By Kevin Higgins

30/07/2018 - As the horror of Tuam has unfolded over the last four years, there has been a steady stream of denial in the form of comment which has been ill-informed, inaccurate, ignorant in the crudest sense and sometimes just ill-mannered.

The nay-sayers have included those who have come to enjoy over time, some degree of public credibility. This in some cases has led to a career posturing as a polymath with an implied indemnity for the damage their oracle-like pronouncements cause. In this green and sometimes pleasant land, it was always thus.

The following riposte is directed in part at Mr John Waters, because he chose to strut about in the public domain, in a manner that has not merely misrepresented the actuality of Tuam but is grossly offensive and hurtful to the extended Tuam family. Survivors do not have to tolerate another layer of abuse and will not.


When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean―neither more nor less ....the question is, said Alice, whether you can make words mean so many different things. The question is, said Humpty Dumpty, which is to be master―that's all.   Through the Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll, 1872

Since the Tuam story began to circulate widely in 2014 there has been no shortage of those seeking to discredit it, to diminish the horror and even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to deny it ever happened. Many such responses, if not all, come from individuals or organisations which represent conservative Catholic thinking apparently firmly fixed in a dogma that dominated the Ireland of the first half of the twentieth century or in some cases, the era of the Spanish Inquisition.  Some of it has targeted Catherine Corless and been unpleasantly derogatory of her. One notable voice is that of Bill Donohue 'President of the Catholic League of America'. Continuing his previous dismissals of the Tuam mass grave, Donohue criticised the major story published by the New York Times, written by Dan Barry and entitled: The Lost Children of Tuam. This was published in an editorial gesture of great empathy and generosity with an eight page Special Supplement to the paper's edition of October 29th 2017.

Donohue's description of Catherine Corless and her work can be described as sneering in its tone, even though her work was never presented other than as a local social history project, similar to so many others that have added to and enriched our understanding of Irish society. Her work however, asked questions that had waited decades for an answer. There is no doubt that Tuam's dirty little secret was by no means unique or unknown. What was different was that Catherine Corless quietly refused to allow the questions raised by her work to remain unanswered.

This was a telling of a story of Irish society, whose time had come. It angered some, irritated others and alarmed others. In the period since the Tuam story broke, more than one Religious Institution has accelerated the process of putting their enormous wealth beyond the reach of survivors of institutional abuse, such as occurred in Mother and Baby Homes and by the same methods by which they avoided their true liability for physical and sexual abuse despite previously State created Inquiries, such as the Laffoy/Ryan Commission into Abuse in Residential Institutions.

Inevitably however, no Irish controversy large or small can be complete without an intervention by Mr John Waters a sometime journalist whom some touted as the successor to the late John Healy. Healy was widely regarded (not least by himself), as the authentic voice of rural Ireland. He wrote his colourful Backbencher column for The Irish Times each Saturday for a number of years, at a time when such writing was more extensively published (it consumed a half-page of the broadsheet) and far removed from the anodyne content killing Irish newspapers.

Healy was regarded by many as Douglas Gageby's blind spot. Certainly, Gageby, the most innovative and successful Irish Times editor of the modern era did give Healy almost a free hand in his work for the paper. Healy made no bones about his rural conservatism and was happy to be the voice of peasant Ireland and his mixture of folksy wisdom combined with the nous of a man who had edited a Dublin newspaper and shared drinking haunts with Charlie Haughey, found a receptive audience. It did not pass unremarked that the emergence of Waters as a columnist for the Irish Times appeared to be an attempt to provide its readership with a latter-day Healy, coming as he does from a western county which suffered the same neglect as Healy's Mayo.

The similarities are superficial and the jauntily named Jiving at the Crossroads published by Waters in 1991 does not measure up to the depth of Healy’s pleurer du ceour, Nineteen Acres and 'Nobody Shouted Stop which confirm him as a much more authentic voice. Furthermore, Healy was at times an intuitively brilliant commentator and his Backbencher column was compulsive reading for those on all parts of the political spectrum.

Waters' invitation to speak at Notre Dame's Annual Fall Conference in November 2017 on his chosen topic, the Hoax of the Tuam Holocaust, is neither surprising or in itself that interesting. In March 2017, Mike Pence, Trump's Vice-President gave the Commencement Address at Notre Dame. Among other things Mr Pence does not believe that smoking is harmful but believes that global warming is a myth. The invitation to Mr Waters to speak at Notre Dame should not therefore be seen as anything remarkable.

