The tiny shoe is the color of the open sky. Its blueness is made all the bluer by the dark earth filling the space meant for a young child’s foot.
For Catherine Corless, the single shoe symbolizes the interrupted childhoods that have become her life’s work, transforming her from a near-recluse finding diversion in local history into a reluctant but resolute conscience of Ireland.
A decade ago, while researching the past of a long-closed home for unwed mothers here in Tuam, County Galway, she came upon problematic math. At least 798 children had died in the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home during its operation from 1925 to 1961, yet only two were buried in the cemetery across the street.
Where were the rest?
After more research, Ms. Corless made the startling allegation that hundreds of children who had been in the care of Catholic nuns may be buried on the grounds of the old home in Tuam (pronounced Chewm), many in a disused sewage system. Her theory was widely dismissed until forensic archaeologists emerged from a test dig on the site with photographs of commingled juvenile bones.
That was nearly six years ago. Since then, Ms. Corless, 68, has received awards and acclaim. She has dealt with anxiety and depression, nursed her husband through a cancer diagnosis, and celebrated the birth of five grandchildren; they now have 10.
All the while, those disturbing bones have remained undisturbed, beneath grass that for decades was a playground where children ran and laughed and teased above the skeletal remains of other children who had died of contagion and malnutrition and poor prenatal care.
These years have produced harsh assessments of the treatment endured by unwed mothers and their children in the Ireland of the past, as well as various proposals for what to do with the Tuam site — including one to just erect a memorial and be done with it. But Ms. Corless has been among the loudest in arguing that leaving the bones of children in such grotesque circumstances diminishes Ireland.
“Every chance I got I complained,” Ms. Corless said in her kitchen, with cups of tea and Tuam home documents always within reach. “I kept emphasizing how this was immoral. Against Catholic ethos. This was a sewage facility!”
Resolution, finally, is near. Ireland passed a law this summer allowing for a mass excavation that will be among the most challenging of such projects ever undertaken.
But a wary Ms. Corless, having prodded the government through years of bureaucratic dodges and delays, said that her work would end only when the country provides justice to the hundreds of children it long ago forsook. Her determination is driven in part by what forensic archaeologists found all those years ago:
Small skulls. Tiny bones. A single blue shoe.
On a fair Tuam day in October 2016, a small excavator’s claw took its first swipe, peeling away the topsoil from a corner of a seven-acre site seeded with misery.
A massive, slate-gray building once loomed here. Built as a workhouse in the 1840s, it received the famine poor during the Great Hunger; became a military barracks and execution site during Ireland’s civil war in the early 1920s; and served for 36 years as a mother-and-baby home before being demolished in the early 1970s.
The government-funded institution was enveloped in clouds of shame conjured by Ireland’s repressive, Catholic-dominant society. This was where mortified families and offended parish priests sent unmarried pregnant women to give birth. The children they were forced to leave behind would be put up for adoption, fostered out or sent to industrial schools.
Now forensic archaeologists were using small trowels to clear the sorrowful earth with surgical care. They had been hired by a new government entity, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, to determine whether there were burials on the grounds, as alleged by a local amateur historian, Ms. Corless.
As a child, Ms. Corless often passed the home’s forbidding walls on her way to school, where “home babies” sat in the back, shabby and silent. Then, as an adult poring over historical documents and burial records, she developed a ghastly theory: that the home’s managers, the Sisters of Bon Secours, had buried children on these grounds, including in a defunct sewage system.
Subterranean anomalies identified by a geophysical survey had helped the archaeologists determine where to begin. They were keenly focused on not disturbing any discovered remains, Dr. Niamh McCullagh, the team’s leader, recalled. “So it was manual all the way.”
Within hours of the first day’s dig, the archaeologists came upon the concrete lid of a sewage chamber and noticed soil falling through a coin-size crack, into a dark void. A flashlight’s beam revealed what lay eight feet below.
“Juvenile human remains,” Dr. McCullagh said.
The work stopped. The authorities were alerted and a white tent was erected around the site, out of respect.
After digging through October and for a good part of February 2017, the archaeologists reported a “significant quantity” of bones and bone fragments, some gnawed by rodents. Radiocarbon testing of a small sample indicated that the remains dated from the 1920s to the 1950s.
A left femur of an infant less than two months old. A left ulna of a child less than six months old. A humerus. A scapula. A jawbone. A small intact skull, sitting upright.
The archaeologists also found bits of innocence and vulnerability. Glass feeding bottles. Enameled children’s cups depicting the Mary of nursery rhymes and her little lamb. That shoe.
Telltale debris — a plastic motor-oil bottle, for example — indicated that the burial site had subsequently been filled in with construction. “I found that particularly inhumane,” Dr. McCullagh said.
In their findings to the commission, the archaeologists would emphasize that a decision about the site should be made as soon as possible. They added, “It is not appropriate to leave juvenile remains in this specific context.”
For now, the commingled bones were left in situ — as they had been discovered — and the test area was carefully covered back up, like a drawn earthen curtain.
