on to the Home so that they could be fully segregated.

An account of the County Galway Hospital and Dispensaries Committee, published five days later, reports that eleven unmarried mothers had been admitted to the hospital in the past month. “That is a terrible condition of affairs,” it quotes the chairman as saying. “We thought it was bad when we used to have three or four in the month. We appear to have reached a great depth of evil.”

The Home’s future was in jeopardy as early as 1928, when the County Galway Homes and Home Assistance Committee considered terminating its contract with the Bon Secours nuns, believing “the rate of 10s a week for the maintenance of each child” to be “too high.”

An Irish Times account of the contract debate from September 12, 1928, states that at the time there were “118 children, of which 96 were illegitimate, and 30 unmarried mothers in the home.” In the same article, a letter from the Board of Health recommends that unmarried mothers who are “second offenders” should be “committed to a Magdalen asylum of similar institution for a term of years.”

The maternity ward was eventually added to the Tuam Home in 1929.

Two years later, 18-year-old Mary Ellen Garvey, one of the expectant mothers living at the Tuam Home, wrote in a letter to her mother, “Please God, I won’t be here for ever [sic], and if I am all right I am young enough yet and I will hold my head up yet, with the help of God. There are more than me here. I am not the first, and I won’t be the last.”

Local people living near the Home signed a petition in 1937 calling for “the removal of the cesspool at the back of the Children’s Home, Tuam. . . . The petitioners’ letter stated that the smell from the cesspool was intolerable and highly dangerous to the health of a large number of residents and their families.”

In 1949, inspectors from the Galway County Council found “everything in the home in good order and congratulated the Bon Secour sisters on the excellent condition of their Institution.”

Just one year later, in 1950, the Tuam Herald reported that a committee from the County Council visited the Home and “recommended that necessary improvements be carried out.”

An Irish Independent article from November 27, 1954 notes that six children from the Tuam home had been adopted by American families in the previous year and a half, and that the Home Assistance Department of the Galway County Council was “screening” fourteen further applications. The story also notes that “Full inquiries are made before an adoption is permitted and information is obtained through Church and State channels. Reports must be furnished regularly to the Council to show that the religious duties of the child are being attended to, that he or she is attending school, and that the circumstances of the couple who adopted the child have not altered.”

A 1959 article announcing that the Home would receive a 130-child extension recalls that, at one point, people in Galway would give toys to the children in the Home at Christmas but that “this commendable practice ceased.”

The extension was never built, but was instead applied to the Heraldours Nursing Home, also in Tuam, the following year.

“Will the Children’s Home be closed?” asks a headline in the Tuam Hearald on August 27, 1960. At a Council Meeting the week prior, the Department of Health had proposed that the home be shut down.

By 1961, the Home’s ‘fate was sealed,’ with the announcement that it would be closed in the near future. The article below notes that the occupants would be transferred to “similar centers at Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath; St. Patrick’s, Cabra, [Co Dublin] and Shanross Abbey, Roscrea, [Co Tipperary]” all now recognized as Magdalene institutions. The article seems especially concerned with the “loss” local businesses will feel after the Home closes, “the supply of food, clothing and other necessities [having] been a valuable trade.”

A report from a special council meeting about the Home’s closing assures that “The unsatisfactory conditions in the Home are due to unsuitable buildings, shortage of trained staff and other factors. There was no reflection intended on the work of any member of the staff.”

In 1962, there was an attempt to move all of the records from the Tuam Children’s Home to the County Council building in Galway. The move was blocked – at least temporarily – by the Tuam Town Commissioners. (Connaught Tribune, December 8, 1962).

The above is just a fraction of the clippings Liam Hogan has uncovered. To see more, read the Storify compilation, or visit the @Limerick1914 Twitter page.

COMMENTS