Notre Dame describes itself as a Private Catholic Research University. It did not admit women students before 1972. Within the last few years, it initiated legal action seeking to have itself exempted from providing contraceptive services as part of employee health care plans, under the Affordable Healthcare Act, commonly known as Obamacare. It lost.

The University lies adjacent to the town of South Bend Indiana, long a byword for poverty and decay. The 2015 statistics say that 25.94% of its population live in poverty. But of course Notre Dame does not draw its student body from South Bend. Though founded by a French priest, its football and athletic teams are referred to as the Fighting Irish. A recent estimate of the value of its endowments puts that figure at approximately 11.8 billion dollars. This then is a very rich, conservative, private Catholic Research University. In truth, it is about as traditionally Irish, as Bailey's Irish Cream Liqueur (brought to the market first in 1974). It adopted its 'Fighting Irish’ identity following a visit by Eamon de Valera, who was on his American tour, fundraising for the Irish cause. He planted a 'tree of liberty' there on October 15, 1919. It survived a week.

It is of only passing interest that he was busily defrauding yanks of their dollars for worthless stock in the new Irish Press, which became the de Valera family business until they ran it into the ground in 1995. On that American trip de Valera collected more than $6 million for the cause of Irish Freedom, not bad small change in 1919. The Irish Press had a good run over half a century and the de Valera family never saw a hungry day. The sports mascot of Notre Dame is a Leprechaun. There is no evidence that this has influenced the choice of invited speakers to its Catholic faith conferences.

Given the facts that had already emerged from the Tuam site, there was something of an outcry at the title of Waters' address even if it was a little unwieldy:

When Evil Becomes Virtual: Cyberspace, Failing Media, and the Hoax of the "Holocaust of Tuam".

His appearance was awaited with probably more interest in Ireland than Notre Dame itself. Contacted in advance of his speech, by sometime Denis O'Brien employee Sarah Carey, Waters said that he was (according to Carey) re-writing his speech and didn't want to release it to anyone until such time as he could confirm it was the speech actually delivered. In the 48 hours before this eagerly awaited address, there was quite a flurry of comment and quite a few ‘hurrumphs heard’. Ultimately Notre Dame itself issued a Statement on November 10 2017, through someone called O. Carter Snead.

O. Carter Snead, the William P. and Hazel B. White Director of the Centre for Ethics and Culture, issued the following statement addressing questions related to John Waters’ presentation at the Centre’s 18th Annual Fall Conference.

The history of the Mother and Baby Home at Tuam is a source of great pain for many people both in Ireland and throughout the world. We recognize and share that pain. As is the case with all of our speakers, the topic and title of John Waters’ talk at this year's conference were provided by him. He will not deny the facts of the case (nor will he challenge the research that has uncovered these facts by Catherine Corless) but rather will analyse its portrayal in the media and popular culture in relation to other contested political matters. Professor Patrick Deneen, moderator of the session, will ensure that challenges to this argument (and its premises) are raised directly with the speaker for his response.

Our annual fall conference is a forum of dialogue and engagement among thoughtful persons of good will, who often disagree strongly. It features presentations from all points along the ideological spectrum, and all presenters at the conference speak for themselves and not on behalf of the University of Notre Dame. There are many in attendance at the conference and at the university who will no doubt forcefully and respectfully raise challenges and critiques to Mr. Waters during the question period of his presentation.

Mr. Waters has made presentations at our annual Fall Conference in the past on subjects including Irish poetry, history and meaning of rock and roll music, responding to poverty, and the nature and flourishing of persons. On every occasion, he has proven to be exceptionally thoughtful, intellectually honest, and humane. We have every expectation that Mr. Waters' session will be spirited and characterized by civil and thoughtful engagement.

Whether Mr Waters was being spanked or supported, we cannot say. Even now, eight months later, we do not have the benefit of Mr Water's complete address. While the Notre Dame website did publish the full programme of its Conference and indeed stream live some of the speeches delivered, it also said that the speeches delivered by the main speakers would be made available on its YouTube channel. Whether or not Notre Dame regarded Mr Waters as one of its main speakers is not clear, but no video of his appearance has been posted to date. Regrettably therefore, we do not have an irrefutable record of what Mr Waters said. What we do have is a short report provided by the Irish Times and filed by a Marshall V King on their site at 19.27 pm on Sunday November 12. If we rely on that short Report, then it appears that Mr Waters was lamentably ignorant of the facts about Tuam, careless about such facts or that he delivered an address that chose to ignore such facts. Should the video of Mr Waters appearance become available at some point, this would go a long way to clarify matters. Firstly he said, he didn't object to the work of Galway-based historian Catherine Corless on the Tuam Mother-and-Baby home (it was very handsome of Mr Waters to give his blessing).

