Monday, June 09, 2014

Ireland's Second Holocaust

"NEXT to British imperialism, the Church has been the biggest enemy of the Irish people," declared a staunch Republican I knew, to the surprise of some naive young sympathisers at a meeting in the North West of England.

That was back in the early 1970s, and not long after Bloody Sunday in Derry, when British paras shot dead 26 people, seven of them teenagers, and five shot in the back.

Although I'd heard a little about the Church's history of opposing the Irish freedom struggle, the labour movement, and even quite modest attempts at social reform, I doubt if even the speaker ever dreamt of the grim meaning that would fill out his words, by revelations in the past week.  

It was reported  that almost 800 babies and children were buried in a mass grave near a home for unmarried mothers run by nuns. Historian Catherine Corless, who made the discovery, says her study of death records for the St Mary's home in Tuam, in County Galway, suggests that a former septic tank near the home was a mass grave.

Seeing headlines about babies buried in a septic tank at once brought to my mind the sensational propaganda sometimes used by anti-abortion campaigners. A bit ironic, that. For these were not aborted foetuses, but live infants, who might have played and run about, and grown into fine adults. It seems what I've often suspected was true, that those institutions and characters who proclaim they are for protection of "the Unborn Child" have not got a very good record of taking care of the poor children with the misfortune to be born.

It was as far back as 1975 that two young boys playing near the home at Tuam broke open a concrete slab, and uncovered the old septic tank filled with hundreds of small skeletons . A priest said prayers at the site and it was resealed. Local people thought the bones must have dated from the Great Famine of the 1840s.

Then hundreds of thousands of Irish people died from starvation, while their landlords continued exporting food. Some people now argue that the suffering and deaths of the Famine, which those who could escaped by emigration, were not just the result of a natural calamity - the failure of the potato crop which provided the peasant's staple diet - but of the ruthlessness of their rulers. That this was Ireland's Holocaust.

If so, has the horror uncovered at Tuam not been a second Holocaust?  

What was revealed this week is that the bodies in the septic tank are not those of 1840s Famine victims, but  of  hundreds of children who died in the care of Bon Secours nuns between 1925 and 1961.  St Mary's was one of several such 'mother and baby' homes to which thousands of unmarried pregnant women -- labelled at the time as 'fallen women' -- were sent to have their babies.

In a society where not only abortion but contraception were illegal, these women were ostracised and often treated worse than criminals, as in the now notorious Magdalen Laundries,in which s many as 30,000 women were incarcerated and used as forced labour . Mothers were often forced to hand over their children for adoption.

Health issues and problems associated with the homes have long been documented. As far back as 1944, a government inspection report of the Tuam home described some of the children as "fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated." Reports also described overcrowding and mental illness among the mothers.

It is alleged that children who could not be sold for adoption were deliberately starved. Disabled children were left in "dying rooms".

The recently discovered death records for St Mary's show the 796 children died from malnutrition and infectious diseases, such as measles and TB. These children were denied baptism by the Church, and therefore could not be buried in consecrated lands.

 "There was just one child who was buried in a family plot in the graveyard in Tuam. That's how I am certain there are 796 children in the mass grave," says historian Catherine Corless.

Geoff Knuper, a forensic scientist interviewed on RTE’s "Morning Ireland" program, said that if the remains are exhumed, it may be possible to determine the causes and dates of death. “Obviously it all depends on the state of preservation,” he explained. “After all this time of course, soft tissue will no longer be available but the harder tissue, skeletal structures, should have survived. In addition to providing opportunities for DNA identification, the skeletal structures could show evidence of physical violence, of disease, even malnutrition.”

Bon Secours

The Order of the Bon Secours Nuns, which ran the Tuam home from 1925 – 1961, said that they no longer hold any of the records from the home. In 1961 the Home was closed. All records were returned to the local authority, and would now be within the Health Service Executive, Co Galway,” read a statement issued on Thursday.

The home at Tuam has long been demolished, and local people tend graves in the grounds. But the
Bon Secours sisters, who began providing healthcare in Ireland in the 19th century, ran 10 similar homes across Ireland, and three of these are believed to contain plots with remains of 3,200 babies and infants. Bon Secours is now Ireland's largest private healthcare provider.

Martin Sixmith, the author of 'The Lost Child of Philomena Lee', says the mass grave at Tuam is ""not unique". . His book tells the true story of a woman incarcerated in a home, and forced to give up her three year old son. 

Other homes included Bessborough in Co. Cork, Sean Ross in Tipperary (where Philomena Lee had her son), and Castlepollard in Westmeath – all run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The mortality rates at these homes were far higher than the national average, the Irish Examiner recently reported, ranging from 30% - 50% between 1930 and 1945.

There were Protestant mother and baby homes too, such as the Bethany Home in Dublin, where a similar scandal took place. Between 1922 and 1949, close to 220 children died and were buried in an unmarked grave at Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery. They were memorialized in 2010.
The bodies in the septic tank sensation has encouraged publication of other reports, like this from Claire O'Sullivan:, in the Irish Examiner: 

Women who gave birth at the notorious Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Cork were not allowed pain relief during labour or stitches after birth, and when they developed abscesses from breast-feeding they were denied penicillin.

