How Many Babies Fit In An Irish Septic Tank?

News that between 1925 and 1961 around 800 deceased 'illegitimate' babies had been interred in a septic tank by Irish Catholic nuns, has by now swept around the world. But, back in Ireland, the quibbling has already begun.

The Irish Times yesterday headlined "trouble with the septic tank story", questioning the size of the tank where Tuam local, Barry Sweeney discovered skeletal infant remains, quoting Sweeny's estimate that the tank's concrete cover stone was "little bigger than his coffee table".

Only about 20 babies were in the septic tank, it now seems. The balance of the 796 infants lie unmarked under the plain meadow around the tank. That's a mere 20 in the tank and 776 in the meadow. Had the figure been, say: over 100 in the tank, we might have had a real problem there.

Within 45 minutes of that Irish Times report, one Catholic apologist was greeting the clarification with glee, cheering that: "there is no way that you would squeeze 800 bodies into a septic tank..... My theory has always been that [] famine victims were unearthed and put... into the... tank, perhaps to save space."

Such a spin on events, would leave us at zero babies in the tank and all 796 in the meadow! Perhaps all this embarrassment can yet be swept neatly under some carpet?

Or perhaps not. All 796 babies certainly died. We have all their individual death certificates, meticulously assembled by local historian, Catherine Corless. The shock and backlash since her research hit the newswires has marginalized her apolitical desire merely to commemorate those who died.

Meanwhile, the quibbling goes on. One letter to the Irish Times argues that "lack of understanding of nutrition, cross-infection associated with overcrowding, and the dangers of unpasteurized human milk substitutes" were responsible for the huge mortality rates in these Catholic-run facilities.

Perhaps we should demand answers from the unpasteurized milk?


"I never used that word ‘dumped’," Catherine Corless told the Irish Times (referring to the Guardian's headline: "Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves"). Corless repeats: "They are not my words."

Bless her for her pure intent, but this quibbling has to stop. We should use the word "DUMPED". I'd like to use it a lot. "Dumped," means, I think, "discarded without due concern or care".

Because there is no denying that tens of thousands of allegedly "fallen" mothers were dumped behind the high walls of often savage institutions and left there without due concern or care.

No denying that their infant newborns were regarded as somehow tarnished, to be kept out of sight and buried out of mind in dump-like, unmarked mass graves.

And there is no denying that the twisted repressions of many nun's burdensome celibacy were then dumped without due concern or care on the backs of the same "fallen" mothers, in the form of overt and covert violence by their religious "carers".

More broadly, who can deny that the twisted repressions from a whole society's psychotic religiosity were being dumped without due concern or care on "fallen" mothers and their 'defective' offspring.

Such that even as a million little Hitlers were stomping across Europe, dumping their crazed authoritarianism on those they deemed untouchables, their blue-shirted brethren in Ireland likewise dumped their shadows to blight the lives of young girls and their babies.

Why? Because a scapegoat must be found. Christianity pretended to love the Lamb - but it was all about finding similar scapegoats to crucify. Christianity pretended to love the stainless infant - but it consigned real babies to death and invisible burial.

So, dump them in the laundries- to wash off their sins.
Dump their bastard brats in dozens, dump them in the bins.
Out of sight is out of mind, none must make a sound.
Devil's in the detail, 'cos a scapegoat must be found.

Don't think this is only about the Irish, Or only about the nuns.
It's about us. About us all. The way we were. The way we are.

Authoritarianism and institutionalism and scapegoating of untouchables goes on, even today.

It's about time we faced the shadows lurking in our Past.

They illuminate our Present.

Fintan Dunne, 7 June 2014-11:30EST


  1. Fine piece Fintan Dunne. Quibbling about details leads us to miss the bigger questions. Now how did this happen but WHY did this happen. It does indeed still continue.. Well written intelligent insight sir!


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