Wednesday, April 14

Catherine Corless, fairy godmother of Ireland’s forgotten children

By Cécile Ducourtieux

Posted today at 12:05 a.m., updated at 05:58 a.m.

Historian Catherine Corless (right) and Carmel Larkin, survivor of the Tuam home in 2019, during a vigil for the 796 victims of Tuam.

“It all started on this kitchen table”, used to relate the Anglo-Saxon journalists who had the chance to meet Catherine Corless, at her home, on her family farm in Tuam (a large town in County Galway, in the west of Ireland).

AT 66 years old, this amateur historian, a grandmother with a sweet face but a rare smile, has become a real heroine in Ireland. Alone, therefore, from her kitchen table, this modest but determined woman has managed to unearth a painful and shameful national past, to restore voice and dignity to dozens of victims and to force the Irish State and the Catholic Church to recognize their wrongs.

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Without her dogged work, the public inquiry which concluded in mid-January that 9,000 children had died between 1922 and 1998 in Irish “mothers and babies” homes, would never have taken place.

These dozens of structures, scattered throughout the country and run by religious institutions, concealed the pregnancies of unmarried women, considered shameful in the eyes of a misogynistic society and clergy. The women were harshly treated there, their children were systematically placed by the nuns in foster or adoptive families. The lack of care, hygiene and love was such that infant mortality was maddening.

A heroine

On Wednesday January 13, the Irish government increased its praise for Catherine Corless, “Heroine of our country” for Labor leader Alan Kelly.

She was born in Tuam, and as a child, like all the kids in the city, she knew the home, a severe building surrounded by high gray walls, a “house for mothers and babies” held by the Bon Secours sisters since the 1920s. The institution closed in 1961, its buildings were destroyed and the site partly replaced by communal housing.

Read also The ghosts of the convent haunt the Irish town of Tuam

Catherine Corless remembers the children of home, “They were very calm, fearful and miserable”. In the school she attended as a little girl, they were placed at the back of the class and no one spoke to them.

Another memory pursues her: to imitate one of her comrades and make a joke, she hands an old empty candy wrap to a little girl. “At the time, I thought it was funny. But, over the years, I understood the impact of this gesture for these children who never had sweets, not even at Christmas. It haunted me ”, she told BBC Radio 4 in 2017.

Originally a small sanctuary

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