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Tuam 2017, ‘Cherish the Children'

"The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally..." (POBLACHT NA h-EIREANN, The Provisional Government of the IRISH republic to the people of IRELAND, Easter Monday, April 24th, 1916).

What has been discovered in Tuam?

Last Friday, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes announced that “significant” quantities of human remains had been found buried under the site of a former institution for unmarried mothers run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours in Tuam, Co Galway. The remains belonged to children aged from about 35 foetal weeks to two to three years. The news was greeted with widespread revulsion. Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said it was “very sad and disturbing”, while the commission itself said it was shocked by its own discovery. On Sunday, Archbishop of Tuam Dr Michael Neary said he was “horrified and saddened” by the news.

What is the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes?

The commission, chaired by retired Circuit Court judge Yvonne Murphy, was set up in February 2015 after a Galway-based historian, Catherine Corless, published research that revealed death certificates for 796 children at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home with no indication of their burial places. The commission has been tasked with investigating 14 Mother and Baby Homes, as well as four so-called “County Homes”, that operated across the State at different times between 1922 to 1998. Under its broad terms of reference, the commission is looking at living conditions, care arrangements, infant mortality, burial arrangements, vaccine trials, illegal adoption, social attitudes and women’s pathways in and out of these institutions.

That’s a wide brief. The numbers are huge. It is estimated that at least 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in the 14 municipally funded Mother and Baby Homes run by religious orders in Ireland from the foundation of the State until the late 1990s. We know at least 796 infants died at Tuam, but other homes, such as Castlepollard in Co Westmeath, are thought to hold the remains of up to 3,200 babies.

What was found in Tuam?

Last Friday’s announcement follows an excavation of the Tuam site by archaeologists working for the commission. A stratigraphic survey in October 2015 identified a number of “sub-surface anomalies” that were considered worthy of further investigation, the commission said. These were further explored by a test excavation in November/December 2016 and in January/February this year.

Trenches dug by the commission revealed two large structures. According to the commission, one of these structures appears to be a large sewage containment system or septic tank that had been decommissioned and filled with rubble and debris and then covered with top soil. T he second structure is long and divided into 20 chambers. “The commission has not yet determined what the purpose of this structure was but it appears to be related to the treatment/containment of sewage and/or waste water,” it said. “The commission has also not yet determined if it was ever used for this purpose.”

...She had gone to the site in the summer of 1975 after a child on the street “had a skull on a stick, shaking it" (Irish Times, 2017).

This painting is an honest reaction to the horrific story which hit the Irish news headlines in March of 2017 and the witness accounts which centred around the Tuam discoveries. The painting is also a challenge to the prevailing notion that today our children and women are cherished equally. Researchers in Trinity College Dublin have since warned that concealed pregnancies are “an ongoing situation” for many women in Ireland (The Irish Times, Monday, March 6th 2017, 01:00pm).

'Cherish the Children'

Since completing and exhibiting this painting I have received a number of personal messages and calls from mothers who have been directly affected and who have a connection to the Tuam babies, the Magdalene laundries etc. These all too familiar accounts are heartbreaking.

Irish First Mothers is a group of mothers who were incarcerated in Mother and Baby homes. They represent the tens of thousands of Irish women who were coerced in pregnancy and often placed in institutions run by the Irish State in collusion with religious orders. These were innocent women who in some cases had their infant literally torn from their arms. Most carry the wounds of those experiences to this day.

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