An old septic tank located next to a former home for unwed mothers run by Catholic nuns in Ireland from 1925 to 1961, was revealed this week to be a massive grave containing the skeletons of nearly 800 infants and children.
The Home, as the former refuge for "fallen women" is known, was run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam, according to The Washington Post. The mothers, according to that report, would pay penance for their shame with indentured labor then leave but many of their children never left with them.
An Irish Central report revealed that the children were secretly buried "without coffins or headstones on unconsecrated ground."
The revelation was made by Catherine Corless, a local historian and genealogist who went to Catholic school with some of the children from the home as a child.
"They were always segregated to the side of regular classrooms," Corless told Irish Central. "By doing this the nuns telegraphed the message that they were different and that we should keep away from them.
"They didn't suggest we be nice to them. In fact if you acted up in class some nuns would threaten to seat you next to the Home Babies. That was the message we got in our young years," Corless explained.
A photo of some of the children at "the Home" in 1924 (Connaught Tribune, 21st June 1924) pic.twitter.com/foGFqAKJ8m— Limerick1914 (@Limerick1914) May 27, 2014
A local health board inspection report from April 1944 recorded 271 children and 61 single mothers in the home. The 333 total was way above the 243 capacity of the building.
Black and white photos featuring the ostracized children from the site showed none of them smiling. The health board report described them as "emaciated," "pot-bellied," "fragile" and with "flesh hanging loosely on limbs."
The Washington Post said the discovery is now the subject of a police investigation and serves as a window into the grim period for unmarried pregnant women in Ireland when religious and social values dictated their treatment.
"When daughters became pregnant, they were ostracized completely," explained Corless. "Families would be afraid of neighbors finding out, because to get pregnant out of marriage was the worst thing on Earth. It was the worst crime a woman could commit, even though a lot of the time it had been because of a rape."
Corless' research on the Home has resulted in the identification of 796 of the infants and children who died there.
"First I contacted the Bon Secours sisters at their headquarters in Cork and they replied they no longer had files or information about The Home because they had left Tuam in 1961 and had handed all their records over to the Western Health Board," she explained to Irish Central.
"Eventually I had the idea to contact the registry office in Galway. I remembered a law was enacted in 1932 to register every death in the country. My contact said give me a few weeks and I'll let you know," she said.
"A week later she got back to me and said do you really want all of these deaths? I said I do. She told me I would be charged for each record. Then she asked me did I realize the enormity of the numbers of deaths there?"
The 796 figure was staggering.
"I could not believe it. I was dumbfounded and deeply upset," said Corless. "There and then I said this isn't right. There's nothing on the ground there to mark the grave, there's nothing to say it's a massive children's graveyard. It's laid abandoned like that since it was closed in 1961."
She says she blames the Catholic Church and the families of the women for what happened at the home and is now working to raise money for a plaque to remember the forgotten children.
"I do blame the Catholic Church," Corless told Irish Central. "I blame the families as well but people were afraid of the parish priest. I think they were brainwashed. I suppose the lesson is not to be hiding things. To face up to reality.
"My fear is that if things aren't faced now it's very easy to slide back into this kind of cover-up again. I want the truth out there. If you give people too much power it's dangerous," she said.