The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation has said there must be people in the area surrounding Tuam in Co Galway who know more about the burial arrangements of former residents of the former maternity institution there who have not come forward.

The commission says they can still do so.

The commission's fifth interim report, published this morning, is highly critical of the Sisters of Bon Secours who ran the home and former members and officials of Galway County Council which owned it.

The 95-page report states that council members and staff must have known something about the manner of burial as the local authority's sub-committees sometimes met on the site.

It says employees would have been in the grounds "quite frequently" as they carried out repairs to the building and "possibly" also maintained the grounds.

The report found no physical or documentary evidence of systematic burials in the grounds of the Bessborough home and maternity hospital in Cork city.

But considers it "highly likely" that burials of some of the 900 plus babies and children who died while they were residents of Bessborough from the 1920s to the 1980s took place in the extensive campus, which at one stage was over 150 acres in area.

A search of official burial places in the Cork area found records of just 64 of the children concerned.

Just 64 of the 900 plus children who died while residents of Bessborough between the 1920s and 1980s were found in a search of official burial places.

It says that representatives of the institution's owners, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, told the commission it had very little information on burials as Bessborough's records were held by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and it had no access to them.

The report states that a number of the congregation's nuns provided affidavits and/or oral evidence to the commission but "were able to provide remarkably little evidence about burial arrangements".

The latest interim report of the commission throws light on serious concerns about burial practices at a number of former maternity institutions.

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Meanwhile, the chairperson of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors group says the Bessborough 'Little Angles' plot has "effectively disappeared".

Paul Redmond, who was born in a mother and baby home, says the revelation in today's report from the Commission of Investigation is "absolutely shocking" and will be "very upsetting and distressing" for the families of babies who died.

Paul Redmond

He says people have been holding commemorations since 2014 at the site where they thought the burial ground was located, on the grounds of the former mother and baby home in Cork.

Mr Redmond says now "nobody knows where between 700 and 900 babies are buried and they could be anywhere".

And he says he fears that "as things stand, it looks like there is no possibility of finding out" where any of the remains are actually located.

Paul Redmond says "we will be left with a lot of unanswered questions, forever" and he believes that people who may have information regarding the burial of babies at mother and baby homes "are afraid to come forward".

Within the past two months, the commission has excavated an area in the grounds of the former home at Sean Ross Abbey in Co Tipperary. 

It had already discovered a significant quantity of human remains at the former mother-and-baby home in Tuam.

In her opening address, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone described the report as significant, addressing, as it does, important issues relating to the burial arrangements at the institutions.

The Mother and Baby Home operated in Tuam between 1925 and 1961. 

Today's report says that 802 children died in Tuam during this time. 

The commission says there is virtually no information about burials in the documentation it has seen.

It also expressed concern that some records may have been lost or destroyed over the years. 

It says Galway County Council must have been aware of burial practices at the Tuam site and it was legally required to keep a register of burials. There is no evidence that this happened.

However, there are indications that the local authority knew about the burial ground there in the early 1970s.

The commission has unearthed correspondence from then, when the Dublin Road estate was being constructed, in which the issue was raised. 

In 1991, a council engineer was sent there following concerns about exposed bones in the area.

In a statement tonight, Galway County Council said it  recognises that the Report is an interim report, compiled basis of information available at this time.

The Council said that it has and will continue to afford the Commission its full cooperation and assistance in undertaking its work. 

"The Commission was and will continue to be facilitated with full, ongoing and open access to all records and files, including archival material, held by Galway County Council," the statement said.

The Council confirmed that both current and former staff of Council attended before the Commission and the Council responded to all correspondence and documentation received from the Commission.  

It joined the request by the Commission for anyone with any information concerning the Tuam site to come forward. 

The report contains a detailed overview of the excavation carried out on two structures on the site of the Tuam home.

One, corresponding with the location of a "sewage tank" on Ordinance Survey maps, was filled with stones.

Among the rubble, a glass baby's bottle was found. A number of small enamel cups were also found, one with a children's nursery rhyme printed on it.

The second structure contained 20 chambers, built within the boundaries of the old sewage tank. Human remains were "immediately visible" when lids were removed in 18 of these chambers. These appear to be from infants less than a year old or those of young children aged between one and six years of age. 

Radiocarbon dating suggests two of the bones were from children who died sometime between 1957 and 1959. 

The commission says it does not consider any of its features suggest the structure in question was designed as a crypt or formal burial chamber. This was queried by the Bon Secours sisters when they commissioned an archaeologist to review earlier commission findings. 

Today's report outlines an exhaustive trawl through records to determine exactly what the chambers were used for.

Detailed research on the evolution of the water and sewage system at the Tuam home has been carried out. It is considered possible that the second structure to be excavated was constructed in mid to late 1937.

If this is the case, then human remains found there would date from after this time. The commission says this raised the question of where children who died before then are buried. 

Limited excavations have not revealed the existence of a sewage pipe but soil analysis illustrates it is likely the chambers were used as sewage tanks. 

The Sisters of Bon Secours told the commission that they left all documents in Tuam when the home closed in 1961 and that these were ultimately transferred to Tusla. 

The Order says only one nun who worked in the Tuam home is still alive but she is unable to assist in the investigation. 

In February of last year, the County Leader of the Order told the commission that children who died in Tuam deserved a proper burial but that this did not happen. She said the nuns wished to express deep sorrow and apologise unreservedly for this. 

The report also says there is evidence the burial grounds extend beyond the existing memorial garden in the Dublin Road housing estate. 

Public responded with 'mostly second-hand information'

The Bessborough home

The report also states that, to date, the commission has identified the burial places of just 64 of Bessborough''s 900-plus child residents who died between 1922 and 1998.

