Let us not become immune...
I can’t listen to stories of mistreatment any more.
I retch when I see dead foxes mashed on the motorway.
So when I heard about the Tuam Babies, my stomach flipped.
This latest news item was confirmation of previous revelations about babies being buried in a septic tank outside an institution in Tuam, Co. Galway. This had made news two years ago when a local historian found the records, but not bodies. Now there was proof. This time, this year, they excavated the ‘tomb’ and discovered rows upon rows of tiny bodies, wrapped in towels or sheets. Mummified. But this isn’t the Catacombs of Ancient Rome, or Tutankhamun’s Egypt of the Pharoahs. This is the twenty first century and these bodies had been buried in fifty to seventy years previously. Why?
Media outrage followed, with radio talk shows full of witness accounts. Residents of Tuam remembered the ‘home’ children, how they were different, set apart, how they could hear them coming to school in the mornings, their wooden clogs clip clopping on the pavements. And then, how they, the ‘normal’ children, were not allowed to sit with them, in case of an unsaid contamination. How once, they played a trick on an orphan child, offering him a stone wrapped in sweet paper. The teller of this tale now recounts his shame, as the child’s eyes lit up in anticipation. He had never eaten a sweet before. And now, he would not either, as all he got was hoots of laughter, and a searing humiliation.
The most telling detail in all of this outpouring was this: the nuns had a spiral staircase leading from the back of the altar down into an underground tunnel, which led into the giant hollow of the septic tank.
This implies to me ‘malice aforethought’. This was no accident. This was by design. These babies had to be hidden. Their short lives did not matter. They were the product of sin. And society buried its shame. Were their souls not also to be saved? Given a decent burial? To be blessed? Apparently not.
And sadder still as the ripples of this legacy reach us now many years later, who were their mothers? Did they have fathers, even, ever? And maybe brothers and sisters. A name? A family? Those siblings who may now come forward to claim them?
We are ashamed. As a nation, as a people. But there is no room for smug complacency. Horrors like this continue to fester in our own day: neglect of children; kids growing up in hotel rooms because of a housing crisis; kids sent to school hungry. Babies left to die.
Anne McCabe is a storyteller who has won many awards for her documentaries and original TV dramas with strong social themes. Anne joined RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, as the youngest producer/director to date, and then the new TG4, the Irish-language channel, in 1996 as Commissioning Editor. Anne has adapted international thriller writer Ken Bruen's