Few of us are inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth, and that applies in spades to journalists running with a sensational news story. But even by normal media standards, recent reports about the bones of 796 babies being found in the septic tank of an Irish orphanage betray a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility rarely surpassed by allegedly reputable news organizations.
Although the media attributed the “dumped in a septic tank” allegation to Catherine Corless, a local amateur historian, she denies making it. Her attempt to correct the record was reported by the Irish Times newspaper on Saturday (see here) but has been almost entirely ignored by the same global media that so gleefully recycled the original suggestion. That suggestion, which seems to have first surfaced in the Mail on Sunday, a London-based newspaper, reflected appallingly on the Sisters of Bon Secours, the order of Catholic nuns at the center of the scandal. An image was created of satanic depravity: wicked-witch nuns shoveling tiny human forms into a maelstrom of excrement and urine. In reality the odds that anything like this happened are vanishingly small.
Today the Irish Times has published a reader’s letter that has further undercut the story. Finbar McCormick, a professor of geography at Queen’s University Belfast, sharply admonished the media for describing the children’s last resting place as a septic tank. He added: “The structure as described is much more likely to be a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used in the recent past and still used today in many part of Europe.
“In the 19th century, deep brick-lined shafts were constructed and covered with a large slab which often doubled as a flatly laid headstone. These were common in 19th-century urban cemeteries…..Such tombs are still used extensively in Mediterranean countries. I recently saw such structures being constructed in a churchyard in Croatia. The shaft was made of concrete blocks, plastered internally and roofed with large concrete slabs.
English: Irish Celtic Cross
Celtic cross: Some get a better send-off than others. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Many maternity hospitals in Ireland had a communal burial place for stillborn children or those who died soon after birth. These were sometimes in a nearby graveyard but more often in a special area within the grounds of the hospital.”
For anyone familiar with Ireland (I was brought up there in the 1950s and 1960s), the story of nuns consciously throwing babies into a septic tank never made sense. Although many of the nuns may have been holier-than-thou harridans, they were nothing if not God-fearing and therefore unlikely to treat human remains with the sort of outright blasphemy implied in the septic tank story.
So what are we left with? One fact seems beyond dispute: conditions in Irish orphanages up to the 1960s (when the orphanage at the center of the uproar was shut down) were positively Dickensian. Certainly the death rate at many was shockingly high. But who should be blamed? A major part of the problem would appear to have been the pervasive poverty of the time. Because they were so desperately underfunded, Irish orphanages were disgracefully overcrowded, which meant that when one baby caught an infection, they all caught it. Not the least of the hazards was tuberculosis, a then incurable disease that spread like wildfire in overcrowded conditions.
The nuns who ran the orphanage have long since gone to their reward but if they could speak they would no doubt claim they were doing their best in appalling conditions. Certainly it is reasonable to suggest that Irish society generally had much to answer for. As for the nuns, they were so young when they entered religious life — typically in their late teens or early 20s — that they had little understanding of the secular world and were evidently short on managerial skills. Less forgivably, however, they took a highly puritanical attitude to the “fallen women” who had the misfortune to come under their purview. Allegedly they even — in some cases at least — banned the use of anesthetics in childbirth, the better to ensure that mothers would atone for the “sin” of having an out-of-wedlock child.
At the end of the day, the verifiable facts that have emerged so far amount merely to a strong story for the media of one small country. The one “fact” that turned all this from a disturbing national story into a screaming global sensation is one that is almost certainly false.
There is a moral here for those who are increasingly bewildered by the modern world: the global media are becoming less and less accountable. Sometimes the truth eventually does come out, or at least some of us have sufficient knowledge to suspect the facts are misstated. But very often readers do not have the experience and worldly wisdom to see through the nonsense, particularly in interpreting reported developments in nations whose cultures diverge sharply from those of the West (I am thinking in particular of East Asia, a region about which on the basis of 27 years of residence I can claim some knowledge ).
While we are constantly assured that we live in an Information Age, in reality the noise to signal ratio in our media has probably never been higher. This is an age of disinformation.
Postscript, June 12
Even by the normal standards of internet discourse, this commentary has elicited an extraordinary outburst of vituperation and incivility. Some reader responses have been overtly mendacious and many have been malevolently misleading. In an effort to discredit me, one interlocutor has even attributed to me the absurd view that there is no evidence of human remains at the site in Tuam where the orphanage was located. Do I have to state that I have always believed the media are reliable in reporting such evidence? The larger question is why would anyone make up something out of whole cloth if he or she is sincerely concerned to promote some larger truth? (Incidentally I am in general agreement with the mainstream press on most other aspects of the story, most notably the point that the death rate at Tuam was disgracefully high. This is merely to state the obvious but where internet commentary is concerned if you don’t state the obvious you can count on someone — probably someone hiding behind a cloak of anonymity — to pop up to accuse you of denying the obvious.)
Let’s sum up. The accuracy of the facts I reported remains unquestioned (Professor McCormick and Catherine Corless have been quoted accurately, as can be established by checking out the two Irish Times links included above).
Now let’s consider my interlocutors’ contributions. Although they have a point when they say that Catherine Corless’s comments have been inconsistent, they cannot gainsay the fact that her settled position as of today is the one I have quoted above.
My interlocutors have done little to challenge Finbar McCormick’s expert testimony. True, they have produced a map on which a sewage tank is marked but contrary to their contention this proves nothing. Given that an institution – a so-called workhouse for the indigent – already existed at the site as far back as the nineteenth century, the existence of a cesspit in close proximity to the building was entirely to be expected.
Basically we are still left with a totally confused picture. But even if we are to assume that the babies’ last resting place was a disused sewage tank, this does not justify the sensational “dumping babies bodies in a septic tank” allegation that made this story a global sensation. On the whole I agree with Andrew Brown, a commentator on religious matters, who has written a thoughtful and balanced commentary for the London Guardian. As he points out, for those who want to dismiss the nuns as wicked witches, the problem is chronology. He comments: “If the bodies were placed in a sewage tank long after it had been drained and disused, this would seem much less shocking. That less shocking story is at least plausible.”
In defending the global headlines, the media have to prove that the nuns consciously shoveled babies’ bodies into a hell-brew of human waste. This sets the evidential bar rather high:
The media have to show that the bodies were “dumped.”
They have to show that the place where these bodies were “dumped” was indeed a sewage tank.
They have to show that the sewage tank was still being use for its original purpose at the time the bodies were placed in it.
They have to show that the nuns were conscious of the utterly blasphemous nature of what they were allegedly doing.
My point remains that though many of the nuns may have been holier-than-thou harridans, blasphemy is unlikely to have figured in their agenda. No one has come even close to substantiating the implied charge of blasphemy and I don’t think anyone ever will.
My case rests. The image of nuns consciously dumping babies in a septic tank is one of the most irresponsible press hoaxes of modern times.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key To Future Prosperity (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).