‘Urgent action is needed’: Letters reveal shock at discovery of human remains at mother and baby home

The Commission into Mother and Baby Homes wrote to Minister Katherine Zappone before the ‘very shocking’ news broke.

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Part of the judge’s letter to Zappone


Source: Department of Children and Youth Affairs

THE NEWS THAT a significant number of human remains were discovered at the site of a former mother and baby home in Co Galway shocked people in Ireland and beyond when it emerged last month.

On 3 March, the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes said the remains were discovered in a structure that appeared to be “related to the treatment/containment of sewerage and/or wastewater” at the former site of a Bon Secours property in Tuam.

At the time, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone said the “sad and disturbing news” confirmed rumours about the possibility of a mass grave at the site.

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Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone


Source: orla

“Today is about remembering and respecting the dignity of the children who lived their short lives in this Home. We will honour their memory and make sure that we take the right actions now to treat their remains appropriately,” she added.

TheJournal.ie has, under the Freedom of Information Act, obtained the correspondence between the commission and Zappone in the days before the news was made public.

‘The decisions need to be made urgently’

On 1 March, two days before the official announcement, commission chair Judge Yvonne Murphy wrote to the minister about the shocking discovery.

“The Commission members are shocked by what has been discovered and recognise that there are many family members and local residents who will also be very shocked.

The site has now been made secure but has not been restored to its previous condition as the Commission considers that decisions need to be made by the relevant State authorities about the future of the site. The decisions need to be made urgently.

“The Commission is not in a position to submit an interim report to you on the issues involved as it would be required to consult with a range of parties and the urgent decisions required cannot await the completion of this process.”

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A section of Judge Murphy’s letter


Source: Department of Children and Youth Affairs

The letter notes that the remains “involved a number of individuals with age-at-death ranges from approximately 35 foetal weeks to 2-3 years”.

The letter continues: “As already stated, the Commission is shocked by this discovery and is continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way. Meanwhile, the Commission is asking that the relevant state authorities take responsibility for the appropriate treatment of the remains. The Coroner has been informed.

The Commission is acutely aware of the concerns of the family members and local residents and considers that they ought to be informed of these developments without delay.

Catherine Corless 

The mother and baby home at the site operated from 1925 to 1961.

In October 2015, the commission conducted a geophysical survey of the site which identified a particular area of interest “worthy of further investigation”.

A test excavation of this area was carried out in November and December 2016, and in January and February 2017.


Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The excavations at the site were as a result of long-running research carried out by local amateur historian Catherine Corless, who obtained death certificates for each child who died there.

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Zappone’s response


Source: Department of Children and Youth Affairs

In her response to Judge Murphy, Zappone thanked the commission for its work.

The minister wrote: “I think that the Commission has done useful work in confirming what were previously unsubstantiated claims about human remains and, importantly, in tracing them by way of carbon dating to the period during which the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam was in operation.

I understand that your work in this area will continue, including the question of whether the burials in Tuam were in accordance with the laws and practices of the time, as issue on which I note that you have made no finding to date.

“I also understand that you will continue your wider work including the investigation of post-mortem practices and procedures, burial arrangements and related matters under your terms of reference.”

Read: She was right: How Catherine Corless uncovered what happened in Tuam

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