He did object to how some media outlets in Ireland and internationally had reported the story, calling their journalism a hoax. In the course of his speech at Notre Dame, Waters denounced the use of the word holocaust in relation to the deaths of children at the Mother-and-Baby home in Tuam, Co Galway The Irish Times quotes him as saying:

Of course there's a story of Ireland, of these women and of these children. It’s just not a story of slaughter and murder. That's my point,

Mr Waters is of course correct. It is indeed a much wider story about the nature of Irish society. But the Tuam narrative does indisputably include evidence which would in a normal society have seen prima facie cases of at least manslaughter and the wilful infliction of injury and/or indifference to neglect even unto death of many vulnerable infants, prosecuted in a court of law. Nothing Mr Waters or indeed anyone might say can change that. The same report quotes him as saying that the (Tuam) story would not have received as much attention if media outlets had not claimed skeletons were found in a septic tank. Again Mr Waters may go to the top of the class.

The Times quotes him:

I want to stop this story from doing the rounds as it has been doing ....(the hoax)... resides on the word journalism which used to be associated with truth and facts and has now become a byword for (the ) poisonous propaganda. Quite.

The Irish Times report goes on:

Waters said that while some had asserted that the mortality rate of the home was double the national average of the time, it was close to the contemporary rate in urban areas.

In saying this however, he wanders into territory where he is poorly informed.

As to the issue of truth and facts and the words journalism and poisonous propaganda decried by Mr Waters, it may be useful to cite some of the sources that the present writer has consulted. One is the the Health Inspector's Report based on a visit to the Tuam Home in April 1947 and which records an average annual mortality rate of 27%. over the previous four years.   What should make this figure even more alarming is the empirical evidence for that precise period within the general population.

In his paper: From Angela’s Ashes to the Celtic Tiger: Early Life Conditions and Adult Health in Ireland (2010) Professor Liam Delaney of University College Dublin wrote;

In Ireland, there were sharp declines in infant mortality rates beginning in the mid-1940s, with most of the gains occurring in urban areas over the next twenty years. This leads to a convergence of urban and rural infant mortality rates, essentially eliminating the urban mortality penalty.

In dealing with the level of infant mortality amongst the general population, Dr Delaney is correct. There is no doubt that infant mortality rates declined in that period, among the general population. Speaking in June 2014 immediately after the first media attention to Tuam, Professor Delaney was quite specific in his view that social conditions of the time could not explain the death rate at Tuam and other Mother and Baby Homes

There is also evidence, on which Mr Waters appears to rely that urban rates were generally higher than rural figures. However, Mother and Baby Home mortality rates, whether occurring in urban settings such as Dublin or rural settings such as Tuam, bear no resemblance to those occurring in the general population, whether urban or rural. You could take the Mother and Baby Home out of the City, but you couldn't apparently take the horrific death rates out of the Mother and Baby Home

The work of Health Inspector Alice Lister helps to put these figures in perspective. The conclusions she reached from extensive research within some of the worst living conditions in the country was that a young child living in the slums of Irish cities had a far greater chance of survival than those in the Tuam and other such homes. In her 1939 Report for the Department of Local Government and Public Health, Alice Lister wrote:

The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers ... the illegitimacy rate shows an upward trend. In 1916 was 1530, in 1925 it was 1662. We cannot prevent the birth of these infants. We should be able to prevent their deaths.

In general the infant mortality rate in the Tuam Home in the 1930s and 1940s was four or five times that in Dublin slums. But the children of Tuam were under the care of the Bon Secours nuns. This is an Order of nuns supposedly composed of trained nurses and midwives dedicated to providing bon secour, which translates as good care, to the children in their charge.

Perhaps those including Mr Waters, who pronounce on the issue of Mother and Baby Homes generally, may wish to read the Dail Debate on the Registration of Maternity Homes Act 1934 or at least the passage delivered by Parliamentary Secretary Dr Ward. He quoted figures provided by the Registrar-General which pointed put that one-in-three of all illegitimate children died within one year of their birth and that the mortality rate amongst these children is about five times as great as in other cases.

He might also want to consider the unambiguous statement of Dr Ward on that same occasion in Dail Eireann on Wednesday 7 February 1934:

It is because of the high death rate amongst illegitimate children that we want to establish some more effective control over the numerous maternity homes now operating. As Deputies are probably aware, these institutions take it upon themselves to dispose of and to board out these children. From the abnormally high death rate amongst this class of children one must come to the conclusion that they are not looked after with the same care and attention as that given to ordinary children.

