For proof of the maxim that ‘A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on’, look no further than the Tuam 800 dead babies story. Courtesy of a modern media that seems more interested in titillating readers with gorno than giving us cool facts, and thanks to a Twittermob constantly on the hunt for things it might feel ostentatiously outraged by, the story about babies being dumped in an old, out-of-use septic tank by nuns at a home for ‘fallen women’ in Tuam in Galway made waves in every corner of the globe. Then, a few days later, having finally strapped its boots on, the truth - or at least a more sober analysis of what might have really happened in Tuam - staggered on to the stage. And it was a very different story to the fact-lite, fury-heavy tale that had already gone round the world.
The speed with which the work of one local researcher in Tuam became a global story was amazing. Catherine Corless has been looking into the Mother and Baby Home run by nuns in Tuam for years. The home, which was active between 1925 and 1961, took in single women who were pregnant, which was considered a terribly sinful state to be in in early to mid-twentieth century Ireland. Corless discovered two things during her research: first, that between 1925 and 1961, the deaths of 796 children were registered by the nuns who ran the Tuam home; and secondly that in 1975 two boys in Tuam discovered an old septic tank on the grounds of the then-closed home, smashed through the concrete covering and saw skeletal remains inside. A fairly vague posting about these findings was put on to a Facebook page, and then all hell broke loose.
The media got a whiff of Corless’s findings and turned them into the stuff of nightmares. ‘Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers’, declared the Washington Post. ‘800 skeletons of babies found inside tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers’, said the New York Daily News. ‘Galway historian finds 800 babies in septic tank grave’, said the Boston Globe. ‘The bodies of 800 babies were found in the septic tank of a former home for unwed mothers in Ireland’, cried Buzzfeed. Commentators angrily demanded answers from the Catholic Church. ‘Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves’, said a writer for the Guardian, telling no-doubt outraged readers that ‘the bodies of 796 children… have been found in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway’. The blogosphere and Twitter hordes went even further than the mainstream media, with whispers about the 800 babies having been murdered by the nuns and demands for the UN to investigate ‘crimes against humanity’ in Tuam.
On almost every level, the news reports in respectable media outlets around the world were plain wrong. Most importantly, the constantly repeated line about the bodies of 800 babies having been found was pure mythmaking. The bodies of 800 babies had not been found, in the septic tank or anywhere else. Rather, Corless had speculated in her research that the 796 children who died at the home had been buried in unmarked plots (common practice for illegitimate children in Ireland in the early to mid-twentieth century) and that some might have been put in the tank in which two boys in 1975 saw human remains. The septic tank or the grounds of the former home have not been excavated. No babies have been ‘found in a septic tank’, as the Washington Post, Guardian and others claimed. The claim that the babies were ‘dumped’ into some kind of sewage system is wrong, too. Corless says the nuns ‘made a crypt out of the old septic tank’. She now says her research has been ‘widely misrepresented’ and that she ‘never used the word “dumped”’ to describe the possible placing of some dead children into a makeshift crypt (‘possible’ being the operative word).
More to the point, it’s actually not possible that all 800 dead babies are in this tank-cum-crypt, as pretty much every media outlet has claimed. Mainly because, as the Irish Times reports, the septic tank was still in use up to 1937, 12 years after the home opened, during which time 204 of the 796 deaths occurred - and ‘it seems impossible’, the paper says, ‘that more than 200 bodies could have been put in a working sewage tank’. Also, the Irish Times spoke to one of the men who in 1975, when he was 10 years old, disturbed the former septic tank and saw skeletal remains, and he says now that ‘there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number.’ He says there were ‘about 20’. Maybe his memory is fuzzy, but so far he is the only eyewitness we know of to this alleged pit of 800 dead babies in a tank in Tuam.