Pope Francis was greeted by rapturous crowds as he toured the streets of Dublin yesterday at the start of his historic visit to Ireland – only the second ever to the country by a Pontiff.
It was a warmth that will no doubt have come as some relief, given the cold shadow of abuse now covering the Catholic Church. That shadow will be all-too apparent once again today when Francis travels to Knock and its famous shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
For Knock in the west of Ireland is just a short distance from another, darker landmark – a mass grave containing the remains of up to 800 babies and children at a former home for unmarried mothers in Tuam, Co Galway.
As the Pope visits the shrine, crowds of protesters will tell him they want a forensic exhumation of the grisly cemetery nearby and the identification of the tiny remains. The Roman Catholic Church, they will tell its leader, must face the truth in full.
The long-running scandal of the Church’s cruelty to more than 30,000 ‘fallen’ women has shaken the country.
The forced adoption of babies born out of wedlock, the harsh treatment dealt out to those falling on the wrong side of respectability – these things have been highlighted by, among others, author and television presenter Martin Sixsmith. His investigation into a woman’s 50-year search for her son was depicted in the Oscar-nominated 2013 film Philomena.
The anger shows no sign of subsiding, nor does the growing pressure on the authorities. And now Irish star Liam Neeson is developing a new film about Tuam after the discovery of a horror so barbaric it almost defies belief: ‘significant quantities’ of child remains dumped in a septic tank in the grounds.
He was moved to act after The Mail on Sunday first uncovered the scandal in 2014 and now, on the eve of the Pope’s visit, he has issued an emotional statement calling on the Church to confront its past.
‘DNA technology is now available to identify all these bones, belonging to possibly over 790 babies and children, still lying in the ground in Tuam,’ he told this newspaper.
‘The Irish government, aided by the Catholic Church and especially the nuns’ order, the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours, must not shirk the responsibility of giving these souls the dignity and respect of identification.
‘They had a right to exist. They were not “the devil’s issue”, as some people and establishments referred to them. A wrong is still a wrong and a crime is still a crime no matter how many years have passed. A proposed bronze plaque isn’t going to absolve those responsible for this horror.’
Among those pressing for a full examination of Tuam is Annette McKay, a 64-year-old councillor from Bury, Lancashire.
She first learned about her own family’s disturbing link to the past when her grandson Joshua was born in 1996 – and her own mother, Maggie, made a terrible confession. As Annette cradled Joshua, her mother sobbed and shook with grief: ‘It’s the baby, it’s the baby. My baby who died.’
It was only then, at the age of 70, that Maggie revealed that she became pregnant aged 18 after being raped while she was living in an Irish children’s home.
After giving birth on December 7, 1942, mother and daughter were forcibly separated by the nuns, as could happen at the time when children born out of wedlock. Maggie was sent to another home.
Her daughter, Mary Margaret O’Connor, the family have since discovered, is one of the Tuam children for whom a death certificate has been issued, and now Annette is among those demanding a forensic investigation of the site. Without it, she says, there can be no conclusion for her or her family.
‘Mary died aged six months,’ explains Annette. ‘On that day, a nun came to my mum as she hung out washing and spat out the words, “That child of your sin is dead. Leave the home.” ’
The seeds of the whole traumatic story were sown when Maggie’s mother died in 1936, leaving eight children to care for themselves as their father was largely absent.
‘Her dad was a drinker and worked away for months at a time so after their mum died, the children came to the attention of the powers that be,’ recalls Annette.
Maggie and her seven malnourished siblings, aged between three and 16, were marched by a priest through the streets of Galway City to the local court. Annette produces a piece of paper dated 1937 – Maggie’s ‘charge sheet’.
In black, spidery writing, it details that she was a slightly built 12-year-old and outlines what she was charged with: ‘Found destitute.’ It adds the heartbreaking detail that she was ‘a rather nice child’.
In January 1937, Maggie and three of her five sisters were given a ‘sentence of detention’ at St Anne’s Industrial School at Lenaboy, Galway. Their two brothers were sent to a Christian Brothers home, while the two oldest girls were put to work in domestic service.
What was supposed to be their salvation turned out to be the beginning of years of abuse by the nuns.
