'Tuam’ Forever Associated With Horror

Paul Kelly delves into Tuam and its modern cultural significance.

Tuam is a town with a multicultural population of roughly 9,000 located in north east county Galway. With the new road you can make it to Galway city in less than half an hour while 10 minutes heading the other way and you’ll be in county Mayo. Tuam is where my American wife and I have chosen to raise our family. Tuam is our home. Let me tell you a little bit about it.

For years the locals boasted Tuam to be the smallest city in the world, with t-shirts and keyrings designed accordingly. This stemmed from an ancient decree that if a settlement has two cathedrals it is automatically granted ‘city’ status. As home to Catholic and Church of Ireland cathedrals since the mid-19th century, Tuam duly qualified. An apocryphal story has done the rounds for yonks that this was the subject of a question on an episode of BBC’s Mastermind. Of course, this has never been confirmed. Apparently, no-one was watching that night but everyone seems to know of somebody who was.

Some years back our bubble burst when a rumour circulated that a tiny village in Wales laid claim to the same title for the same reasons. I’m not sure how it was resolved but every tourist sign around the town has since been updated and reworded with certain ‘facts’ omitted. With our necks well and truly wound back in, we don’t talk about it anymore; perhaps a sign of things to come?

Legend states that during the 5th Century a novice monk with nomadic tendencies named Jarlath was instructed by his abbot, Benignus of Armagh, to roam the length and breadth of Ireland spreading the gospels. Benignus stipulated that if during his travels Jarlath was forced to remain in the same place indefinitely, he was to build a monastery. Just south of what would become Tuam, Jarlath’s chariot struck a rock on the road, smashing one of the wheels. Informed by a local smith that it would take days to repair, Jarlath took this as a sign and decided to stick around and established his monastery. A settlement, Tuam, soon followed and has kept a broken wheel as its heraldic emblem ever since. The Feast of Saint Jarlath is June 6th.

Tuam derives from the Latin term tumulus meaning ‘burial mound’. The town's ancient name was Tuaim Dá Ghualainn (‘burial mound of two shoulders’) and records of it as a settlement date back to the mid-6th Century.

Tuam gained its’ most prestigious status in the early 12th century when newly crowned High King of Ireland, Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair chose it as his seat of power for the duration of his reign (1111-1156).

Historically, Tuam was relatively quiet for the next 800 years apart from some sporadic agitation during the land wars of the late 19th century. Things livened up again during the War of Independence and the subsequent civil war. On July 20th 1920, crown forces burned the Town Hall and numerous commercial properties as a reprisal after an IRA ambush the previous day had killed two constables.

As the civil war drew to a close, Michael Murphy and Joseph O’Rourke were arrested while carrying out a bank robbery in Athenry on May 22nd 1923. Two days later IRA leader Frank Aiken ordered his men to dumps arms. Believed by the authorities to be Anti-Treaty operatives, Murphy and O’Rourke were swiftly processed and summarily executed in Tuam by firing squad on May 30th in what are officially declared as the final executions of the conflict, although debate as to what organization the unfortunate pair aligned with persists to this day.

Music and sport have always been important. There is no doubt The Saw Doctors helped make the late 80s/early 90s a little bit easier. Tuam is also regarded as the spiritual home of Gaelic football in Galway. With nine All-Ireland senior titles, the first coming in 1925, Galway rank third in the Roll of Honour behind Kerry and Dublin. Each of those nine teams was backboned by players from Tuam’s hinterland and it is generally held that if Galway is to become a threatening force again this trend must continue.

But none of this matters anymore. None of this will be remembered. All is changed; changed utterly. Because of the herculean work of local historian Catherine Corless and her investigation into the Bon Secours Mother and Baby home the word ‘Tuam’ will be forever associated with horror. From now on we shall be spoken of in the same breath as Wounded Knee, Amritsar, Sharpeville, My Lai and Srebenicia.

In the course of her obstacle-ridden investigation, Mrs Corless discovered that 796 children who died at the home between 1925 and 1961 weren’t given an official burial despite being issued death certificates. A decision to carry out a full forensic examination of the site was announced in October 2018 following confirmation in March 2017 that a significant amount of human remains had been discovered in an abandoned septic tank.

Journalists from all over the world have flooded into Tuam ever since to cover the story. They have been met with a wall of silence. It may not be something we wish to shout from the rooftops but we must tell the world. But first we must admit to ourselves that this actually happened. To quote Mark Twain: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”.

Last August was a big help. A vigil was arranged to coincide with the mass celebrated by Pope Francis in the Phoenix Park to conclude the World Meeting of Families. It went from the square to the site of the home, approximately a mile away. The event was covered for the Tuam Herald by its editor, David Burke.

Even, or especially, in light of recent and not-so recent revelations the papal visit, including a pit-stop in Knock, was a huge deal and justified local and national media coverage, especially as it cost the Irish taxpayer €17m. It isn't everyday a CEO of a company said to own assets worth €4 billion in Ireland alone shows up for five minutes in a small town half an hour up the road.

Nowadays many newspapers seem to put the interests of advertisers above the interests of readerships. To use sporting analogies, corporate boxes supersede turnstiles. Slugging it out with Skoda’s new poster-boy for headlines was always going to be challenging but to their credit, the Herald didn’t ‘bend the knee’ and prioritized the vigil over the visit, devoting three full pages of excellent coverage accompanied with poignant photographs. Up against a box-office pontiff, I feared such an important local issue might be shoe-horned in somewhere between cinema listings and 'Turf for Sale'. 

I immediately thought of Paddy Kavanagh. Epic tells of semi-naked neighbours squabbling over ‘half a rood of rock’ unconcerned with ‘the Munich bother’ and imminent WWII. Ultimately, ‘....Gods make their own importance’ but should provincial trump parochial?

In the landmark case New York Times v United States in 1971 the US Supreme Court ruled 6 - 3 that the New York Times and Washington Post could publish, without government censorship, the leaked classified Pentagon Papers detailing the truth about US involvement in Vietnam since 1945. After the verdict Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black said:
In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.
Incidentally, in January 2019 two articles appeared in the same edition of the Herald. One dealt with the government’s green light for Minister for Children Katherine Zappone’s most recent recommendations on the excavation. The estimated cost of the project is between €6m and €13m. The other gave details about an approved multi-million euro facelift for Tuam’s Cathedral of the Assumption. Readers were informed that donations for the latter will be gratefully accepted.

Paul Kelly is a Tuam based writer.

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