In or around 1990, the matron of St Columba’s Hospital asked a groundsman to incinerate institutional records. The facility in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, is now a nursing home but it has had a number of previous incarnations.
It was built as a workhouse in 1854 and in 1923 it was designated by local government minister Ernest Blythe as a county home for “aged and infirm persons, chronic invalids, children, expectant unmarried mothers, harmless lunatics and idiots”.
Unwed pregnant women from Kilkenny and parts of Waterford had little option but to go to Thomastown as the board of health excluded them from the county hospital in Kilkenny city.
The groundsman told the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation the incinerated records included the burial registers for the county home.
Some 177 “illegitimate” children died in infancy or early childhood there between 1922 and 1960. Infant mortality rates were described as “alarmingly high” in the 1920s.
The Commission said it was “likely” these children were buried in an institutional graveyard onsite. The absence of burial records meant it could not be more definitive about their final resting place.
Not only did the burial records go up in smoke, but soon after they were destroyed the graveyard itself was covered over. Several loads of topsoil were put down on the graves and the site was levelled and grassed. A single cross, with the inscription “Remembering those who died”, provides the only clue that people are buried there.
We do not know why the matron asked for the records to be destroyed. The Commission did not speculate as to her motivation in its final report, published this week.
But their destruction is just one of the reasons the Commission’s five-year inquiry has not been able to officially verify the final resting place of thousands of Irish children.
Around 9,000 “illegitimate” children died between 1922 and 1998 in the 18 institutions investigated. The mortality rate was shocking. One child out of every seven died.
Yet a reading of the Commission’s report indicates burial records were found for less than 4,000 of these children.
While likely burial plots were identified in many instances, the absence of records and other obstacles hindered the work of the Commission.
Although great care was taken by institutions to record the arrival and departure of residents, or “inmates” as they were often called, many did not do this for burials.
It was symptomatic of the appalling treatment of unmarried mothers and their children that they were not afforded dignity in death.
In one area, “illegitimate” children were buried in coffins containing amputated limbs or a deceased adult.
Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork, where 923 children died, and the Bon Secours home in Tuam, Co Galway, where 978 children died, were stand-out examples of institutions who kept no burial records.
The Commission said it was “very hard to believe” claims by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary that it was unable to identify where children from Bessborough were buried.
Similarly, it said there must be people in Tuam who know more about the burials there.
Historian Catherine Corless, whose tireless work helped reveal potentially hundreds of children were buried in a septic tank at Tuam, said geophysical surveys and test excavations should take place at suspected burial grounds to verify the numbers buried there. “They will have to do something about that. Otherwise you are discarding 5,000 Irish citizens,” said Ms Corless.
In her view, archaeologists should be brought in to investigate Bessborough thoroughly. “It can be done with the ground penetration survey and it can be done by excavations. There is no-one talking about digging up the whole place,” she said.
Similar work could be done in places like Thomastown to determine the extent of burials there, Ms Corless said.
Most of the children for whom burial records could be found died at Pelletstown, later known as St Patrick’s, and the Bethany Home, both in Dublin.
Some 3,615 children died at Pelletstown. The commission established the burial place of 3,102 of these. Nearly all were buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
A total of 262 children linked with the Bethany Home died. Burial records for 235 were located. Most were laid to rest at Mount Jerome Cemetery.
Other homes where large numbers of children died did not maintain a register of burials. These included Sean Ross Abbey at Roscrea, Co Tipperary, where 1,090 infants died.
Targeted test excavations, conducted for the Commission, of a small part of a designated burial ground there, identified 42 sets of remains.
The objective was to establish if remains were present and, if so, had these been disturbed by the later insertion of utilities or drainage works. The tests determined the remains were not disturbed by those works.
Castlepollard mother and baby home in Co Westmeath, where 247 children died, was another institution where no burial register was maintained, although there was a designated burial ground.
A resident gave evidence of seeing 10 babies being sent for burial there in what appeared to be shoe boxes.
According to Ms Corless, survivors of Tuam who have family buried in the tank are horrified. “They can’t let it go. They can’t live with the thought of a little brother or sister discarded in a tank. They want them taken up,” she said.
Progress towards ensuring exhumations and dignified reburials has been slow.
The presence of significant quantities of human remains in sewage or waste water structures there was confirmed in March 2017, yet legislation to support exhumation, identification and reburial is still some way off being passed.
Ms Corless has questioned whether such legislation is necessary to comply with the wishes of Tuam relatives.
The situation there is particularly sensitive because of where the children were buried. But the provisions of the legislation will be able to be applied to other sites as well.
Whether reburials will also take place elsewhere remains to be seen.
Teresa Collins, who was born at the Sean Ross mother and baby home, is in favour of further archaeological investigation to determine where the remaining 1,000-plus children were buried, but she believes it would be “pointless digging up bones now”.
“Tuam is different,” she said.
“I would be a firm believer in letting the children at Sean Ross sleep and putting up a memorial to them there.”
The situation with Bessborough is complicated by the fact residential developments are proposed at the site, while sizeable parts of the once 200-acre estate have been sold off over the years. Possible locations for children’s graves have been identified by groups and locals, both in the remaining 60 acres of the estate and in the areas which were sold.
The Commission said it was “highly likely” burials took place in the grounds, but the only way this could be established was by “an excavation of the entire property, including those areas now built on”.
Bessborough campaigner Catherine Coffey O’Brien, who ran away from the home while pregnant in 1989, insisted survivors know where women and children were buried.
“We want it turned over to Cork City Council. We want it registered as a burial ground, a graveyard. And we want absolutely no development above there,” said Ms Coffey O’Brien.
“We want a meadow, flowers, a couple of benches and somewhere to light a candle. Nothing more, nothing less. No exhumations in Bessborough.
“The mothers have said: ‘They have been sleeping together for decades. Why disturb them now? Leave them alone. Let them be acknowledged in death because they weren’t acknowledged in life’.”
Source: Irish News