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A review of the recent book by Catherine Corless, Belonging

  • 04-10-2021 1:04pm
    Registered Users Posts: 410 ✭✭

    While this book is quite an intelligent and interesting account of this controversy, and includes some new insights and genuinely helpful advice for adoptees to locate their biological parents, and other interesting details, I nonetheless believe this is an, at least at times, positively misleading account of the Tuam Children’s Home and this controversy in general.

    For example, she asked, in her original journal article, why was this site – the now world famous site with a statue of Our Lady in the corner – not a recognised graveyard? (p.176) But it is, always has been recognised as such by the Church – who held Cemetery Sundays there over the years –, by the Council – who describe it as such in their maps –, by its physical layout with two white crosses built into the gates on the way in and a statue of Our Lady placed there again to recognise the graveyard, by the religious order and the children who went through the Home – as explained by Fr Churchill and the nuns in a letter around this time – and by the local community who always recognised it as the graveyard of the Children’s Home – indeed in the book she describes one of the local community forcefully stating that to her at the site. That’s the whole craziness of all this, they dig up the graveyard of the Children’s Home and express ‘shock’ that children are buried there!

    There are frequent factual mistakes about these Mother and Baby Homes listed in this book in my opinion, too numerous to mention but including the false statement that they were buried in a septic tank, and one here where she contradicts the eye witness testimony of Dr Halliday Sutherland:

    “ all the evidence was clear that mothers were not permitted to take their babies with them when they left...” (p.154.)

    She repeats this a number of times like in respect to PJ Haverty’s mother:

    “Then when her twelve months were up, she was told to leave, like all the mothers at the home. They were given no choice but to go.

    ‘If she had a hundred pounds, which you couldn’t have had in those days, my mother could have bought me, but she didn’t have it,’ PJ explained.” (p.268.)

    But that is totally untrue, the mothers after that year were always permitted to leave with their child if they wanted to, in truth many didn’t and were in fact glad to give them up to the care of the nuns for a while and later for fostering or adoption. This was definitely asserted by the Commission of Inquiry report, because they really had no choice but to concede that, in the face of overwhelming evidence, including contemporary printed Local Government reports that list the number of mothers who left the Home with their children and those that chose to leave them (it was about half in half, see 1:22:05.):

    “Some former residents and lobby groups have suggested that ‘adoption’ should be renamed ‘forced adoption’. The Commission does not agree. The Commission found very little evidence that children were forcibly taken from their mothers;”

    (p.90 of pdf of full report.)

    So for me, with all due respect, I think she is an unreliable witness about these events and time. While its probably not that important I note that her childhood dog ‘Puppy’ is a ‘she’ on page 25 and a ‘he’ on page 27. The famous story of her giving a false sweet to a Home resident in school always included a stone but here its just an empty sweet paper:

    “I took a sweet paper from the pocket of my jacket and scrunched it up in the palm of my hand. ‘Hey’! I’ve something for you!’” (p.23.)

    As opposed to the same author writing an article for the Irish Mail on Sunday in 2017:

    “As a little girl I remember wrapping a stone in a sweet paper and handing it to one of the Home girls as a joke.” (5/3/2017.)

    She met Anna Corrigan – another leading figure in the media narrative of this Home, and the subject of a book on the subject – only through the internet, according to this book:

    “One of the links was to a message board, and within that a discussion about the Tuam mother and baby home. One of the posts was by a woman who believed her brothers had been in the home...There was an email address at the end of the message. I decided to write her an email...I received a reply the following day. Her name was Anna Corrigan.” (p.202-3.)

    But a close friend of the Corless family is Donal O’Keefe of the Avondhu newspaper in Cork, and he states that it was a Garda who put them in touch:

    “A member of the Gardaí put Anna in touch with Catherine.” ( .)

    Over the years of this controversy it was frequented stated that she compiled a list of 796 children who died in the Home, using the publicly accessible birth, death and marriage registers. But that is impossible because they are not indexed by place of death. Instead here she generously acknowledges that it was Anne Glennon of that office in Galway “who accumulated the 796 deaths in the Home”. (p.467.)

    In her own account in this book she describes receiving the Devaney tapes from a lady only under the strict promise that she would get them back a week later. Yet, again in her own account in this book, she is listening to the tapes weeks if not months later. In fact I believe legal action had to be threatened before she agreed to give them back. (p.192.)


    There are some telling omissions as well in this book, here she describes the 1947 report by who we now, in 2021, know was Miss Alice Litster:

    “The report also included the inspection reports of Miss Alice Litster, who was an inspector with the department of health. For thirty-five years she tried to draw attention to the poor conditions in these institutions and sought improvements in the care for women and children. In her report into Tuam she highlighted the infant death rate and said that it was time to enquire into possible causes of death before the rate became higher.” (p.436.)

    Indeed that’s true enough, but leaves out the fact that she then considers two possible causes for this death rate: (b) venereal disease, brought through into the children, which obviously casts a question on the mother’s history, (a) the fact that the Home was always admitting in very poor people because they were destitute, some of whom would have infections from their difficult living conditions outside. She rules out completely any idea that it was poor conditions caused by the nuns:

    “The care given to infants in the Home is good; the Sisters are careful and attentive; diets are excellent. It is not here that we must look for cause of the death rate.”

    (Brian Nugent, @tuambabies (Corstown, third edition 2018), p.224.)

