An Open, Dark Secret: Ireland Reacts To Mass Grave Of Children

Jun 6, 2014
Originally published on March 3, 2017 5:11 pm

The bodies of hundreds of children were recently discovered in the Irish town of Tuam, left behind a former home for unmarried mothers. Alison O'Reilly of The Irish Mail broke the story, and she speaks with Robert Siegel about the mass grave and reactions to the news.

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The prime minister of Ireland, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, has promised an investigation into the appalling discovery of a mass grave of children in County Galway. The children, who died between the years 1925 and 1961, were from a home for unwed mothers and their babies. It was run by a Catholic order of nuns, the Bonsecour sisters. The children were evidently buried unmarked over the course of several decades after dying from common childhood illnesses. This is hardly the first scandalous story about the church's mistreatment of young unmarried women with babies. But the numbers in the story are simply shocking - 796 recorded deaths. The home in the town of Tuam closed in 1961. A local historian gathered those records, the death certificates, and on May 25th reporter Allison O'Reilly broke the story in the Irish Mail on Sunday. She joins us now, welcome to the program.

O'REILLY: Thank you for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: The world has been shocked by the story that you wrote and subsequent stories. What's being done about it in Ireland?

O'REILLY: Well, I mean, I think everybody's trying to take in this new for the last couple of weeks and obviously the officials have been slow to react. Taoiseach said he will look into it. And the Minister for Children, Charlie Flanagan, is obviously ordering, now, a research through all of the records that they have across the different governmental departments. And just to try and pull records of what exactly was going on in this home. But on the ground, I mean, every second person knows about this story. And people are absolutely devastated. It's appalling.

SIEGEL: One finding in your story was that local government inspectors in 1944 documented overcrowding at the home in Tuam. Did they take any steps to crack down in the home and reform it?

O'REILLY: No, absolutely not. The Tuam mother and babies home was one of the biggest mother and baby homes in the country at the time. The overcrowding was just part of the running of the home. Nobody seemed to matter. You have to remember that these children were illegitimate children as they were known at the time. Nobody wanted them and the government was obviously given funding to these mother and baby homes in order to fund each child. But, yes, the conditions remain appalling. The children were malnourished - potbellied and emaciated.

SIEGEL: So the home itself was indirectly funded by the Irish government and the conditions in it were known to local governments inspector - to what extent is this a story about the responsibility of Irish officialdom?

O'REILLY: I think it's the responsibility of everybody. I mean, I would be the very first hold people accountable for the wrongdoings and, of course, the religious orders have a lot to answer for what they have done. But you have to remember as well that society was involved in this. Families were putting their pregnant daughters who weren't married into these homes, too. Now, I do understand that families were influenced by the religious orders, too, but, you know, they have to take - we have to take responsibilities while the families were putting people into these homes. The Galway County Council had obviously asked the Bonsecour nuns to come and help alleviate this so-called problem of illegitimate children and unmarried mothers but if you look at that inspection report, children were going to bed freezing cold given slop to eat. I mean, one survivor told me that her stomach used to turn with the food that was dished up to them but they were so hungry it was better than going to bed starving. So people knew about it but it is one of these open dark secrets.

SIEGEL: Allison, do you regard this as a story about 20th-century history in Ireland? Or are there individuals or institutions that are still around that are responsible for what happened?

O'REILLY: There are people responsible. The religious orders are all still here. The nuns that were working in these homes may not still be alive because you're talking 1925 to 1961. But one of the last Magdalene laundries, which is a separate place, would have closed in the early 90's here in Ireland. Like, this is quite recent, you know? This is a comprehensive report, obviously, into this particular mass grave where there's 796 poor little pets that suffered a hell on earth when they were alive and then dumped into a septic tank in a mass grave at the back of a mother and baby home where they weren't even on consecrated ground. But I have no doubt - I have no doubt in my mind that these mass graves are all over the country wherever these convents were - there's dead bodies in the ground. And that is known and that is fact. The only difference between Tuam and the likes of the other much mother and baby homes like Castelpollard, and Sean Ross Abbey, and Bessboro is that these children were actually located and records were found for them.

SIEGEL: Allison, thank you very much for talking with us.

O'REILLY: Thank you for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: That is reporter Allison O'Reilly who broke the story of the mass grave of children in Ireland for the Irish Mail on Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.