Saturday, June 7, 2014

Separating truth from manufactured outrage in Galway

Galway historian Catherine Corless. (Source: Irish Times)
"I never used that word 'dumped'," Catherine Corless told the The Irish Times. "I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words."

Later on in the story, the County Galway historian repeats herself "with distress": "I never used that word 'dumped'. I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own."

Indeed it has ... an ugly life; through the process of sensationalism, the real story has spawned a Doppelgänger, an evil double who lives only to spark controversy and recriminations. Separate strands of the story were mashed together to create this undead creature.

Thread 1: From 1840 to about 1924 the township of Tuam operated a workhouse just off of what is now Dublin Road (R 332). A map reportedly from 1892 marked the building as "Children's Home"; however, the building didn't become a home for unwed mothers and their babies until it was taken over by the Sisters of Bons Secours in 1925. The home closed in 1961 and fell into disrepair.

Thread 2: In 1975, 10-year-old Barry Sweeney and his 12-year-old buddy, Frannie Hopkins, managed to climb over the two-and-a-half-meter wall into a part of the home's property. "We used to be in there playing regular. There was always this slab of concrete there," Sweeney told the Irish Times. On this occasion, the boys decided to pry up the 120 cm x 60 cm slab to look under it. "There were skeletons thrown in there. They were all this way and that way. They weren’t wrapped in anything, and there were no coffins. But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that." [Bold type mine.—ASL] Sweeney puts the number at closer to twenty.

Thread 3: In 2012, Corless wrote a story titled "The Home" for the annual Journal of the Old Tuam Society. In her research, she discovered that 796 children had died at the home from a variety of diseases, over the thirty-six years the home was open. This in itself was not surprising, as Ireland was very poor for many years and had an unusually high infant mortality rate for a Western country. But while she could (and eventually did) obtain the children's death certificates, there were no burial records, and they had no graves in the local cemeteries — again, not unheard-of in Ireland at the time for people to be buried in unmarked graves elsewhere. She and other Tuam residents believe the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard in back of the home.

Thread 4: On an 1840 ordnance map, there is an unmarked space that Corless believes was the sewage tank for the workhouse, although it wasn't marked as such, because it's labeled "sewage tank" in maps produced afterward. The sewage tank was in use until 1937, when public water and sewer were laid on. However, the tank doesn't occupy the whole of the rear part of the property, but rather an estimated one-third. Corless speculates that the bodies Sweeney and Hopkins found in 1975 were in this sewage tank.

From these four strands of the story came the horrific exaggerations. It didn't help that the Bons Secours were "guilty by association" with reference to the "Magdalene laundries" scandal, although it's not clear how much they had to do with their operations in Ireland (if anything). It needs to be pointed out that the Home wasn't a workhouse or asylum like the Magdalene laundries, the latter of which the Irish government tended to treat as subcontracted penal institutions, so it can't be blithely assumed that the women and children who sought shelter at the Home were mistreated. (I'm thinking of the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which students assigned to play "guards" at a mock prison became brutal and sadistic towards the student "prisoners".)

St. Mary's Home, Tuam, Co. Galway.

Some questions remain to be answered before the finger-pointing can begin. For instance, were the bodies in the sewage tank placed there deliberately, or did a wall of the tank collapse as a result of age? How old are the bodies in the tank — do they date from before or after 1925? (The workhouses of the 19th century weren't notable for their kindness and sensitivity of feeling for poor mothers and children. And Southern Ireland was still under the rule of the British government which committed genocide-by-negligence during the Great Hunger of 1845-1852.) And are the other 770+ bodies really buried there; and if so, how were they buried?

For now, though, we have an historian whose simple quest to erect a marker at a suspected gravesite has spun out of her control to become a scandal to rival Andersonville, the Black Hole of Calcutta, the Trail of Tears and the Bataan Death March. But it isn't really about an atrocity, but rather a tragedy ... just one more in the history of "the men that God made mad".

One which goes a way towards explaining why "all their songs are sad."

Update: June 9, 2014
William M. Briggs, aka Ye Olde Statistician (check out his blog, Statistician to the Stars!), had this to say in The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named's combox about the Tuam contretemps:

I understand the place had been a government workhouse during the poverty, famine, and plague before the nuns took it over and refurbished it. Not surprised if there are bodies on the grounds.
During the 1970s (iirc) an extension was built to the Easton Public Library and the excavator broke through an unexpected vault, causing skulls and bones to tumble about. A total of 88 bodies were identified. They were reburied in a new vault under what is now the back driveway. (There is a slight dip in the pavement above the place.)
So far as I know, no one ever decided that depraved librarians had slain borrowers with excessively overdue books and dumped them in a "septic tank" behind the library. But there is a decided similarity in the results. The main difference being that in the '70s or '80s (whenever it was) no one was mounting a campaign against librarians and there was no Twitter to magnify madness. Back in those days, people were not as superstitious about corpses, skeletons, and re-burials as we are today.
(BTW. Research showed that when the library was built in the early 1900s, the site was occupied by an old graveyard. Efforts were made to locate descendents who could claim and re-bury the bodies, but in the end 88 were unclaimed. These were reburied unmarked in a concrete vault to the side of the library. This was then largely forgotten until the extension was built with the aforesaid results, except by residents along Fifth St. who, in typical German fashion would often claim to see schpooken about the grounds.)

The aforementioned Blogger Who Must Not Be Named sheepishly admits: "I foolishly forgot my two cardinal rules: 1) the function of [the] media is to sell beer and shampoo and 2) always take off 50 IQ points when the media covers the Church. Make that 100 when the Irish and English media cover it, since they are motivated by active malice."

As to how the Bon Secours sisters ran the home, my buddy and fellow devil-dog Frank Weathers points us to the Mother/Baby Home Research Page on Facebook (there had to be one, natch), in which Catherine Corless offers a summary of her research. To sum the summary: It does seem that the sisters ran the home with a lot less than due Christian charity and mercy. However, such homes weren't unknown in the US and UK — including the callous disregard for the health and dignity of the women who were forced by an unsympathetic society to take shelter in them. The full story of these shelters remains to be told; and I can promise you that, in the end, we the people of the United States won't look any better than Ireland or England in our treatment of unwed mothers. To build a pro-life culture, we have to do better ... and we're not there yet, not by a long haul.

Oh, about the twenty or more skeletons the boys found in 1975: Eamonn Fingleton, brought up in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s (with a name like "Eamonn", who'd have guessed?), tells us in Forbes that according to Finbar McCormick, a professor of geography at Queen’s University Belfast, "The structure as described is much more likely to be a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used in the recent past and still used today in many part of Europe. ... Many maternity hospitals in Ireland had a communal burial place for stillborn children or those who died soon after birth. These were sometimes in a nearby graveyard but more often in a special area within the grounds of the hospital." Fingleton goes on to blast the MSM:

There is a moral here for those who are increasingly bewildered by the modern world: the global media are becoming less and less accountable. Sometimes the truth eventually does come out or at least some of us have sufficient knowledge to suspect the facts are being misstated.  But very often readers do not have the experience and worldly wisdom to see through the nonsense, particularly in interpreting reported developments in nations whose cultures diverge sharply from those of the West (I am thinking particularly of East Asia, a region about which on the basis of 27 years of residence I can claim some knowledge).
While we are constantly assured that we live in an Information Age, in reality the noise to signal ratio in our media has probably never been higher. This is  an age of disinformation.[Bold type mine.—ASL]

I couldn't have said it any better, Mr. Fingleton.