    She also quotes the short account by the visiting Dr Halliday Sutherland in full, until she comes to the parts italicised here, which she leaves out (replacing the gaps with dots):

    “There were 51 confinements in 1954 and the nuns now looked after 120 children. For each child or mother in the Home the County Council pays 1 pound per week. That is a pittance. If a girl has two confinements at the Home she is sent at the end of the year to the Magdalen Home Laundry at Galway. Children of five and over attend the local school. All the babies were in cots and the Reverend Mother said:–‘We wouldn’t allow a girl to take her baby to bed with her unless it was at least two months old. Then she is probably fond if it. Before that there might be accidents.” The whole building was fresh and clean.” (p.154 and Nugent op.cit. p.226.)

    If you note carefully what the Reverend Mother was saying there, she is hinting that the mothers could harm the children, before they were fond of them. That is quite a theme in the accounts of the Home, from people like Julia Devaney, that the nuns were always conscious of trying to protect the children from at least some of the mothers, but no whisper of that theme makes an appearance in this book.

    The ‘pittance’ reference being left out is also interesting of course. Catherine Corless has frequently tried to claim that the Home was self sufficient in food, and hence the nuns were really pocketing away the small sums the Council gave them to support the mothers and children. But of course seven or so acres, even if it wasn’t mostly buildings, paths and pleasure gardens, could never support hundreds of children and mothers, and its interesting therefore that she shies away from that theory of hers in this book. (You can hear a dispute about that between us in the meeting mentioned below.) Even the eventual Commission report is clear on this:

    “The Commission has not seen any evidence that the religious orders who ran the mother and baby homes made a profit from so doing. At various times, it is clear that they struggled to make ends meet and their members were not always paid for their work.”

    (p.16 of pdf of full report.)

    Another omission I think is evident in the account of Peg Doyle, a friend of Julia Devaney’s who was admitted to a mental hospital having had a nervous breakdown when Mother Hortense left the Home, Julia:

    “...missed her friend dearly but was afraid to write to her for fear of being thrown into the asylum herself. Only years later, when Julia had left the home and was a married woman, did she have the courage to finally visit her friend.” (p.199.)

    I wonder where she got the inspiration to visit her from, continuing the story from the tapes:

    “Mother Hortense [who had been transferred to Cork] wrote to me when I got married:‘Now that you are married won’t you take Peg out.’ I showed the letter to John, and we wrote to the Western Health Board, but they said we could only take her out for 24 hours. I went up to her but she wasn’t herself, she was hospitalised.”(Nugent op.cit. p.209.)

    Truth Chapter

    She also included what I refer to as the truth chapter, introducing it like this:

    “The truth. Finally the truth. After so many years fighting, the truth was finally emerging.In that moment, I thought the battle had been won, at last. But it would seem the truth can often mean different things to different people, as I was about to discover. (p.280)

    She finishes the chapter, titled ‘Like a Lion’ thus:

    “As I drove home that night, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes. Ironically, it was by St Augustine, and was one that I was starting to live by: “The truth is like a lion, you do not have to defend it. Set it loose, it can defend itself.’ And that’s precisely what I intended to do. Let it loose.” (p.285.)

    Indeed at the talk that she describes in that chapter she admonished the current writer to “Tell the truth!” ( 1:27:25-1:28:03).

    Excellent sentiments I am sure you will all agree, but I guess its important for us all to live up to such high standards! She describes the talk I gave here:

    “During his speech he had stated that the chambers attached to the sewage tank were built as catacombs (respectful burial vaults). I asked him if he knew what the definition of a catacomb was, reminding him that the chambers in the sewage tank only had an opening at the top, not big enough for an adult to enter, and that the babies had to be lowered down and piled one on top of the other without a coffin. Catacombs would have a stairwell entrance with chambers that one could walk through. I felt I had made my point, and I was glad of that. (p.284.)

    Interesting, except she never said anything at all about catacombs – a word I never used in relation to this Home –, nor anything like it, when she asked questions at that meeting. If anybody wants they can listen to it all here and judge for themselves: , she speaks at 1:07:38-1:12:18, 1:27:25-1:28:03 and 1:54:51-1:54:56.

    One point that was raised was in relation to the carbon dating of some of the bones excavated. She describes in this book getting a call on the subject from the Commission of Inquiry itself:

    “The carbon dating has shown that the bones are definitely those of the children in the Home.” (p.280.)

    Quite possibly she did get such a phone call and that they did tell her that, and the Commission went on to say that in their famous one page 2017 statement. But they declined to release any scientific data at all at that time which, when it was finally released in 2019, showed that one of the bone samples was actually dated to 1800-1940 and yet they were using these carbon dating results to rule out possible Famine victim remains. When I pointed out this in reply to her at the meeting she retorted: “That’s rubbish.” (1:11:54)

    But to be fair there is truth in this book, for me especially this statement is the most truthful comment in it, referring to the Commission of Inquiry report:

    “What we had hoped for was a damning report...” (p.442.)

    Indeed, it was never about a dispassionate trawl through the available historical evidence, it was only ever about putting the boot into the Church and the Irish people of the 30s, 40s and 50s.

    In summary this is an interesting and generally well written and produced book, and clearly a very personal one for Catherine Corless and her family, but it is certainly not a reliable account of the Tuam Children’s Home or the issues that surround it.