Not all Deputies however appeared to be getting the picture, so a somewhat frustrated Dr Ward had to spell it out again for a particular TD:

Deputy Minch must not have been listening very carefully to the first part of my statement. The necessity for this Bill is not due to any known increase in illegitimacy. The Bill has become necessary because of the high death rate amongst illegitimate children.

In plain language, Mr Waters assertions made at Notre Dame about mortality rates at Tuam are simply untrue. In the opinion of one of the most respected and compassionate health officials in the history of the Irish State a child was better off in Dublin slums than left in the possession of the Religious Orders who ran Mother and Baby Homes.

Looking again at the mid-1940s which Mr Waters has referenced in his address, Professor T W Dillon writing in the Jesuit academic journal Studies in 1945, that within the city slums there were:

conditions which are often quite unsuitable for cattle, much less human beings. the pattern of dirt, decay and discomfort is everywhere the same. The filthy yard with the unspeakable closet often choked, always foul-smelling, serving the needs of all the families in the house; the single tap, often situated in the basement or even in the foul-smelling yard; the cracked and crumbling walls and ceiling covered with scabrous peeling paper or blistered paint; the leaking roofs and rat-infested floors. There are differences in detail, but in general a drab and disgusting uniformity is unrelieved by any sign of human dignity.

This then is the environment within which Alice Lister believed a child enjoyed an 80% better chance of survival, than under the care of nuns in a Mother and Baby Home. Again in 1943, being the period Mr Waters referred to as a period in which mortality rates had improved, Alice Lister noted the infant mortality rate in Bessborough was 61%.

Mr Waters further illuminated his recent talk about Tuam by telling his audience: that a small quantity of bones, comprising about 20 bodies, has been found and they were not in a septic tank but in a tunnel which was the equivalent of a crypt. Untrue.

In fact as will unfold, the remains so far located within what was designed to be used as a septic tank from the time the Tuam buildings were used as a Workhouse, are certainly not less than three figures in number. Only further excavation of the notional graveyard and other parts of the site will disclose how many individual remains can be identified.

There is something reminiscent in all this nay-saying of the disinformation campaign run by the US Administration at the height of the Vietnam War. For some years nothing mattered but the daily body-count. The bodies being of course dead Vietnamese, quite irrespective of the fact that most were civilians. In the present case there is a barnacle-like stubbornness by no means confined to Mr Waters, to limit the body count at Tuam

What he describes as a tunnel, being the equivalent of a crypt, is indeed a tunnel, dug out by the inmates of the Workhouse because the Guardians of the Tuam Poor Law Union would not sanction the cost of drainage works discussed and argued over for almost twenty years. This led to the installation of this covered tank replacing an earlier open cess-pit into which in time; the dead children of the Tuam Home were placed. Again relying on the Irish Times report, we note that Mr Waters cited the work of Dan Barry in the New York Times on the Tuam Home, as having inaccuracies and insinuations.

Mr Waters apparently told his audience: Remember this; without the septic tank there would be no story. This story would have never gotten to the New York Times without the septic tank.

This really does sound like a cry from the heart. Without the evidence of the septic tank it might have been the perfect crime. Damn you Poirot!

But however inconvenient it may be for Mr Waters and others, there was and remains a septic tank, it does contain infant bodies from the period when this Home was controlled by an Order of nursing nuns; there are no burial records for 794 of the children registered as dying in the Home and the Registrar General of Ireland, cannot provide a physician's Medical Certificate to underpin a single one of the 796 Death Certificates. But hey, let’s Make Tuam Great Again.

The problem for many of the Tuam deniers is the yet more bad press for the Irish Catholic Church, already wading through the scandals of the last twenty-five years. Clearly, in Mr Waters' view, that Dan Barry guy from the New York Times couldn't wait to put the boot in. That however, just might be at odds with the reality of Mr Barry's deep and traditional Catholic roots grounded in Gort, County Galway or his heretical behaviour of walking the Camino de Santiago in the days immediately after the publication of his work The Lost Children of Tuam. But they don't hand out nominations for the Pullitzer Prize to chancers (and yes he already has one, but they keep right on nominating him). Maybe John and Dan should come to an old-fashioned Irish-style agreement: You show me yours and I'll show you mine.

Unless and until the University of Notre Dame provides the video of the speech delivered by Mr Waters, we cannot be absolutely sure of what he said. While factual certainty would be most welcome, though there is no suggestion that whatever Mr Waters said was worth listening to. Seeking absolute certainty is a parlous exercise at any time but the odds are that the work of Catherine Corless will retain meaning long after anything John Waters or this writer has contributed on the subject of the Tuam Holocaust.