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Seeking mass graves of missing Irish babies

Campaigners scouring burial sites of hundreds of unmarried women's children who died under care of Catholic church home.
Last modified: 16 Jul 2014 22:50

It is half past eight in the morning and a group of middle aged women are sitting in a hotel, looking at a map. It is an old map of the grounds of what used to be Ireland's biggest 'Mother and Baby' home, called Bessborough, in the southern city of Cork.

All the women were born there, or at least spent the first few years of their lives in the home. They were the product of Catholic society's guilt at the behaviour of women who had had sex and become pregnant outside marriage.

The nuns who ran the Mother and Baby homes took in these fallen women at the behest of society, put the women to work and helped organise adoptions of the babies. For their own good, of course.

But the record shows that in many years, at least a third of the babies did not survive. In one year, 1943, more than half died, it is assumed of malnutrition or illness. The women with the maps are trying to work out where the bodies are, because the babies of Bessborough do not have marked graves.

For the first time, they decided to come together as a group, with a specialist archaeologist, and go back to Bessborough to look for evidence of mass graves of babies. Perhaps 400 or 500 dead children. Walking round the grounds, near the marked nuns' graves, you can see a big raised circle, like an upturned saucer.

Elsewhere there are indentations. The graves never quite settle, and the earth moves. Outside what are now the walls is a huge area of wasteland, sold by the church for profit. Here too they believe there may be bodies, but really they need diggers. Instead, developers want to build over the land. If they could find just one skeleton that would not be able to happen.

Should they be digging up the past? The church says those days are a foreign country, but in truth that can not be true. As the campaigners say, on one level there has to be accountability, and on another there are any number of people who simply have no idea whether some of their family members are alive or dead.

We spoke to one of the last surviving nuns of Bessborough, Sister Sarto, who helped run it in the 1980s. She said there could be babies there but she did not know. The campaigners do not believe her, or the rest of the Catholic establishment which claims not to have the records.

They believe children who were either stillborn, or who died before being baptised, were simply regarded as embarrassing and, even inside a religion which values the sanctity of life, were better disposed of quietly.

Since claims like this started to arise following similar claims at Tuam in Galway were aired all over the world, the government in Dublin decided it had no choice but to hold an inquiry.

Its terms will not be set until the autumn, and the women of Bessborough believe ministers will do their best to limit its remit to restrict damage to the church.

That is partly why they decided to take matters into their own hands, and Al Jazeeea, the US network NBC, and Germany's Deutsche Welle were all on hand to witness them doing it. The only Irish media which decided to bother was the Irish Examiner newspaper.

Ireland is currently getting a real beating from the United Nations and European Court of Human Rights. The Magdalene Laundries (no compensation yet for survivors), abortion rights (you can't have one even if you get pregnant as a result of being raped) and now this: the central argument that the nuns, in concert with the state, were taking in women and their babies for financial gain with allegations of widescale human rights violations and forced labour.

It has taken years for the campaigners to get people to listen to them. It remains to be seen whether the Irish state genuinely wants to address their questions, or whether it answers still to the church.