Catherine Corless

A few days ago I heard a full half-hour radio interview with Catherine Corless, the local historian responsible for tracking down the 796 death certificates of young children in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961.  It was riveting.

She described in detail the first stirrings of curiosity about a place she had passed every day on her way to and from school as a child and the utter silence in official records about what had happened inside its walls. She had to go door-to-door, for all the world like a private detective, to recover local memories of the place and in the process came across a story of young local boys stumbling upon human remains. They were in what she found out was the abandoned septic tank of Tuam Workhouse that the Bon Secours nuns had used to store the remains of the children who died.

From then on, she was possessed by the idea of recovering the memory of those forgotten children and would let nothing stand in her way. The interview makes it plain that she had plenty of help – from the Galway Registrar’s office, who cut her a deal on the 796 certs, from Galway archivists and from locals in Tuam – but it is also clear that the passion fuelling the research was hers and hers alone.

Catherine Corless at her conferring

The occasion of the interview was Catherine’s conferring with an honorary doctorate by Trinity College, and there has never been a more deserving recipient.

The interview sparked a few thoughts. First, if she were doing the work now, all the death records would be at her fingertips online. In March, I wrote about how her work could be replicated for other Mother and Baby homes. Just as an example, here’s a single page from Castlepollard death records from April 1947. Of the ten deaths recorded, eight are of infants from the Manor House Mother and Baby Home.

Second, her zeal for the full DNA-assisted identification of the children is awe-inspiring, but not unproblematic. It is certainly possible to recover substantial amounts of DNA from the children’s remains, but identifying them involves comparing that DNA with existing test results. These would almost certainly be genealogical tests, probably on GEDmatch.com or Ancestry, as in the case of the Golden State serial killer. Which means that the families of these children would more than likely be identified via descendants of their North American emigrant great-grand-uncles and aunts, with extended family trees leading (eventually) to likely parentage.

From listening to Catherine speak, I have no doubt she feels that these children have an absolute right to a proper burial, with each individual named and rescued from oblivion. But there is no way to do this without a massive state-sponsored programme of genealogical research. Apart from the expense, such a programme would almost certainly infringe the privacy of the extended families of the mothers who were incarcerated in these homes, as well as the privacy of the mothers themselves, many of whom would now be in their seventies.

I’m not sure how the balance will be struck, but it will have to be.

15 thoughts on “Catherine Corless”

  1. It is truly awe-inspiring the advances we have seen this past year in the use of DNA combined with genealogy to catch serial killers and identify “cold case” murder victims (such as Buckskin Girl). This genetic genealogy technique has huge potential in terms of achieving “the Greater Good”, including potential application in cases such as the Tuam Mother & Baby Home and other mass grave scenarios around the world. I’d like to add a few points to your excellent blog post, John, if I may.

    Firstly, as I see it, there are two main approaches that could be used to identify the children at Tuam and both could potentially run in parallel:
    1) start with the list of 796 names and build their family trees in order to identify informative DNA donors (standard forensic approach)
    2) start with the DNA and use the genetic genealogy technique to hone in on the identification of the individual (by using the family trees of close matches on Gedmatch)
    Whilst the genetic genealogy approach could potentially be applied at Tuam, it may be that the standard forensic approach could identify a sizeable proportion of the children’s remains (if DNA can be successfully recovered, and there is no guarantee of that). This standard approach is helped by the fact that we already have the list of names of children potentially buried in the pit from which family trees can be built (in private) by a dedicated team of professional genealogists in order to identify informative DNA donors from whom voluntary DNA samples can be requested. The same approach was followed in attempting to identify the 250 WWI soldiers in the mass grave found at Fromelles in 2009. So far 151 of the 250 have been identified. I presented on this project here … https://youtu.be/R76Ubg-b_Sc

