The Sisters of No Mercy

by Derek Flynn

I want to tell you a story.

I’m a fiction writer but this story is not fiction. Although it might sound like it. Indeed, it might sound like something that came from the mind of someone like Stephen King. But every word of it is true.

The story takes place in the town of Tuam, County Galway, in Ireland, in a building known locally as The Home. The Home was one of many such institutions in Ireland in the early to mid 20th century. It was run by an order of nuns known as the Bon Secours, and its purpose was to house unmarried women in the area who had become pregnant. These women were sent there to give birth away from their families as – in the Catholic Ireland of the time – having a child outside of wedlock was regarded as shameful and a grievous sin.

There were many places like this throughout Ireland: whether they were Mother and Baby Homes, or Magdalene Laundries. Despite the different names, the reality of these places was the same: women had their babies taken from them (some put up for adoption against their wishes) and the mothers were treated as indentured servants. But the events in The Home in Tuam were horrific even by these institution’s standards.

The Home closed down in 1961 and the building was demolished. In 1975, two young boys were playing in a field where the building once stood. The boys saw some concrete slabs covering a hole. When they moved the slabs and looked into the hole, they saw that it was “full of skeletons… of children”.

A local farmer, Catherine Corless, had long heard the stories and rumours about the children buried at the site of the former home, and decided to investigate. Initially, she came up against a wall of silence. She finally made a breakthrough when she tried to get death certificates for the children who had died at The Home. Corless paid €4 for each death certificate and, between 2011 and 2013, ended up with the total number: 796 children. After cross-referencing all the names with lists of the deceased in the local cemetery, she discovered that none of the 796 were buried there. So where were they buried? Following more detective work, Corless concluded that the area where the boys had found the bones was the site of a septic tank on the grounds of The Home. This was the most likely resting place of some – if not all – of the 796 children who died in The Home.

A reporter at the Irish Daily Mail picked up on Corless’ findings and wrote a story about it. The story didn’t get much traction at first, until other media outlets such as the BBC, CBS, and the Washington Post picked up on it. After that, pressure began to mount on the Irish government and, two weeks later, a Commission of Investigation was announced that would investigate the workings – not only of the Tuam home – but of all Mother and Baby Homes across the country. In the meantime, many people – particularly in the Church – disparaged Corless’ work and questioned her findings.

Fast forward to March 2017. The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation announces that initial excavation has uncovered ‘significant quantities’ of human remains in an underground structure which appears to have been related to the treatment or containment of sewage or waste water. The age of death ranges from 35 fetal weeks to 2 to 3 years. Catherine Corless has been vindicated, and the nuns who ran this institution are implicated in a horrific sequence of events.

So, why am I telling you this story?

Because there are still people who are trying to deny these events ever took place. Because – while the Catholic Church claims to be concerned for the safety and viability of foetuses – in reality, it would seem to have no problem with dumping them in septic tanks. Because apologists for the Catholic Church are saying “We don’t know if it was ever used as a septic tank”. As if that matters.

Because Catholic apologist, Bill Donahue, of the Catholic League said this:

“Mass graves. Sexually assaulted women. Children stolen. It is all a lie.”

He denies – not only the Tuam case – but also the other suffering endured by women in these hellholes that has been endlessly documented. If you’re trying to mitigate the dumping of dead babies into a septic tank, you don’t get to call yourself a Christian.

I’m telling this story because in Ireland – despite it being a more secular country – the influence of the Catholic Church still exists, and that Church is still trying to tell women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. It is time for that to end. Whatever vestige of moral superiority the Catholic Church thought it still had is now buried with 796 babies in a septic tank in Tuam.

Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician with a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. Derek’s short story “The Healer” was recently featured in Surge, an anthology of the best new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press. He is also a regular contributor to where he writes his “Songbook” column. And because he obviously has a lot of time on his hands, he is currently working on his latest solo album.

Like most writers, he is fuelled solely by caffeine and self-doubt.

3 thoughts on “The Sisters of No Mercy”

  1. One begins to wonder as to the truth or otherwise of the causes of death on those Death Certificates. Did those supposedly holy sisters weep when they dropped a child’s body in with the sewerage? Did they pray for the child’s soul? Did they pray, as so much they should have, for their own souls? Thank You, Derek

    Liked by 2 people

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