Statement by Dr Katherine Zappone TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs
Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes
Excavations at Tuam, Co. Galway
**Check Against Delivery **
Friday 3rd March, 2017
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has informed me of an important development in relation to excavations it carried out in Tuam Co. Galway.
As we know, mother and baby homes came to public attention in the summer of 2014 following a series of disturbing reports of high mortality rates and claims of possible burials of children on the grounds of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam Co. Galway. The then Government decided to have these matters investigated and a statutory Commission of Investigation was established in February 2015.
Since that date, the Commission has been examining a wide range of concerns related to the institutional care of unmarried mothers and their babies during the period 1922 to 1998. The Commission is examining 14 Mother and Baby Homes and 4 County Homes. It will in time provide a full account of what happened to vulnerable women and children in these institutions; how they came to be there; and the pathways they took as they left.
An early focus of the Commission’s work was to examine the Tuam site to address questions about the alleged interment of human remains. As part of this process, the Commission conducted a series of surveys and test excavations, commencing last October and concluding recently. I visited the site myself and met former residents and relatives shortly before these works commenced.
As announced on the Commission’s website today, it has confirmed the presence of human remains on the site of the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway. The Home was run by the Bon Secours Sisters from 1925-1961 in what was previously a workhouse dating back to famine times. In the 1970’s the former home was demolished to make way for a local authority housing estate. A small memorial garden is maintained by local residents and there is also a children’s playground on the site.
The Commission’s excavations have revealed that human remains are visible in a series of chambers that may have formed part of sewage treatment works for the Home. It is not certain whether the chambers ever functioned for sewage purposes, but the Commission believes that there are a significant number of children’s remains there. The Commission recovered some juvenile remains for detailed forensic analysis. From this analysis, it has determined that the remains are between 35 foetal weeks and 2 to 3 years of age. From carbon dating it has correlated the age of these samples with the time period during which the home was in operation – between 1925 and 1961.
This news is very disturbing and will touch everyone’s heart. There were, of course, strong suspicions about burials of this kind in Tuam for some time, and it was one of the reasons for setting up the Commission of Investigation in the first place. The information I have received confirms these suspicions and, importantly, they trace the remains specifically to the period of the Home’s operation, rather than to earlier times in our history such as during the Famine.
In the first instance, I believe that today is about acknowledging what has occurred. Our first concern must be to respect the dignity and the memory of the children who lived their short lives in this Home.
But the Government is very mindful too about the questions that people will have, and what should happen next.
Before I say more about this, I want to thank the Commission for its important work on this matter. This is very much an interim stage in its deliberations. The Commission was anxious to bring this to our attention now. It will continue its work in relation to its overall terms of reference, including the wider practices and procedures that were applied to burials and other matters relating to deaths that occurred in these homes.
The Commission has already notified the local coroner in north Galway of its findings, and Galway County Council is aware of the matter also. We have now put in place a series of actions to ensure that we have an appropriate and respectful response to the discovery.
Firstly, having been notified by the Commission of its discoveries, the Coroner for North Galway will consider what steps may be necessary and appropriate in accordance with his statutory functions, on the basis of the information now made available. He is of course independent in the discharge of these functions. It is open to the coroner to call on the support of the Gardaí and any other authorities as he may deem necessary.
Secondly, Galway County Council and the Commission of Investigation will engage in relation to the next steps on the site, now that the Commission’s excavations have been concluded. Importantly, the site has been made secure pending any further decision.
Thirdly, and critically, Galway County Council will engage with local residents and other interested parties on what should happen next in relation to the remains. There are a number of possible options, such as re-interring the remains elsewhere, or making a decision to leave them undisturbed. I am acutely conscious of the sensitivities that will arise in this regard, and I realise that there may be sincerely held but differing views on what is the best way forward.
The Government is very anxious to ensure that all decisions are taken in an appropriate, respectful manner that honours the dignity of these children. The question of an appropriate form of memorial or memorial rite will perhaps also arise in this context.
No doubt there will be many questions asked in the coming days and weeks about this shocking discovery. Some of these can be answered now, but no doubt many more will not, at least for now. There will be an information line in operation from today to answer queries from members of the public, and to direct their queries to the appropriate agencies. We also have arrangements in place for people who have been affected by these issues, through the HSE Information Line.
While the Commission has concluded its work in relation to the excavations at Tuam, it has not yet reached any formal conclusions about the site, such as whether the burial arrangements were in line with the laws or practices of that time – which would of course be very different today. The Commission will continue its wider work on such matters as post mortem practices and procedures, reporting and burial arrangements for residents of Mother and Baby Homes.
I think it may take some time to make final decisions about these matters, but a key concern is that we have an appropriate consultation process that gives everyone affected an opportunity to give their views. I very much hope that it will be possible to arrive at a consensus, so that we can move forward on an agreed path together.
My Department held a meeting of all the key Departments and agencies yesterday, including the Departments of the Taoiseach; Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government; Justice and Equality; Health; and the Attorney General’s Office; as well as Galway County Council and An Garda Síochána.
We will continue to work together to ensure that we have a sensitive and respectful response to this reminder of our country’s lack of compassion for the young girls, women and children who were in these homes.