A story too good to check out

I remember reading the appalling story last month in the Roanoke (Va.) Times before leaving for Ireland: Nuns at an Irish orphanage during some three decades of the mid-20th century had discarded about 800 dead babies and children in unmarked graves on the convent grounds, some in a septic tank. Yuck.

The news story was originally based on the Facebook reports of a researcher who had been searching through records of this Catholic home in Galway where unwed pregnant girls could have their babies in isolated shame and give them up for the nuns to raise.

But the story was wrong, or at least suffered from several steps of exaggeration and lack of context. Shawn Pogatchnik, the Associated Press reporter who was my original contact in Dublin, wrote a diligent analysis of how the story fell off the rails of verifiable facts.

The deaths of so many children, in the context of Ireland’s poverty and diseases at the time, was not unusual. In fact, the death rate at this “mother and baby” home was lower than that of most of the other nine such places in Ireland, all long-since shut down. Contrary to some of the news stories, these children were baptized, and buried on the orphanage grounds mainly because family plots in churchyards had no room. Death stalked the land from the 1920s through the 1950s, and infants in these homes were dying not so much from starvation but from measles, pneumonia, tuberculosis and the flu.

As for the septic tank, it was a “disused” tank when the burials took place, even if any were on that spot – which was merely the speculation of the researcher, not a fact. But “Nuns bury babies in septic tank” was too good a headline to resist, Pogatchnik says. A harder story to tell is the real one, of Ireland’s widespread poverty and disease during much of the 20th century.

– Doug Cumming

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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