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.
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.