    Secondly, if the genetic genealogy technique is to be used (e.g. on a subset of the children’s remains), Gedmatch is the only database that would allow such use. The commercial databases (Ancestry, 23andme, MyHeritage, etc) do not allow their databases to be used for “forensic” investigations. The main reason for this is that the customers of such databases have not given explicit informed consent for their DNA to be used in this way. The majority of people may be very willing to give such consent (see the results of the survey I did in October this year at http://dnaandfamilytreeresearch.blogspot.com/2018/11/how-do-you-feel-about-your-dna-being.html) but this may require further regulation and/or legislation. For now Gedmatch is the only database with a consent procedure that allows use of the database for “forensic” cases. This is detailed in their Terms of Service here … https://www.gedmatch.com/tos.htm

    Thirdly, a lot of “Local Irish” people have DNA tested, including many people from the Galway area, largely due to the sterling work of the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project, the Galway DNA Project, and a variety of surname DNA projects with a focus on surnames in the Galway area. Many of these people have already uploaded their DNA to Gedmatch. So it may be that some identifications will be relatively easy due to the presence of close relatives in the database. Many of these people may also have extensive family trees, thus further assisting the identification process.

    I completely agree with you about the need to respect privacy. This will need to be discussed at length by the project team undertaking the work but there are certain safeguards that could potentially help protect the privacy of the mothers of these children and their wider families:
    1) as the aim is to identify the children (and not to expose the families to censure or shaming), strict rules should be laid down about what information the press and media should have access to and what they are allowed to publish
    2) the genealogical part of the work should be undertaken by professional genealogists working under a bespoke Non-Disclosure Agreement or Confidentiality Agreement
    3) much of the genealogical work could be undertaken in private without the need to contact members of the public for additional genealogical information
    4) a Firewall could be placed between the different subgroups within the overall project team, so that team members only have access to information that is essential to their own part of the project work and don’t have access to other project-related data outside of their remit
    5) similar to Fromelles, a Data Analysis Team consisting of just a few select individuals could be set up to integrate and assess the various streams of data and make a final judgement regarding the identification of each child’s remains

    These are just some of the techniques that could potentially be employed to help balance the need to respect privacy with the need to achieve justice for the children of Tuam. Whatever Ethics Committee is put together to discuss these issues will be well-informed by similar projects that have been undertaken previously, many of which were discussed at some length by the authors of the Expert Technical Group Report published in December 2017 (https://www.dcya.gov.ie/documents/mother_and_baby_homes/20171212MBHExperttechGroupReport.pdf).

  2. This ongoing story has pulled at my heartstrings since it first aired. I have been so impressed with, now Honorary Doctor Catherine Corless’ dedication to these children.
    As an OB nurse I remember the young mothers whose babies went into care shortly after birth if they opted to give them up for adoption. Some girls never saw their babies. That was hard enough, but to treat these mothers as indentured slaves and have these poor angels dumped into a pit as worthless garbage cannot be fathomed.
    If any of these nuns can be found, they should be incarcerated for life. The convent orders should be decertified by the Vatican!
    I will pray that these babies can be identified and given a proper Christian burial. God Bless all doing this important work.

    1. The Church, my church, must respond with openness and contrition to this desecration of human behavior by owning up to its responsibilities. Any remaining sisters of Bon Secours, ironic, should be forced to pay amends. The Primate of Ireland needs to stand up and beg forgiveness – on second thought, he must beg forgiveness before the whole Irish nation. on his knees!

  3. When the list of the Tuam babies was first published I had a look at it and I noticed that an inquest was held for a few of the babies also there were a number of very young children who had died and had been born before the home opened. Were these cases ever researched. One think that we can be certain about, the babies born alive they were baptised either in the home or in the local church. Is there a register somewhere? Also how many of these births were registered with the Galway Registrar.

    1. Hi Seamus, all the babies were not Baptised. Some were illegally adopted with their adoptive parents Baptising them and registering them born as their natural children. I am currently working on a case where a child born there had no records whatsoever, only the memories. Sad.

  4. Well said. I know of many cases where people signed up for genotyping, thought they had nothing to fear, and ended up with really nasty information that changed their lives substantially for the worse. The effort required to do this analysis of the Tuam babies would likely have similar impact, including on thousands of people who didn’t sign up for anything.

