Septic Reporting in Tuam

Celtic crosses in an old Irish graveyard - © Bernd Biege 2014
Celtic crosses in an old Irish graveyard - © Bernd Biege 2014

First things first – there can be no doubt that an inquiry should be held into the deaths of around 800 children that took place in Tuam (County Galway). They were in the care of the Bon Secours, they died, they were buried in less than dignified circumstances. They should be remembered with dignity. And if there was any wrongdoing involved, those that did wrong should be held accountable. But …

Celtic crosses in an old Irish graveyard - © Bernd Biege 2014
Celtic crosses in an old Irish graveyard – © Bernd Biege 2014

Yes, but: after a massive hullabaloo about the whole thing the story of “800 children dumped in septic tank by evil nuns” has taken on legs. More than the 1,600 presumably rotting away in raw sewage, if one believed the media. Sensationalist headlines, speculative reporting, worldwide indignation, another nail in the coffin of the Catholic church. And a national shame, even the Taoiseach was asked to apologize.

Given that he is neither a nun nor a church representative, and given that there is no actual evidence for anything illegal having happened … I see this as a bit rich.

What may be worse than a simple overreaction, an often understandable knee-jerk reaction … may be the fact that these reactions were not based on facts, but on shoddy reporting and shorthand accounts. Because as the historian behind the scandal, Catherine Corless, says: the whole septic tank story may by a mistake. And it only bubbled up (so to say) when several facets of her investigation were merged into a lurid, headline-grabbing, but ultimately not at all proven scenario.

So some people might want to call off their march with pitchforks and burning firebrands?

And here is the problem: historians can only relate facts and evidence, then draw conclusions. About the same job as, say, a court of law does. Documents, physical evidence, witness statements. And to come to a conclusion, to reach a verdict, all evidence has to be heard, with an open mind. Without an agenda on how the dice will fall, evidence to the contrary be damned.

What is happening in Ireland these days is the same old story – as soon as the Catholic church is involved, rationality takes a flying leap out of the window. Not the rationality within the church, but that of her critics. No story is too lurid as not to be taken as evidence that all Catholic clergy and institutions are evil, even positively satanic.

We have a barrel of tar, we have a brush, line up the priests, nuns and all others … and while we’re at it, ask the state to apologize, to pay even, because we want separation of church and state. Or something like that. Whatever, let’s make hay while the sun shines, let’s further our own agenda, let’s be the loudest child in the playground.

Now the adult way would be to act fast and decisive, and here politics and the justice system are definitely at fault. As soon as evidence of the Tuam mass grave came up (or rather became known in a wider area – apparently the people of Tuam were long aware of the unmarked graves), Gardai should have cordoned off the area. Forensic anthropologists and archaeologists should have been called in. An inquiry should have started at the scene, not after long procrastination in a dusty courtroom. And in the courts … yes, it would be an undignified spectacle to drag geriatric nuns into the witness box, but would it be less dignified than burying a small body in a backyard without further ado?

But first priority has to be given to the question whether anything unlawful, criminal actually happened. Whether there is a legal case for prosecution. Or whether the inquiry is more or less an establishing of historical facts. The uncovering of yet another unsavoury bit of the past, those “better days” people are always longing to have back.

Because, and this has to be said, unmarked children’s graves are not unique to Tuam. Not even to Galway. They are everywhere. And the locals know where they are. Any child who died before baptism could not be buried in “hallowed ground”, such was the law, hence the huge mass graves in, say, Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. These children, or rather their souls, were believed to be in limbo. And there were small plots throughout the country where they were interred, apart from the rest of the world.

These burial plots are known as cillíní, “little graveyards”. Often near the graveyard proper. Sometimes hidden on the edge of town, just outside the village. Only a few cillíní have received a makeover in recent years, have been properly marked, are now visible reminders of local history, common custom. I passed one near Blessington in County Wicklow recently, I found another between a busy road and a graveyard proper in County Leitrim a few months ago.

They are everywhere …

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