When Tuam native Catherine Corless joined a local history class, she didn’t expect to uncover a secret that would send shockwaves worldwide. What began as a simple essay on a religious group soon became a hunt for the truth behind the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, one of many Catholic Church-run institutions for single mothers around Ireland. However, in a country that has such staunchly Catholic roots, it was not an easy path to discovery. In our winter issue of GALWAYnow, Catherine spoke to Megan-Josephine Reynolds about her research and the subsequent release of her new memoir “Belonging”.
What happened in the home was so hidden in plain sight that growing up, Catherine never even knew what it was. Cycling past on the way to school or church, she never took that much notice of it and just thought it was an orphanage. This all changed in 2011, when Catherine began her research into the events of the home for her history class. “When I started researching, I couldn’t find anything in our local library about the home itself. I really had to go digging deep to find bits of information and I got that from people in the locality”. One of those was the caretaker of the main Tuam graveyard who gave Catherine her first lead; after escorting her to the site of the home, he explained that children’s remains had been found by two boys in the 1970s.
At this stage of Catherine’s research, it was believed that the remains belonged to children of the nearby workhouse. “It was really when I started studying old maps of the area that I realised this couldn’t be a tomb of remains, because it was a working sewage system in the time of the workhouse – it couldn’t be children of the workhouse so it led to further research” Catherine explained. The deeper Catherine went into her research, the deeper the divide became between those who sought the truth and those who wanted it to stay buried. “The biggest challenges were obstacles from people who I thought would take up this themselves, who would look into it. Instead, they put obstacles in my way.”
The first opponents were the Bon Secours sisters, who ran the home in Tuam before it closed in 1961. “I approached them, and they said they knew nothing about home babies dying. Their headquarters in Cork had the same answer. All the Health Board had was the register of the Tuam Home which lists mothers and the children who were born there – and nothing else.” As a final resort, Catherine approached both the Archbishop of Tuam and Galway City Council, “They said they had no records, knew nothing about the homes or any children dying. Nobody wanted to know, they didn’t want to entertain me and more or less fobbed me off.” Bringing the story to the press was the next step and it wasn’t until The Mail on Sunday gave a full-page exposure to the story that people began to take note, horrified at the idea of up 800 children being buried in a sewage facility.
One of the biggest spin-off effects of Catherine’s findings came with the Mother and Baby Commission Report, the final version having been released in January of this year. However, the report was received with great frustration and disappointment by the public. “They left out all the accounts of the hundreds of people who went up to the Commission to give their stories. It was not survivor led or survivor friendly. It was cold, callous, and lacking in evidence. It was incredibly disappointing after having waited six years for the whole truth to come out.”
It was with the help of journalist Naomi Linehan that Catherine was finally able to bring her story to print in her memoir: “over the space of a year and a half, she very gently prised out the private stuff for me; it was easier to talk to her”. Despite the release of her memoir, Catherine is adamant in continuing to shine a light on this story and help survivors in as many ways as possible. We must keep talking; it is up to us now as Irish people to not let the lives of the mothers and babies go unremembered, and to help them achieve the justice they have yet to receive.
For the full story, pick up a copy of the winter issue of GALWAYnow magazine, out now.
‘Belonging: A Memoir’ by Catherine
Corless is out now.