Thursday, April 13, 2017

The tireless determination of a modern Irish hero

Sometimes the darkest story has to be brought to light, no matter how sad or distressing that story might be or how uncomfortable it makes people feel afterwards.

When I visited Cambodia almost 15 years ago, I took in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum near the centre of Phnom Penh. This nondescript secondary school, in the middle of the city, was transformed into a grotesque concentration camp in the 1970s and as I walked around it my eyes filled with tears.

My Galway friend and I toured the museum at the same time as a distressed Cambodian couple from a provincial town, who were visiting the capital for the first time.
No visitor ever forgets the murdered
children of Tuol Sleng in Cambodia

Overwhelmed by all the photos of the former inmates, virtually all of whom had terror in their eyes, we hugged each other movingly at the exit gates.

We spoke no Khmer, they spoke little English, but our common humanity meant there was no need for words.

Most of the inmates were children and there were hundreds of distressing photos of them, staring at their interrogators in terror, dotted around the museum.

How, we wondered, could human beings inflict such suffering on fellow human beings?

A few hours later, we stood in the middle of the Cheung Ek Killing Fields, a few miles outside the capital. It was here that the murderous Pol Pot regime killed so many of their own people between 1975 and 1979.

Many of them had been transferred to Cheung Ek from Tuol Sleng, where they were killed by a strike to the head. Mass graves containing almost 9,000 bodies were discovered there following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

We were told they were beaten across the head with sticks before being thrown into the graves, because bullets were too precious or expensive to be wasted on the peasants of Cambodia.

As we stood there in silence, my friend said the whole place felt eerily familiar. The lack of birdsong, the complete and utter silence of the place, reminded him of Auschwitz, a place he had visited the previous year.

We learned a life-long lesson that day, about the cheap price that can be put on a human life by those in positions of power.

As a journalist, I wondered about the first reporters to visit Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. How important it was to tell the story of a regime which began to treat its own people as less than human. It was a distressing story, but it needed to be told.

Little did either of us imagine that a decade and a half later we would find out about ‘killing fields’ of our own, less than an hour north of our home city.

Catherine Corless: a quiet but brave modern Irish hero
It might seem crass to compare the killing fields of Cambodia to the 796 babies who are now believed to have been buried in mass graves in Tuam, but in both cases it was so important to shine a light on the darkness and to remind ourselves of man’s inhumanity to man.

It’s so important to tell the truth, especially when barriers are put in your way or people wish you would just go away.

Which is why I think Catherine Corless is a national treasure. If it wasn’t for Catherine we would never have heard of the “Tuam Babies” and if she’d accepted the barriers placed in her way their story would never have been told.

When she tried to find out how many babies died at the Mother and Baby Home, she was ridiculed by people in authority for not being a “real” historian.

Even last week, after her worst fears had been confirmed by the Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes, Catherine was still facing flak from detractors who refused to face the facts uncovered by her investigations.

Take Bill Donohue of the conservative Catholic League in the United States, who earns a salary in excess of €400,000 per year. Instead of thanking Catherine for shining a light on a dark period in Ireland’s history, he slammed the Galway woman last week.

“Contrary to what virtually all news reports have said, Corless is not a historian,” he said. “She not only does not have a Ph.D. in history, she doesn't have an undergraduate degree. She is a typist . . .

“This does not mean she is dumb – many secretaries are brighter than the professors they serve. Nor does this disqualify her from making a contribution to historical events. But she is no historian.”

Tuol Sleng: where an ordinary secondary school
was converted into a concentration camp
Catherine Corless faced the same type of prejudice in her long quest to find out the truth of what happened to the Tuam babies.

She had attended school with children from the Mother and Baby Home and, even as a youngster, was appalled by how badly the children were treated by society in general.

They were “illegitimate”, deprived and forced to sit apart from the other pupils in Tuam. They weren’t worthy of consideration as human beings.

Her interest in the site rose when she heard the story of how two young boys came upon what appeared to be a mass grave while playing on waste ground in the 1970s.

She knew the site had been used as a Mother and Baby Home from 1925 to 1961 and when she began her research six years ago all she wanted to discover was how many babies had died there during that period.

Catherine imagined that ten or maybe 20 babies had lost their lives at the home, never imagining that the true figure was almost 800.

But she came across so many barriers in her quest for the truth. When she approached the Bon Secours order, who operated the home, they diverted her to a communications agency who did anything but communicate.

