The bodies of babies from the Tuam institution have lain beneath the ground in what is now a suburban housing development since some time before 1961, when the Mother and Baby Home closed. 

They are in what has been officially termed a "substructure" in the corner of what is now a playground at the back of the estate.

A memorial built by locals marks the area where they lie. There are no headstones or plaques from authorities to indicate it is a sacred area. Yet it is one of the most prominent burial locations in the country. 

A Commission of Investigation is looking into why they are buried there and what exactly is this 'substructure'.

But its deadline was recently pushed back by a further year. It is the second such extension. With no clear end in sight, Prime Time has been trying to find out what is known so far about what happened in Tuam. 

Survivors of the home revisit the site
Survivors of the home revisit the site

The story of that playground corner starts almost 190 years ago. With famine looming in Ireland, the Poor Law Acts of the 1830s were passed. They ordered the construction of workhouses across the country.

The workhouses were built at an incredible pace - 120 in the space of a few years. One went up in Tuam around 1842 and 80 years later it would become the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

The workhouses were all built using standard templates. Dormitory bedrooms, separate wards for men, women, children and "idiots", divided yards, a "deadhouse", high exterior walls and underground cesspits for human waste.

On the plan used for the Tuam workhouse there were nine cesspits. Alan Eddie of the RTÉ TV Graphics Department has modelled how they would have been laid out, according to the plans, for Prime Time.

Yet in the archives there is talk about another cesspit - a tenth – this one built in the years after the workhouse had opened. Where? We don't know exactly, but reports and maps from the period provide some indication.

In a strange twist of history, one of Ireland’s oldest newspapers, the Tuam Herald, is based in Tuam. All through the workhouse period its writers published details of the minutes of the workhouse board meetings.

Thankfully, the National Library has copies of nearly every edition. They give us an insight into the location of this added cesspit - according to the minutes recorded by the Herald it is at the "rere of the workhouse" and was built in 1848. It was also built on land rented by the board.

Tuam Herald extract

Meanwhile, Ordnance Survey Ireland holds historic maps. The earliest one for the workhouse is from the late 1800s. It shows an odd outcrop at the rear of the site, an area which wasn't necessary for building any structure on the architect’s plans. 

Outcrop of site

That piece of land was rented by the workhouse board.Today it is the memorial area in the corner of the playground. It appears a cesspit may have been built there in 1848.

In 2017, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes published an interim report. After revelations from local historian Catherine Corless outraged people across the world, the commission was tasked investigate what happened in Tuam and 17 other similar institutions.

Their interim report confirmed the key element of Ms Corless’s theory. She had hypothesised that 796 babies may have been buried in a sewage tank in the corner.

The commission carried out a partial test excavation and found "significant" numbers of human remains in a "substructure" just below surface in that corner of the playground.

The remains dated from the time when the Mother and Baby home operated and were babies aged between 35 foetal weeks and three years old. Ms Corless had found death certs for 796 babies who died in the home but no burial locations for any of them. It appears we now know where at least some of them lie.

But the commission didn't find one "substructure", it found two; no remains were located in the other. So did they find a cesspit that may have been built there during the workhouse era? Or something else? 

Here's how it appears the structures are located in the corner:

In the archives there is evidence of more construction in the playground corner down through the decades.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Tuam workhouse board was plagued with complaints from locals about smells emanating from the human waste in the cesspits on the site. Health inspectors said the condition of the cesspits was "prejudicial to the health of the occupants", while locals said it sometimes "flowed out onto the road" and "covered the road and footpaths".

Finally, in 1918 the board decided to act. Reports from September that year say the Master of the Workhouse was praised by the board for work carried out on the "workhouse sewage scheme". Finally, with the work completed, the board members concluded it was "disposed of this chronic trouble".

Catherine Corless has found the price list for the material used for this work. On the list: bags of cement and mortar. But again, we don’t know where exactly on the site this work was carried out. What we do know is that on the next update to the maps, for 1927, the corner is listed as containing a "sewage tank".

It would be logical to assume that all 796 babies who died in the institution while it was a Mother and Baby home are included in the "significant number of human remains" found by the commission.

However, evidence from other homes throws that into question, while locals who fell into tanks through the decades say they saw far fewer remains than the hundreds listed as having died in the home.

Conall Ó Fátharta of the Irish Examiner has reported extensively on religious institutions. He has found evidence that the orders which ran other homes over-reported the number of deaths in their care to the State. 

It is believed some of the babies listed as having died may have been illegally sent for adoption in the US, where they grew up under another identity. Did that happen in Tuam? That’s another question that many in Tuam, and beyond, want answers to.

Like much of Ireland’s history with religious institutions, there's too much we don't know. Were the babies buried in a famine-era cesspit? We don't know. Were they buried in a 1918 sewage tank? We don't know. There may have been other structures built too, for which the archives don't offer evidence.

The memorial at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home

Was the "substructure" found by the commission "re-purposed" by the nuns who ran the home, as a babies' burial site? The commission says there are "chambers" within the structure, but what does that mean? It appears the ground was never consecrated. Again, we don't know. Not yet, anyway.

These are just small number of the questions for which survivors are awaiting answers. Survivors of other institutions have similar questions.

The commission was due to report in the coming weeks, but its deadline was extended recently for another year. 

Meanwhile, a full excavation of the Tuam site is due to be carried out later this year. 

People who were in the home as babies say they are getting old and time is running out. They want to know what happened to those who are listed as having died while in the home, some of whom are their own siblings.

On Prime Time, we've tried to explain the facts that can be found...for now.