The next step seemed obvious — at least to Ms. Corless: Remove the human remains from the sewage system immediately.
“It should have been automatic,” she said.
It was not. Instead, the children’s bones remained in the ground as Ireland embarked on a yearslong odyssey to resolution — a painful journey of investigation, self-recrimination, bureaucratic delay, avoidance and grief.
The Tuam home, after all, evoked fraught chapters in modern Irish history, featuring familiar themes of misogyny, abuse and the government’s tight bond with the Catholic Church. There also appeared to have been a breach of sacred trust: As baptized Catholics, the children were entitled to burial in consecrated ground, and yet at least some had wound up in chambers of an old sewage system while in the care of Catholic nuns.
Why? And why were they still there?
Ms. Corless would not stop asking.
Based on advice from a team of technical experts, the government laid out five options, ranging from simply erecting a memorial to adopting what Ms. Corless and others had sought: excavation, identification if possible and dignified burial. It then asked the Galway County Council to have independent consultants solicit preferences from vested interests and the public.
Ms. Corless criticized the approach, arguing that the county council, which had regulatory responsibilities over the home, was not a disinterested party, and that resolution to an atrocity should not be subject to a popularity contest.
“Like voting for the Eurovision Song Contest,” she said.
In the midst of this debate, in the late summer of 2018, Ms. Corless used Pope Francis’ long-planned visit to Ireland to highlight the Catholic clergy’s failure to accept responsibility — especially the home’s former managers, the Bon Secours nuns, whose publicist had once dismissed her allegations as nonsense.
Ms. Corless, who no longer considers herself a practicing Catholic, declined an invitation from Ireland’s prime minister to a small reception honoring the pope, after being told she would have no chance to speak to him about Tuam. “There was no point otherwise,” she said.
Instead of attending an open-air Papal Mass in Dublin — during which the pope apologized for the church’s “crimes” in Ireland — Ms. Corless joined a vigil at the Tuam site 130 miles away, where people recited the names of the hundreds of children who had died there and were likely still there.
Mary Conole, 1 month. John Flattery, 2 years. Margaret Donohue, 10 months …
Even many decades after the closing of the Tuam home, after nearly all the nuns and unwed mothers have died, the force of its many emotions can still strike like an open-handed smack to the face.
Carmel Larkin, 73, was born in the home, separated from her mother — “I don’t even have a photograph of her,” she said — and fostered out as a girl. Last year she learned that the mother she never knew, Winifred, had spent a dozen years at a psychiatric hospital not far from Ms. Larkin’s home, and in that time had not a single visitor.
Peter Mulryan, 78, was also born in the home and sent to a foster family. He has known for several years that a half sister, Marian, is possibly buried at the Tuam site. But he recently learned that another half sister, Bridget, died at a mother-and-baby home in Dublin.
And the mother of P.J. Haverty, another “home baby,” continues to reveal herself many years after her death in England, where her son was fortunate enough to find her and hear how she had often tried to collect him, only to be turned away by the nuns.
Ireland recently made available previously confidential information to people who had been adopted, boarded out or have questions about their origins. This is how Mr. Haverty discovered a dunning letter seeking payment “towards maintenance of your child” that was sent to his mother after she was forced to leave the home and her 13-month-old baby.
He also found her response, handwritten in neat blue ink:
I received your letter to day and is sorry to say that I have no money to pay for my child yet, as I have nothing only staying with my father.
I am trying for the past weeck to get a job, as soon as I get it I will pay for my child but I am not a strong girl, the Doctor in Tuam can tell you that. I asked the Sisters leaving to get me a job, and the said I was not fit to work.
But how ever Pleas God, I will pay for him as soon as I get a job.
Toward the end of 2018, the Irish government chose the approach that Ms. Corless and others had been advocating for, including excavation and respectful burial. The necessary legislation would receive priority, officials said, with work expected to begin at the site late in 2019.
But 2019 came and went. “There wasn’t the will in government,” Ms. Corless said.
Government officials, though, say that drafting the legislation was complicated by the many issues presented by the extraordinary situation, including legal access to the land, privacy and data protection concerns, and the creation of an entity to manage the sensitive project.
The year 2020 brought more delays and more stress.
The Covid-19 pandemic led to lockdowns. Ireland held elections that resulted in new government leadership. And Ms. Corless’s husband, Aidan, 69, received a diagnosis of esophageal cancer.
At one point the couple managed to keep two appointments in Dublin: one with Mr. Corless’s surgeon and the other with the new minister overseeing children and youth affairs, Roderic O’Gorman, during which Ms. Corless made her case.
“Just pleading,” she recalled. “To do something.”
Mr. O’Gorman, who had already expressed support for excavating the Tuam site, agreed to move things along. By January 2021, he had referred the draft for required scrutiny by a joint legislative committee.
That same month, the commission investigating the mother-and-baby-home system issued its sobering final report, detailing profound emotional abuse in the institutions and an “appalling level of infant mortality,” double the average rate.