It recalls that members of the public responded "with mostly second-hand information" to the commission’s appeal for information on burials in Bessborough and that all of this information was followed up.

"...the locations identified as possible burial sites ....were assessed by forensic archaeologists," the report continues. "Some ....have been built on. To date, no physical or documentary evidence has been produced which suggests that any of the sites identified by members of the public contain human remains," it states.

However, the commission also examined the burial records of seven of the eight burial grounds that were in operation in Cork city and its hinterland between 1922 and 1998, the period under review.

So far the commission has been unable to locate the burial records for Cork District Cemetery, Carr’s Hill.

However, a former administrator of St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork who had access to hospital mortuary records, told the commission that many of the significant number of Bessborough children and babies who died there were buried in the graveyard at Carr’s Hill.

He recalled that this was done after the South Cork Board of Public Assistance assumed responsibility for their burials.

The commission finds records of 58 burials between 1922 and 1928 in St Joseph’s Cemetery, Tory Top Road, Cork.

It says that it appears that after 1928, "some alternative burial arrangements were made for the deceased Bessborough children".

It found records of two child residents being buried in St Michael’s Cemetery in Blackrock which was opened in 1957.

A further four children recorded as buried in St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork had an association with Bessborough.

Adding together the deaths of so-called "illegitimate" children from Bessborough, St Finbarr’s Hospital and the Cork County Home, the commission has established that 1,343 died at the three locations.

"Despite having undertaken intensive investigation, the burial locations of 1,279 of these children remain unknown," the report states.

Returning to Tuam, the report says there is "very little basis for the theory" that children whose deaths appear in the records of the Tuam home, but for whom there are no burial records,were "sold to America".

Today's fifth interim report from Judge Yvonne Murphy's commission is expected to generate more interest in the investigation than at any time since its grim discovery in 2017 of human remains at the Tuam site.

A substantial quantity of human remains was found there by commission researchers in the vicinity of the institution's old sewage tank.

Human remains were found at the Tuam mother-and-baby home

Their age at death ranged from 35 foetal weeks (many of them were possibly stillborn babies) to two to three-year-old children.

They had died as far back as the 1950s.

The home - which was across the road from the town's main cemetery - was closed by the Bon Secours nuns in 1961 after 36 years of activity.

Last October, the Government decided to enhance the forensic excavations there to recover children's remains insofar as this is possible; to use systematic on-site ground-truthing and test excavations to locate potential burials; to forensically analyse any recovered remains and, where possible, to reunite body parts and identify the deceased individuals.  

Minister Zappone envisages the process facilitating, at the minimum, arrangements for respectful reburial and memorialisation and the appropriate conservation of the site.

However, new legislation is required before the excavations can proceed and is currently being drafted.

Meanwhile, some former residents and their relatives have asked for samples of their individual genetic codes - or DNA - to be taken from them without delay, anxious that they may die before scientists try to extract DNA from the bones of Tuam's discarded babies.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar responded by saying the request appeared to be a reasonable one.

Early last February, the commission began a geophysical survey of part of the grounds of the former Sean Ross mother-and-baby home near Roscrea.

This was quickly followed by a  sample excavation.

Excavation at Sean Ross Abbey site

A commission source said at the time that the exercise was prompted by information supplied to it by an individual.

Today's report also includes accounts of burial arrangements at a number of the 16 other institutions being investigated by the commission.

But, apart from Tuam and Sean Ross, it is understood that none will be based on on-the-ground scientific research.

Minister Zappone had already indicated that at least some of the country's medical schools would also come under scrutiny in today's report when the commission reveals its findings on the burial arrangements for residents of institutions whose remains were transferred to colleges for anatomical examination.

Ms Zappone had today's report for a month and both she and Attorney General Séamus Woulfe considered it.

Its publication was approved at yesterday's Cabinet meeting.  

A spokesperson for the Tuam Babies Family Group has said there are serious issues around today's report.

Anna Corrigan said the matters around Tuam are criminal and a matter for the coroner and gardaí who, she said, need to step up and do their job.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, she said the coroner has been involved in Tuam since 2016 and she cannot understand why it has gone out of the remit of the coroner, the State Pathologist and gardaí.

Ms Corrigan added that there is no medical certification for any of the children buried at Tuam, which she has made a complaint about, and under Section 17 of the Coroner's Act, this is something that the coroner must act on.

In response to the criticisms in the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation fifth interim report, the Sisters of Bon Secours says it has "always cooperated fully with the Commission of Investigation and will continue to do so."

In a statement, the congregation also says "every piece of information we have on the Tuam home, we have shared with the Commission."

Meanwhile, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary has said that it will continue to deal directly with the commission "on all related matters". 

It said that the commission "has had and will continue to have our fullest co-operation". 

The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary ran the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork, Sean Ross Abbey in Co Tipperary and the mother and baby home in Castlepollard.

Historian wrote of discovery of death records

The scandal of inappropriately buried "home children" was first uncovered in 2011 by local historian Catherine Corless when she wrote in the Old Tuam Society's journal about her discovery of death records for 796 children and mothers resident in the town's institution between 1925 and 1961.

But she could find no record of where they might be buried. The story was picked up by the national media in  2014.

Two local men told reporters they remembered discovering what appeared to be human bones in a manhole they stumbled into while playing in the home's disused grounds in the 1960s.

And Town Council minutes from the early 1970s, record members warning against a housing complex, which was at the planning stage, being built over what they called the children's graveyard. A very large playground was constructed over the area in question.

The three-person Commission of Investigation, chaired by Judge Murphy, has had to get Government approval to increase the time allotted to it to complete its work from two years to four and its final report is expected next February.

A commission source said a large volume of official files on the homes had reached it last Christmas, weeks before it was expected to deliver its final report.

Additional reporting Pat McGrath