    Much and all as the Tuam babies scandal is horrific, trying to make amends to the dead – who won’t appreciate it – should not be done on the backs of the living.

  5. Perhaps the Vatican has a moral obligation to pay for the proper internment of these lost souls as the Roman Catholic church probably profited at a local level from the work of their poor mothers. Well don to Catherine Corless.

    1. Catherine Colless did great work here bringing this story to life, pointing out the harshness of the times and the incredible mortality rate in this home but we know the names of these children, we know where there are buried; can the burial ground not be properly conserved with a remembrance wall erected with all the children’s names carved on it? The excavation and analysis is going to be extremely expensive and will probably continue for years with a certain percentage who will never be conclusively identified. Even if they are identified will their living relatives be uniformly happy to receive human remains to be dealt with, will there still be close relatives living locally? This Mother and Baby home is just one place where unidentified children are buried, unofficial burial grounds for stillborn and unbaptised babies, called cillíns, are scattered all over the country, there is one near me in North Kilkenny; no inscriptions only rough field stone marking graves open to cattle grazing, who are they, should they be dug up identified and buried with their relatives? We need to explore the past, find the answers but this exercise seems too far. Perhaps the Vatican needs to pay for this exhumation but also the families of the young women who put them in this home should contribute as well; these homes would have been empty without them.

      1. You raise some excellent points, David. And these will need to be debated in depth by the Ethics Committee associated with this project.

        Let’s assume (for the sake of illustration) that identification may be possible in 80% of cases (but in reality we currently we have no idea how likely this is). Once a child is identified, there are several ways that this could be communicated to close relatives. Firstly, anyone who believes that they may have a child buried in the pit could be invited to submit their details to the Project Team. They may subsequently be invited to take a DNA test for comparison against the DNA recovered from the children’s remains. If a match is found they will be informed. This is a proactive approach i.e. members of the public voluntarily come forward proactively seeking identification. Let’s say that this might happen in about 10% of cases. So what happens in the remaining 90%?

        A second option for communicating to relatives that a child has been identified would be to identify living “close family” from the family trees generated for each identified child and informing the next of kin in a standard manner. Whether communication should stop at the next of kin or be extended to a wider circle within the family is a question that will need to be debated by the Ethics Committee.

        If the family want the child’s remains to be buried in a family plot, they have that choice. Alternatively the remains can be buried in a bespoke cemetery built specifically for the children.

        The question of cillíns is a very important one and raises some fascinating questions for which there are no easy answers: where do we draw the line? at what point do we stop judging the past by the standards of today? I don’t know the answer to this. But the deliberations by the Ethics Committee may go some way toward addressing this.

    2. I absolute agree with this position. There IS a moral obligation by the Vatican to have a financial responsibility to this effort.

      1. I agree, the Vatican needs to pay its share, also living relatives of these unfortunate children need to be traced and strongly encouraged to contribute to this effort as their close relatives are responsible for the incarceration of the mothers of these children. The taxes of current Irish taxpayers who are unconnected to this whole sorry affair are required for the running of the current health care system.

    1. From what I’ve heard, there are children who went into the Home, who are missing, with siblings and other relations still looking for them. However, their names are not on the GRO registers as having died. So where are they, and where do they fit into all this?

  6. I have family that come from the Tuam and surrounding area but my experience of tracing any of my extended family in that area is poor and if I was relying on Gedmatch, nonexistant. I feel that since the use of this database by police for the detection of crime, the new matches on the database have slowed considerably and I do feel that it has affected the uploads to the site. I would love to see statistics for uploads over time. I hope I am wrong. I imagine that it is possible that I could be a hit for one or more of the children but I would have no more idea of the relationship than I do for the large matches I have who are from that area but where records to indicate the relationship are sadly lacking. The parish records for the parish that I have experience for are poor and start late so that hinders progress too.

    I think the first option of doing family trees might be a better option personally.

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