One nun who ran the labour ward in 1951 also forbid any “moaning or screaming” during childbirth. Girls in poverty, who could not afford to make donations to the Sacred Heart order, had to spend another three years after their babies were born cleaning and working on the lands around the Cork city home to ‘make amends’ for their pregnancy.

Such work often included cutting the home’s “immaculate lawns” on their hands and knees — with a pair of scissors.

Before they left the home, their three-year-olds, with whom they would have established a strong emotional bond, were removed from them and fostered, put up for adoption, or sent to an orphanage — often with only hours’ notice.

These revelations were all made by June Goulding, a midwife who worked at the mother and baby home for a year from 1951, in her book The Light in the Window. “I could not imagine why the babies were not placed in care immediately after the birth to avoid trauma on both sides” Ms Goulding wrote.

In the memoir, published in 1998, she recounts how, at her first Bessborough birth, she asked someone at the hospital what painkillers were used in labour. “Nobody gets any here, nurse, They just have to suffer,” she was told.

Just like in the Magdalene laundries, none of the women were allowed to talk to one another or to nurses at the home. They were also expected to wet-nurse other women’s babies.

When Ms Goulding asked why she could not access needles to stitch women who had been torn during childbirth, she was told she was not allowed to open the cabinet. “I’m afraid, nurse, the key to that cabinet has never been handed over. Girls must suffer their pain and put up with the pain of being torn — she [the nun] says they should atone for their sin.”

Goulding described the home in Blackrock, Cork City, as “a secret penitential jail”. She had grown up less than three miles from the home but had been blithely unaware of how approximate 320 pregnant women and new mothers were treated by the nuns.

Early in her time there she saw a young girl with a suppurating abscess trying to breastfeed a tiny infant. “The fact that she would have needed three hands to successfully complete this task was a minor obstacle compared to the obvious agony on her face....I had never before seen such an abscess that had actually created such an enormous wound."

Medical Experiments

The mass graves and reports of malnutrition are not the only reminder of more notorious camps where crimes were committed. The Irish Daily Mail, which broke the Tuam story, has published a report that says old medical records show  2,051 children and babies in Irish care homes were given a one-shot diphtheria vaccine for international drugs giant Burroughs Wellcome between 1930 and 1936.

The report adds that no evidence exists that consent was ever sought. Historian Michael Dwyer who unearthed the documentations says that no records of how many may have died or suffered debilitating side-effects as a result are in existence.

Dwyer, a lecturer at Cork University’s School of History, told the Irish Daily Mail that he found the child vaccination data by trawling through tens of thousands of medical journal articles and archive files. He said the trials were carried out before the vaccine was made available for commercial use in the UK.

Homes where children were secretly tested included Bessborough, in Co. Cork and Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, both of which are at the centre of the mass baby graves scandal.The paper names other institutions where children may also have been vaccinated including Cork orphanages St Joseph’s Industrial School for Boys, run by the Presentation Brothers, and St Finbarr’s Industrial School for Girls, run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

Dublin trials may have involved children from St Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge, St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys, Cabra, and St Saviours’s Dominican Orphanage.

Dwyer warned: “What I have found is just the tip of a very large and submerged iceberg. The fact that no record of these trials can be found in the files relating to the Department of Local Government and Public Health, the Municipal Health Reports relating to Cork and Dublin, or the Wellcome Archives in London, suggests that vaccine trials would not have been acceptable to government, municipal authorities, or the general public.

“However, the fact that reports of these trials were published in the most prestigious medical journals suggests that this type of human experimentation was largely accepted by medical practitioners and facilitated by authorities in charge of children’s residential

A  spokesman for GSK -formerly Wellcome – told the Irish Daily Mail: “The activities that have been described to us date back over 70 years and, if true, are clearly very distressing.

“We would need further details to investigate what actually took place, but the practices outlined certainly don’t reflect how modern clinical trials are carried out. We conduct our trials to the same high scientific and ethical standards, no matter where in the world they are run.”

Church and State

The mass grave of 796 children at Tuam, is likely not the only one of its kind in Ireland, Prime Minister Enda Kenny has said. And Children's Minister Charlie Flanagan acknowledged that the government had not been entirely ignorant of the dire conditions at the Tuam home, where children suffered from malnutrition and other serious ailments.

“I understand that this has been known about since 1972 and clearly the Dáil [parliament] records themselves show references to inspections under the system that operated at health level way back in the 1930s – so it is an issue that we need to deal with,” he said.

The exposure of the Church's role in  this mass cruelty is also an exposure of the state, and of those politicians who found it expedient to give the Church such an important place in society. Many Irish people still remember how one man who dared to differ, Dr.Noel Browne, who did much to reduce tubercolosis in Ireland, was denounced as a "communist", and hounded from office in 1951, because he introduced a 'Mother and Child' Act providing for some public healthcare.

Ireland's Declaration of Independence pledged it to "cherish all its children equally".  Leaving that to the Church and accepting a bound on social responsibility did more than any geographical border to make a travesty of the republic.

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