They gave Catherine a swift, terse reply, indicating they had no records from all their years of running the Tuam home.

She described the response of the Bon Secours, even after she was vindicated last month, as “callous and cold”.

Catherine Corless has built a replica of the infamous
Tuam Home in her living room outside the town

When she approached Galway County Council, they wanted nothing to do with Catherine or the local committee who wanted to erect a plaque to commemorate the dead babies.

“I know Galway County Council tried to put a halt to every effort that we made. The first hurdle to overcome was when we formed a committee. This was before I had any idea of the extent of the hardship the mothers and children went through. I simply wanted to put up a plaque, to name the children, with Theresa Kelly,” she told me recently.

“We had to approach Galway County Council because they own the land, the housing estate, there. They weren’t forthcoming at all. They said no, you can’t be doing that. They didn’t want the plaque. They came up with every excuse as far as I was concerned."

In Tuam, local business people expressed hostility to Catherine’s research. They didn’t want to delve into the home’s murky past or to acknowledge that Ireland had a terrible history in terms of how it treated its most vulnerable children. They wished Catherine would go away.

Only for one sympathetic woman in the Births, Marriages and Deaths office in Galway, Catherine Corless might never have discovered the true number of “Tuam Babies” or opened up a much-needed national debate about how badly Ireland treated its own children.

Catherine refused to accept the doors which were slammed in her face or the repeated assertion by people within the Catholic Church that the past was a different country and should be left untouched.

That attitude extends to the difficulties survivors of institutional abuse have experienced in seeking adequate compensation.

Catherine has been overwhelmed by the correspondece
from survivors of institutions across Ireland
In recent months, Catherine has met so many survivors who tell her that, at last, she has given them a voice after so many years of feeling that they were second class citizens because they were “illegitimate” and had grown up as “home babies”.

People claimed she wasn’t a “real” historian, even though no “real” historian has done anything to approach Catherine’s tireless work in exposing Ireland’s darkest secrets from the past century.

“My argument was that it was not that long ago, that the survivors are still around, and that it’s still the same Church and State. The survivors are still very much alive so you can’t say it’s in the past, they are all around us, they are hurting and we have to do something for them,” she said recently.

Catherine told me things which seem incredible to modern ears, such as getting pregnant for a second time being described as a “second offence” for young mothers who were separated from their children and bundled into Magdalene Laundries across the land.

All she cared about was finding truth and justice for the dead babies and their families, despite the indifference or downright hostility of the authorities.

“The whole sadness of Tuam is in the way they used a former sewage area as a burial vault. It seemed to be just the final insult to the poor little children,” she said.

“I felt more angry than emotional. Throughout my life I have seen injustice all around me. I’m very, very empathetic towards people who haven’t a say. I feel anger at the Church for trying to dismiss what we were trying to say.

“ It was mainly the upper class people in Tuam who didn’t want us doing what we were doing. Some shop-keepers and businessmen felt we were putting a blight on Tuam. How can you portray Tuam in all its glory when all that horror is there?”

Of course, Catherine’s story was not just about Tuam. It’s about a country in which a lethal cocktail of poverty and religious dogma meant that some people could be seen as less than human  and locked up in prisons for the “crime” of having a baby outside marriage.

Remembering the women who were locked up in the
Magdalene Laundries in Galway last month

As blogger Izzy Kamikaze put it so succinctly in her blog three years ago, Church, State, communities and families all played their part in the massive tragedy of Ireland’s institutional past.

They young mothers who were imprisoned from the 1920s to the 1960s would not have been incarcerated without the complicity of their families and their communities.

“When all the secrets are told, nobody is going to come out of it smelling of roses. It is very sad that we seem to be more interested in how these children were buried than in their miserable lives, or the pain still being experienced by the bereaved mothers and the adopted children severed from their histories,” she wrote.

And if Catherine Corless had not persevered with her research in the face of hostility and derision, we might never have known about the 796 Tuam babies and their unmarked graves.

Or opened up a debate about how appallingly the Irish nation treated its most vulnerable children.

And that’s why Catherine is a modern Irish hero.

* A short vigil of remembrance for all the babies who died in institutions across Ireland will take place at the Circle of Life garden in Salthill, Galway, on Sunday, April 23 (7pm). It's being run by First Light, who used to be known as the Irish Sudden Infant Death Association. There will be music, poetry, and song All are welcome. 

A previous blog about a dignified ceremony in Galway to remember the Magdalene Laundry women:

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