The report spread the blame among the government, the church and society, sparking criticism that it had minimized the influence that Ireland’s once virtual theocracy had over its people. It also prompted apologies from the Irish government, the Galway County Council, the archbishop of Tuam — and, finally, the Sisters of Bon Secours, who confessed that they “did not live up to our Christianity.”
The religious order at one point had hired a technical expert who made the specious suggestion that the underground structure containing human remains may have been built as a burial vault — not as part of a sewage-treatment system — and was being used for its intended purpose.
Now the sisters were admitting that Ms. Corless had been right all along. “We acknowledge in particular that infants and children who died at the Home were buried in a disrespectful and unacceptable way,” the sisters wrote. “For all that, we are deeply sorry.”
Amid the public expressions of remorse, Ms. Corless was portrayed as having finally won her case, with the new prime minister, Micheál Martin, praising her critical role in his official apology. But she seemed impervious to flattery.
“Words are easy,” she said.
Within weeks Ms. Corless was writing to Mr. Martin that “too much time has been wasted already.” Within months she was appearing before a committee in the Irish Parliament to explain the history and the urgency, once again, her frustration bordering on fury.
As 2021 drew to a close, it became clear that the necessary legislation would not be finalized until at least 2022.
“It’s a disgrace,” Ms. Corless told Ireland.
Finally, in February of this year, Mr. O’Gorman, the children and youth affairs minister, announced the Institutional Burials Bill, which would provide a legal basis for excavating all the remains at the Tuam site — and at other former institutions if they, too, have “manifestly inappropriate burials” — along with dignified burials and DNA analysis for possible identifications. The project will cost an estimated $14.3 million, with the Bon Secours sisters pledging about $2.6 million to the effort.
Although the project would be “one of the most complex forensic excavation and recovery efforts ever undertaken,” Mr. O’ Gorman said, Ireland needed to make amends: “What happened in Tuam is a stain on our national conscience.”
Ms. Corless, pleased but guarded, continued her wait. In the spring she attended another gathering paying respects at the site, and recognized someone at the back of the crowd whom she had invited but never expected to see: Francis Duffy, the recently installed archbishop of Tuam.
For years, the archdiocese had remained mostly silent about the scandal of the Tuam home, which sat not a mile from the archdiocesan cathedral. But here was the new archbishop, who had walked to the site unaccompanied.
Archbishop Duffy said in a recent interview that apologies, while important, were not enough. One of his first steps toward doing more has been to listen to survivors speak of their pain, anger and bone-deep sense of betrayal.
He said he felt the power of these emotions during his visit to the Tuam home site. Since childhood he had taken care not to walk on graves whenever possible, and was acutely aware of what — or who — lay below his feet.
“It’s certainly poignant to see the grave of a young child or an infant,” he said. “And here we are, standing on the graves of up to 800.”
In July, the Institutional Burials Bill passed its last parliamentary hurdle and was signed into law. Mr. O’Gorman said that he hoped the measure would bring some solace to those affected by “this abhorrent situation,” and he thanked Ms. Corless for her “tireless work and commitment to the children interred in Tuam.”
Ms. Corless expressed relief and gratitude, but within two weeks she was once again sounding her familiar alarm: no rest until those “babies” are removed from the tainted ground and given proper burials.
The playground is closed. No more balls skittering across thick grass, no more skateboards sailing over smooth concrete. Children should not play where other children are buried.
Ms. Corless walks the perimeter once again, head down. A small woman with auburn-gray hair kept short, she wears dark pants, white sneakers and a look of worried concentration.
Her husband, Aidan, has recovered from cancer surgery, though he is struggling to regain weight. Her own health challenges continue as well: the anxiety, the panic attacks, the headaches that leave her still on the floor, eyes shut. Best to take her medication and stay close to home.
The fallout from the mother-and-baby-home scandal has not abated. There are other former homes besides Tuam, each its own tragedy, and the government is finalizing an $830 million compensation package to eligible people “in acknowledgment of suffering experienced while resident in Mother and Baby and County Home Institutions.”
While Ms. Corless frequently expresses support for the many avenues of redress, her burning focus remains the children buried in Tuam. Dying beyond any maternal embrace, they have become part of her, summoning memories of her own mother, Kathleen, whose coldness she understood only after discovering that Kathleen, too, had been born out of wedlock.
“I feel a connection here,” Ms. Corless says, standing near a stone wall lined with soggy stuffed animals left in tribute to the dead. “A connection — or something.”
The excavation is not expected to begin until early next year, meaning that the bones of children who died in the care of the Catholic Church and the Irish government will have remained in an old sewage system a full six years after their discovery.
Until then, Ms. Corless will continue to serve as advocate for the dead and grandmother to the living. She and her husband expect several of their grandchildren to stay with them over the Christmas holidays, the youngest not yet 2 years old.
There will be toys and sweets and shouts and baths, and small shoes scattered all over the place.