‘As we grew up, Mum had several breakdowns and would cry as she recalled being beaten repeatedly for anything from not walking in a straight line to defending her sisters,’ says Annette.
‘If her siblings wet their beds, they’d all have cold baths with cleaning fluid in, which would sting their skin. It was like a concentration camp for children.
‘She tried to tell her father about their treatment on his rare visits, but a nun would be standing behind her. She confided in a priest, too, but wasn’t believed. Mum lived in fear of them. To Mum’s dying day, nuns meant monsters.
‘She didn’t know she was free to leave the home at 16 as no one told her. She didn’t even know her date of birth until she left the home, where she worked in the kitchens and fed her sisters the nuns’ left-over food.’
Maggie developed into a beautiful, green-eyed young woman, but at 18 she fell prey to a male member of staff at the home who raped her. ‘Mum knew nothing about sex – why would she as she never left the home? She wept as she named the man who did it and his job.
“It was his fault, he raped me. He had been nice to me, then he did that,” she repeated. Mum was puritanical and would not talk about sex, but she was very blunt that day.’
The pregnant Maggie was sent to the Tuam home run by nuns from the Bon Secours order. There, she gave birth to Mary. ‘She was so bonny and such a weight on my hip, oh, she was bonny,’ was Maggie’s only memory of her first child.
Maggie was then moved to a different home, St Bridget’s, where she was callously told of her daughter’s death on June 6, 1943 – and subsequently ordered to leave.
According to her death certificate, little Mary died earlier that day from cardiac failure after suffering whooping cough for two months. In the 1940s, the Bon Secours nuns were paid by the Irish state nearly £100 per child a week to care for those in their care. Yet the harsh conditions of the Tuam home meant the infant mortality rate there was five times the national average.
After the secret of her lost child came tumbling out, Maggie never spoke about it again. She died in 2016 after developing Alzheimer’s, never knowing where her baby was buried. Indeed, Annette is not convinced her sister is dead: ‘I have a death certificate, but no burial site and no record of a grave, so where is my sister? Was she dumped in the sewers or has she been trafficked to America, sold like so many others?’
Annette gave evidence to the Residential Institutions Redress Board in Dublin, set up in 2002 by the Irish state to determine damages for children who were abused in homes. The board paid substantial damages to Maggie after Annette named the abusive nuns and the alleged rapist, and detailed how her mother’s tragic early life impacted her family.
‘Mum suffered depression. She tried to take her own life, had several breakdowns and was cruel to us at times,’ says Annette.
‘We’d get beatings if the beds were not made, but she was only copying how she had been raised. After visiting Galway, Mum suffered a severe breakdown. I think she had PTSD. If she saw a nun, she would start shaking, even in later life. She never set foot inside a Catholic church again.’
The fate of the missing children at Tuam was uncovered by local historian Catherine Corless. Remarkably, she has paid out of her own pocket for the death certificates of 796 children who died there between 1925 and 1960.
And it was Catherine who Annette contacted for more details before travelling to Tuam to report her sister as a missing person. ‘The police officer laughed in my face and said “Oh, that was all a long time ago” and sent me on my way.
As I left the station, another officer sidled up to me and said discreetly, “There is stuff going on, a cover-up. Keep pushing on.” It is outrageous that the Church, the state and police are not supporting every family affected by this.
‘The church always told us to be truthful as we grew up. Why isn’t it practising what it preaches?’
It may never be known how many children died in Ireland’s unmarried mothers’ homes, or were sent abroad for adoption. However, the Commission of Investigation is looking into a total of 18 homes.
Last month, Annette travelled to Tuam with fellow Tuam Families’ Group campaigners to challenge Ireland’s Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. Now she wants the Pope to confront the scandal.
‘He seems a compassionate man – we want him to visit the site and support our fight,’ she says. ‘He can lift the lid on the scandal that has plagued thousands of families.’
Annette believes a full forensic excavation is the only way to put the matter to rest. ‘If my sister is buried in that cesspit, I want her to be found and reunited with our mother in a space saved in her grave for her.
‘The Tuam site is a crime scene and needs to be excavated. It is the right thing to do – for the children who died, their mothers, and those of us who had to pick up the pieces in the ensuing decades.’