The incredible story from Ireland about the remains of 800 babies and children found in a discarded septic tank caused your humble e-scribbler to think a bit about local history.
Then this post at the Monkey Cage put it in a bigger perspective.
For starters, the stories of 800 corpses are wrong, according to Henry Farrell. There are two separate stories that some people mixed together. One is a finding by researcher Catherine Corliss of death certificates for 800 infants and children at a home for unwed mothers run by Roman Catholic nuns between the 1920s and the 1960s. The other story is a report on recollections of two men who recounted how they found remains of 20 people near the home site sometime in the 1970s.
That doesn’t end the matter. For one thing, Corliss found death certificates but she couldn’t find any burial records.
For another, there’s the question of the death rate. Farrell notes that one expert believes that the very high number of deaths at the home cannot be explained merely by reference to the high infant mortality rate in Ireland at the time. Economics professor Liam Delaney believes that Corliss’ research “points to something serious within these institutions” that deserves further investigation.
Delaney pointed to a 1934 comment in the Irish parliament by the parliamentary secretary to the minister of local government and health that illegitimate children were often the victims of neglect.
“… What frequently happens is that the mother, or the mother’s family, at the time the mother leaves the hospital or home, make arrangements with someone to take the child, either paying a lump sum down or undertaking to pay something from time to time.
“These arrangements are often made or connived at by those who carry on the poorer class of maternity homes, and the results to the child can be read in the mortality rates.”
Delaney suggests that the death rate at the Tuam home Corliss researched is higher than even those conditions would allow.
For his part, Farrell adds the observation that until recently the Irish government “out-sourced most of its education system and large parts of its social welfare system” to institutions and organizations with religious affiliation. “State supervision of these facilities was at best spotty,” notes Farrell, “although state officials appear to have tried to correct especially outrageous situations.”
A combination of violent prejudice against unwed mothers and their children, inadequate supervision[,] and pressure not to spend money are likely to have played a key role in high infant mortality rates. The extent to which such neglect might have shaded into something more deliberate and active is unclear.
The parallel with Newfoundland and Labrador is hard to ignore.
Like Ireland, Newfoundland before 1949 suffered from poor nutrition, poor access to health care and high mortality and infant mortality rates.
Then there is the practice of passing control of education, health and social services to the churches. The experience at a religiously affiliated institution such as Mount Cashel or the incompetent supervision of foster children by public servants at the same time raise the possibility that these may not have been incidents isolated in either place or time.
If we extend our gaze farther back into the past, would we find any of these same sorts of horrors as we saw in foster homes or at Mount Cashel repeated over decades and generations in other places in Newfoundland and Labrador?
If some orphans got that sort of treatment in Newfoundland and Labrador, what of the children born out of wedlock in a society that was unlikely to be any more forgiving of unwed mothers and their children than Ireland?
These questions deserve answers.