800 Baby Skeletons Found in Mass Grave at Irish Home for Unwed Mothers
A local historian has found the bodies of 800 babies buried in a mass grave in a septic tank at next to a home for unwed mothers and their children in County Galway, Ireland. The grave was first discovered in 1971, but has not been investigated since. This is yet another example of the Catholic Church’s treatment of what they called “fallen women” in Ireland. These homes were also called Magdalene Laundries. The last of these homes closed in 1996, after an estimated 30,000 women had passed through their doors.
While there are death certificates for some of the bodies, many remain unidentified. A health report of the house in 1944 reveals the deplorable conditions the children were living in. Babies were sick and children were malnourished and neglected.
The mass grave and history of the home are coming to light thanks to a local historian named Catherine Corless. Corless was writing an article for a local historical journal when she came across the death records that were made and went looking for the bodies. She then heard of how two boys were playing near the home and cracked open a slab of concrete, revealing the macabre scene. The home opened in 1930. In its first year, 60 out of 120 babies died.
Corless remembers being threatened with having to sit next to what were called the “Home Babies” if she misbehaved while attending a Catholic school nearby. The Home Babies were often ridiculed and treated as second class citizens. The Catholic Church had a stranglehold on local politics after the war, and would act unchecked in matters of morality.
Though nearly 800 skeletons were found in the mass grave, locals believe there could be more. Children were often sold to families for the US, or fostered without record. This shoddy record keeping could keep the actual number of dead children unknown. Records show that the children died of a number of causes, including starvation and tuberculosis. When the babies died, they were tossed into the unmarked septic tank on unconsecrated ground. The nuns would not even give them a proper Christian burial, and the mothers were often not told.
The home was run by the Bon Secours nuns. Some find it Ironic that bon secours, a French phrase, is translated as good relief. The sisters came to Ireland after the French Revolution, a time of religious revolution in Europe. They stood for moral turpitude in Ireland, believing that the women and children who came to live with them were damned for their sins. The nuns considered the harsh living conditions of the children and the indentured servitude of their mothers as moral penance.
The home was closed and razed to the ground in 1961, but the 800 bodies in a mass grave remained. A memorial service was held on June 1, and was attended by Philomena Lee. Lee’s own story of her time in an Irish unwed mother’s home and the search for her own child was recently turned into the Oscar-nominated motion picture, Philomena. Her story details her search for her own child, given up by nuns in a different home without her permission.
By Bryan Levy