A small shrine to honour the children of the Tuam mother and baby home, in County Galway, Ireland  / NYTimes 

Keen that readers should enter into the Halloween spirit, the New York Times last weekend published a horror story of its own: a carefully crafted 7,300 word essay, complete with atmospheric black and white photographs and video, about evil nuns and babies' bones. The message? The scandalous past of the Irish Catholic Church.

Sound familiar? It should, after exhaustive coverage of clerical sexual abuse and Magdalen laundries. Indeed, even The Lost Children of Tuam is essentially an old story, about a mass burial catacomb at the former mother and baby home at Tuam in County Galway, Ireland. The Times itself, like other media, covered it back in 2014. Now they have curated it as a showpiece of benighted Catholic Ireland – that is, Ireland before gay marriage and pro-abortion activism.

Take multiple infants and orphans, conditions of appalling poverty and deprivation, add in caricatures of evil nuns, obligatory comparisons to the Magdalen laundries, liberally sprinkle with bones, any bones, not necessarily those of the children, and there you have it: an anti-Catholic concoction full of cruelty, foreboding, and pathos, guaranteed to produce that satisfying feeling of voyeuristic, virtue-signalling outrage.

It starts with the banner photo, picturing five children in their First Holy Communion finery. Just so you know from the outset that this is about poor little Catholic children — again. Like something out of a zombie movie, the overlines tell how Ireland wanted “to bury and forget their dead, but the dead don’t always stay buried.” The heroine, amateur historian Catherine Corless, is, naturally, a woman who has turned her back on the church.

The entire production is framed as Corless’ personal search for atonement after playing a cruel trick on one of the many Tuam children who attended her school in the 1950s. Much is rightly made of the injustice, discrimination and appalling conditions in which these children lived and died, thanks to the attitudes and prejudices of Irish society, but there is no effort to present a balanced picture.

As I wrote in 2014, while mortality rates at the home were higher than the population as a whole, this is hardly surprising. Records show that the French religious order running the home, the Sisters of Bon Secours (ie, “good help”), were struggling with a tight-fisted local council and community who were reluctant to release funds for a much-needed refurbishment of the dilapidated building which had formerly served as a workhouse. The mother superior reported that the building – dating from 1845 and housing unmarried mothers and their children from 1925 to 1961 — was freezing and resources were scarce.

An analysis of the death certificates compiled by Catherine Corless listed the causes of death as whooping cough, anaemia, influenza, kidney inflammation, laryngitis, congenital heart disease, enteritis, epilepsy, spina bifida, chicken pox, dropsy, coeliac disease, birth injury, sudden circulatory failure and fits.

What is often forgotten is that the home at Tuam also functioned as a maternity hospital and therefore, as in any such institution, death rates were higher than in the general population. The pattern of deaths in Tuam coincided with that of homes in the rest of Ireland, where death rates spiked in the 1920s. In one home  in 1933-34 the death rate peaked at 40 percent, well above that of Tuam, thanks to a measles epidemic. The death rates in Tuam, as in the other hospitals, significantly declined once antibiotics came on stream in the mid-1940s.

Also overlooked in the discussion, was the age demographic of many of the pregnant mothers. Clusters of malnourished girls aged 14-18, barely able to carry a successful pregnancy to term, would present at the home; they would be unable to breastfeed their babies, giving the infants little chance to thrive. Awareness of the effect of maternal health upon the unborn child is a relatively recent development; along with the lack of a nutritious diet, antibiotics and infection control it is not surprising that there were so many sickly babies and high mortality rates. It is on public record that the home at Tuam was both understaffed and served by the town’s oldest doctor, who ought to have long-since retired.

Despite devoting over 7,300 words to the feature, Dan Barry, the New York Times essayist, does not manage to uncover a single piece of new evidence. His job is to make the exisitng evidence look as bad as possible. The human remains in a septic tank structure (decommissioned in the 1930s) found by two boys who were playing on the site in the 1970s are a “gruesome jumble of skulls and bones.” One of those boys tells us: “County workers came, the police said that they were only famine bones, a priest said a prayer and that was that.” Actually, famine bones would be pretty common in Ireland.

To date, nothing has been discovered which would disprove this theory, because the “tank” which was uncovered, seems to have been fairly shallow, not very big, and contemporary records of the incident estimated about 10 adult skeletons, all in the site where it was likely famine victims would have been buried. There is nothing to suggest that they are in any way related to the 796 children supposedly buried in the septic tank. Neither is it clear that anything was being hidden or suppressed or that the Church regarded them as “only bones”. If that was the case, why would a priest bother to turn up and give the remains the rites, respect and dignity which were due to them?

The testimony of Mary Moriarty, while recounted with dramatic effect, concerns another 1970s discovery that is neither new nor necessarily sinister. A Tuam housewife, she followed a young boy who appeared to have found the skull of a child back to where he had found it and then fell into a underground cavern when the ground collapsed beneath her. What Mary saw were “little bundles stacked one on top of another … and wrapped tight in graying cloth.”

Yet the evidence that the corpses of little babies, perhaps stillborn or maybe those who died shortly after birth, were buried stacked one on top of the other in an underground vault does not indicate any kind of foul play. Regardless of whether or this space had once been used as a sewerage system, it’s clear that it would have been cleaned out before being repurposed, and it looks as though the bodies were carefully placed as opposed to being willfully “tossed” into some kind of stinking cesspit as headlines in 2014 implied.

As for the rest of the bodies at the site – a government commission is still investigating. The nuns did at one point have a contract for the supply of coffins, so it may be that the interment of the rest of the bodies is perfectly regular. It was well known and has been acknowledged by the Bon Secours order that there was a small cemetery at the home itself and this “operated as a general grave”. When the site was redeveloped for public housing, an area over the burial vault was kept separate and a local couple built a little grotto to the Blessed Virgin there.

Regarding their funeral rites, Greg Daly of The Irish Catholic points out that, far from disregarding its own rules about Christian burial, the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council asked for the bodies of infants and little children who had not yet reached the age of reason to be interred separately from areas designated for the general public. The reason being that they were regarded as innocents and therefore not in need of prayers to enter heaven; their salvation was guaranteed and this was explicit in their separate funeral rites.

The idea that the children were tossed into the sewer, without any funeral rites, following a lifetime of deliberate cruelty and neglect makes for a compelling horror narrative but is not based on fact. The only real scandal here is why officials chose to build a modern housing estate around a mass grave, rather than excavate and respectfully reinter remains as has been customary for many decades. I suspect the answer is cost.

But if respect for the dead is in question, why would the New York Times exhume this tragic story in such blatant proximity to Halloween? Surely the editors did not mean to honour Catholic beliefs about the afterlife, and a folk festival that trivializes death is hardly the time to weep over Irish babies who died of poverty and ignorance many decades ago.

The most likely reason is to keep the Tuam pot boiling in anticipation of more revelations to come.

The government investigation into the burial site is due to report by February next year. Its mandate, the Times grimly tells us, “includes scrutiny of the network’s links to the notorious Magdalen Laundries. The apparent coercion of unmarried mothers to surrender their children for adoption, often to Catholic Americans. The vaccine trials carried out on mother-and-baby-home children for pharmaceutical companies. The use of home-baby remains for anatomical study at medical colleges.”

The Gray Lady can’t wait.

Caroline Farrow is a Catholic broadcaster, commentator and journalist. 

Author profile: Caroline Farrow is a weekly columnist for the Catholic Universe newspaper in the UK and Ireland, a media speaker with Catholic Voices and a freelance writer, speaking and writing on issues...