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That Story About Irish Babies Buried in a Septic Tank Was Shocking. It Also Wasn't Entirely True.

Today's international news cycle and old Irish tendencies created a perfect storm of outrage


The headlines out of Ireland reverberated around the world, and how could they not? As reports had it, over several decades nearly 800 dead babies had been secretly dumped in a septic tank at a Roman Catholic maternity home for unwed mothers and their children in Tuam, County Galway. Ireland’s dark past was under the microscope again, and everyone wanted a peek. 

London’s Independent called the discovery at St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home “the Irish Holocaust,” a term usually reserved for the 1845–52 famine. The Guardian demanded, “Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves.” The Washington Post headlined its report, “Bodies of 800 children, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers,” which was promptly picked up by The Sydney Morning Herald. The spetic-tank claims were reported to readers of publications as diverse as The New York Daily News, Salon and Al-Jazeera. Weeks later and the scandal rumbled on, dominating the news in Ireland, a searing indictment of a country already home to too many scandals involving the historical nexus of Church and state. 

The only problem was that in the gleeful rush to report and judge, the truth got lost.

The Associated Press last week issued a lengthy correction admitting that the septic tank might not contain any human remains at all; the wire service had also incorrectly reported that the children hadn’t been baptized because they were born out of wedlock. Other media outlets have been slower to dial down the hyperbole. Britain’s Guardian newspaper amended a headline on an opinion piece, removing the “dumped” claim, but most outlets have left their fact-free speculation to stand. 

The truth is not entirely clear, but we know this: 796 babies are buried somewhere on the site of the old Bon Secours sisters’ home, which operated between 1925 and 1961. The records clearly show that. It’s also true that these institutions, into which unmarried women were placed by their families, has a higher infant mortality rate than the general population. In the 1920s, children born to unmarried mothers, mostly living in institutions, were six times more likely to die than children living at home with married parents. By the 1950s, they were three times higher, and by the 1960s it was equal, says historian Lindsey Earner-Byrne, author of Mother and Child: Maternity and Child Welfare in Dublin, 1922-60

Local historian Catherine Corless had been researching the local home for some time, but her work was largely ignored by the press. That changed on May 29 when The Irish Mail on Sunday reported the story under the all-caps banner headline: “A mass grave of 800 babies.” Lacking much of a web presence and published in the middle of an election, the Mail’s story initially didn’t gain much traction on social media. Within a few days, though, the clamor began to build on Twitter and Facebook, at which point the foreign press parachuted in. 

The idea that pious nuns would dump babies’ bodies in human waste was too shocking to pass up—or to fact-check, apparently. But the story gained traction for a deeper reason. In the eyes of foreigners familiar with Angela’s Ashes but not the more mundane reality of Ireland today, it comported with the long-outdated stereotype of Ireland as a poor, strictly pious nation where every child knows misery. As for the Irish themselves, the story allowed for a favorite, perverse pastime: trying the present through the prism of the past. 

Ireland was a conformist country, and in many ways still is. But even in this recession-bit era, it is not the third-world nation it was in the 1930s. Nor does it live under the church’s heel. The country today is in the midst of a culture war between religious and secular forces—or, more accurately, the culture war is over except for the shouting, and the secularists have won. There’s still a vestigial Catholic influence on public life, most notably in education, but in 2013 Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said the church being the patron of 90 percent of all elementary schools in the capital was “no longer tenable. It doesn’t respect reality”; only 25 percent of people living in the area are registered Catholics. 

“The core of the problem," Michael Nugent, of the campaign group Atheist Ireland, says of the burial story, "is this: although the Catholic Church doesn’t have the practical influence it used to have, it has the fact that the laws were drafted in the past.” 

And yet, Ireland has recently legalized abortion, albeit maintaining one the most restrictive regimes in Europe, and a planned referendum on same-sex marriage is expected to pass. Change came later to Ireland than its neighbors, but with wealth it came, and the country is subject to the same social and economic forces—and political fights—as every other European nation. When Ireland outlawed blasphemy in 2009 it was shocking precisely because no religious group—not Catholic, not Protestant, not Islamic—had demanded it. The law will eventually be changed as part of an ongoing constitutional reform process, but in all likelihood it won’t be stricken from the books, but replaced with religious hate-speech legislation that would make offending virtually anyone a criminal offense. 

The high infant mortality rate, at the Tuam home and others, speaks volumes about the Ireland of early twentieth century, but it speaks of poverty and a lack of economic development. And as horrific as those death rates were, how many more mass graves would there be if the Catholic church hadn’t bothered providing social services? Certainly the Irish state of the time showed no appetite for doing so. 

“After the war of independence we emerged as a fledgeling nation with enormous poverty. The only institution that was in any way stable was the Church," says Rev. Vincent Twomey, a retired Catholic moral theologian. “The situation of the past has to be looked at, but looking for criminals to hang is a lynch mob mentality. I’d just like to know the truth; that’s all I want, the truth.”

Twomey may yet get his wish. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has announced plans to open a formal commission of investigation into the homes, though even he couldn’t avoid the national tendency toward poetic, if overwrought rhetoric: “Ireland’s soul in many ways will, like the babies of so many of these mothers, lie in an unmarked grave.”

That may be true. But if our soul’s unmarked grave is discovered 50 years from now, the reports and outrage will surely be exaggerated.