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‘a Jigsaw Without the Picture’: Ireland to Excavate 796 Baby Remains

A decade and a half working in post-conflict and crisis-torn countries trained Daniel MacSweeney to act as what he calls “an independent actor in a fraught situation”. His next task will make heavy demands on that experience: MacSweeney is to lead a long-awaited dig to excavate nearly 800 babies on the site of a notorious Irish mother-and-baby home.

The former International Committee of the Red Cross envoy has promised full transparency in a shameful chapter of Irish history in which 796 babies and children, recorded as having died in the Catholic Church-run home between 1925 and 1960, were never properly buried. Their remains are believed to be located in a sewage system of the institution, which was housed in a former famine-era workhouse, and nearby areas that are now a playground and a memorial garden. MacSweeney hopes that excavation can begin next year. “I just don’t know what we’ll find,” said the newly appointed director of the independent office charged with recovering, identifying and providing a dignified burial for remains that are excavated. The dig will comprehensively comb through 20 concrete pits and other locations on the site of the former home run by the Sisters of Bon Secours nuns in Tuam, County Galway, where some remains have already been located.

But it will also starkly exhibit what the government, in a 2021 formal state apology to tens of thousands of women and children, called the “appalling” mortality rate in the country’s institutions for unmarried women and their babies.

“Babies have 300 bones — 300 [multiplied] by 800 is 240,000. It’s potentially a massive amount of bones in there,” MacSweeney told the Financial Times in an interview. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle without the picture and without lots of the pieces . . . 796 jigsaw puzzles in a way,” he added. The first inklings of what former Taoiseach Enda Kenny called Tuam’s “chamber of horrors” came to light after two boys playing at the site in 1975 broke open the cover of one of the septic tanks and discovered infant remains inside. But local historian Catherine Corless said authorities had insisted at the time that they dated from Ireland’s famine in the mid-19th century.

A decade ago, her research identified 796 babies and children recorded as having died at the home between 1925 and 1960. But there were no corresponding burial records for them and she suspected they had been placed in the septic tank. The only records of deaths at the home that she found were for two other children who died and are buried in the town’s cemetery, she said. For decades, unmarried mothers were shrouded in shame and closeted out of sight in Ireland. The harsh treatment they received in mother-and-baby homes was “supported by, contributed to, and condoned by” institutions of the state and churches, according to an official 2021 report. The Tuam infants and children died from illnesses including tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis. The 2021 report recorded terrible conditions at Tuam, which closed in 1961 and has been demolished. MacSweeney spent 16 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross, working to locate missing people and on other post-conflict and humanitarian activity in the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Tunisia. Now he is searching for a suitable laboratory site near Tuam where enough tables can be set up in preparation for laying out, cataloguing and hopefully identifying the tiny bones.

Since his appointment in May, he has been meeting relatives. “I hope I’ve been very clear about how difficult this is,” he said. But Corless told the Financial Times that she detected “almost a relief this is finally happening and those babies are coming out of that sewage facility”. Families and campaigners have been waiting a long time. A government commission tasked with investigating what happened to vulnerable women and children in 18 institutions between 1922 and 1998 conducted partial excavations at Tuam in 2016. Carbon dating of remains the following year matched them to the time the home was operating, Corless said. Using ground-penetrating radar, the commission also identified anomalies in areas outside the former sewage tanks that MacSweeney’s team will also excavate. Corless said they contained remains from 1925-40 which, unlike the bodies believed to be interred in the tank, were buried in coffins. With the dig potentially exposing painful family secrets, it is not yet clear how many of the relatives will come forward to provide the DNA evidence needed to identify the remains. There are also questions over the extent to which DNA can be recovered from nearly century-old bones. “There are a lot of unknowns we can only really answer after we start doing this work,” said MacSweeney. “I don’t think it can bring closure for everyone.” But for Corless, it will shine a light on the “scandalous” deaths of more than 3,000 other babies at other homes across the country. “I would suspect that [some] could be a carbon copy of Tuam,” she said.

Source : Financial Times