For decades, there had been mumblings about a mass grave bursting with the bones of children on the site of a religious run mother and baby home in the west of Ireland. Recently those age old mumblings were translated into fact.
Over the course of several decades, hundreds of deceased children had been discarded by nuns from the Bons Secours religious order in Tuam Co. Galway and only for the incessant and fearless work of local historian Catherine Corless who uncovered the truth, it would have remained buried.
These children who died from a variety of causes were the offspring of ‘fallen women’, a term which is alien to most people in today’s society. In the Ireland of the past, a woman who had a child ‘out of of wedlock’ was considered a wicked being, someone who brought shame on their family and parish. The catholic church which weilded an iron fist over Irish society would suggest the best place for these women was a mother and baby home where they could give birth to their ‘bastard’ child. Once the child was born it was tagged for adoption and more often than not it was given up for adoption to the highest bidder, usually in America. While many survived, many more did not, as is the case with the horror story which unfolded in Tuam.
An inquiry will now be set up to dig deeper into the rotten core of these religious run homes which were scattered across the country. Now that the church has lost its powerful position in Irish society, we are free to question the dark deeds carried out by religious orders in places such as the Tuam mother and baby home. We may think that people cowered under the cruel society the church lorded over but there are a few who did challenge the church and it’s harsh regime against ordinary Irish people.
The Irish Workers Voice was the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland in the 1930s and in its May 4th issue of 1935 it carried a report with the headline ‘We demand an open inquiry into the scandal of Artane tragedy.’ It detailed the killing of a teenager by a so called holy man in the Dublin Industrial school of Artane.
The church run mother and baby homes were set up to cage Irish women who stepped out of line while the purpose of the religious run industrial schools was to keep ‘wayward’ youngsters and ‘unwanted’ orphans out of Irish society.
The report was based on an interview the father of the dead youngster gave to the left wing publication. 55 year old Dubliner Patrick Byrne described how he saw the body of his 15 year old son laid out in the hospital mortuary: ” I saw my boy on Holy Thursday when he was lying dead at the Mater hospital. I lifted the shroud and his ribs and whole side were black and blue and his jaw was discloured.”
15 year old John Byrne had been playing football in the yard of the Artane industrial school when the ball accidentally hit the master, Brother Cornelius Lynch, who then turned on young Byrne and gave him an unmerciful beating. The boy lingered for days after his beating at the hands of the school master before succumbing to death.
A hasty inquest was carried out by the school medical officer Dr Murphy who concluded that the youths death could not be determined. Other boys in the school yard had witnessed the master beat the life out of their friend and John Byrnes father was convinced his son had indeed died due to the harsh treatment he recieved at Artane but, nothing was ever done about it.
In the same report in the Irish Workers Voice newspaper, the father of the dead boy stated that the body of his son was taken away by the church authorities and buried. The grieving father never saw his son in his coffin and remarked to the newspaper: ” there is something terrible and strange about it all, I’m not even sure if I buried my own son.”
The same report states that the death of 15 year old John Byrne was not the first death in the religious run school that occured under suspicious circumstances. The report ended with the call for an inquiry: ” no whitewashing but a free and full inquiry to reveal the facts.”
Those who challenged the church in such ways like this report in a left wing publication were considered enemies of the state, they were seen as a threat to the power held by the church in a society crippled by conservative hands.
Now we look back and consider that these ‘subversives’ were not the enemy, they were the brave few who did speak out against the authoritarian role of the church in Ireland. In today’s Irish society we should take inspiration from them because the Catholic church chained the soul of this country, now it’s up to this generation to break the last few links of those rusty chains.