Ireland’s Bizarre Silence Around 800 Dead Babies

Jun 03, 2014 at 6:10 PM ET

Mass graves are something you associate with war zones or genocides. But a discovery in a sleepy town in Ireland has rocked the rural community and caused a national scandal. The skeletons of almost 800 baby bodies, left to rot for decades, were discovered dumped in a septic tank. The tank was in a field next to what was a home for unwed mothers in Tuam, a town in Ireland’s western county of Galway.

The unmarked concrete container, meant to hold human waste, was instead brimming with the bones of babies as young as 3 years old. The babies died from a variety of maladies—measles, TB and pneumonia amongst them—according to recently released reports. They died over the course of several decades from the 1920s to 1960s and were believed to have been shamefully buried in secret.

The babies were all born to single mothers in a home run by the Bon Secours Sisters between 1925 and 1961. Most of the children didn’t live beyond 13 months, and one of the youngest for whom records exist died aged only three weeks.

The most unusual aspect of the story is the timeline of events. The septic tank and its gruesome contents were originally discovered in the 1970s by two unsuspecting 12-year-old boys, Barry Sweeney and Francis Hopkins. “It was a concrete slab and we used to play there, but there was something hollow underneath it, so we decided to bust it open, and it was full to the brim with skeletons,” Sweeney told MailOnline. The story has been known locally, but never generated major headlines. The grounds of the home have since been turned into private housing estate, and ever since the discovery more than 40 years ago, a local man tended to the site of the septic tank as a memorial, until his recent death.

The scale of the scandal has been brought to light because of the work of local historian and genealogist Catherine Corless, who has attempted to identify the victims. Corless said she subsequently cross-referenced 796 children’s death certificates to come up with a tentative list of the dead. But there is no official burial record, and some of the death certificates remain missing. One example is the Dolan brothers, who are believed to have passed away at the home. John Desmond Dolan was born on Feb.  22, 1946. Despite a healthy birth, he died of the measles on June 11, 1947. But his brother, William, succumbed to unknown causes the following year.

“He could still be alive or he’s with his brother in a grave. I want to find out,” a family member told MailOnline. “I just want to know what happened to him.”

The Irish media has pounced on the story in recent days, prompting authorities to open an official investigation to track down the missing death certificates. Minister of State for Education and Skills Ciaran Cannon told the Irish Independent that he’s called for an inquiry.

“The evidence to date seems to suggest that something very horrific went on there,” he said. Shockingly, Corless said the mass grave isn’t causing enough outrage. “People aren’t talking about the discovery,” she told Irish news site The Journal. “People don’t seemed shocked. I don’t understand.”

A grave-site memorial service on Monday was attended by Philomena Lee, whose toddler son was taken from her by nuns 60 years ago. Her story was turned into a major motion picture, earning an Oscar nomination last year. “I’m shocked at the latest news of the mass grave,” she said. “It’s appalling and shouldn’t be hidden.”

Corless said that many of the survivors of the home told her that if they lived to see 7 years old, they were shipped off to attend industrial school. Survivors of the home have described scenes reminiscent of Oliver Twist. Money is being raised to erect a memorial that would indelibly remember the once forsaken babies of Tuam. Corless says she founded a group called the Children’s Home Graveyard Committee out of urgency. “It was time to do something.”

Thousands of dollars have been raised from local authorities to establish a plaque bearing every dead child’s name.