A memorial at the former site of the Tuam Home, where hundreds of babies who died there were put into what is now thought to be a series of chambers located inside a decommissioned sewage tank.
Tuam, Ireland CNN  — 

The day after Michael O’Flaherty was born, his mother tried to see him. But, she told him, she was stopped by a nun who told her, “Go mind your own business, your baby is gone.”

Like other women who gave birth at the Tuam mother and baby home in Ireland, the nuns didn’t forbid O’Flaherty’s mother from seeing her newborn son again, they just didn’t tell her who her baby was, or that he was in the same building. The very same home where she was required to stay for 12 months after giving birth.

“My mother could have picked me up, but she couldn’t have necessarily known,” O’Flaherty told CNN.

The boy would stay in the home for another five and a half years. He doesn’t remember his time inside; his first memory of it was from the day that he left.

Today, at 71, O’Flaherty retraces the steps he took that day with a group that’s become like family.

They walk in front of an unassuming patch of grass, a square bit of land flanked by a children’s playground on a housing estate. Behind them, a Virgin Mary statue hangs on the site’s gray walls, a perimeter of aging stone punctuated by green vines that climb over the parapet. In the corner, a tiny pair of children’s shoes are attached to the wall in memoriam.

Below their feet lie the bodies of hundreds of babies.

Any of the group walking there today could have been among them. But they were the fortunate ones.

They are the survivors.

Bound together by being born into one of Ireland’s most notorious mother and baby homes – church-run institutions where unmarried women were sent to deliver their children under a veil of secrecy, silence and shame for decades – the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance believe that their stories are at risk of being wiped from history.

In February, a commission set up to investigate what happened in those homes will release its final report. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters has heard testimony from survivors for more than four years. But activists say while it has operated under the pretext of transparency, it follows a pattern of the state muzzling the victims. And as the state edges closer to passing a bill that could prevent other survivors’ testimony from being made public, those activists say the time for survivors’ voices to be heard is paramount.

The commission would not answer any of CNN’s questions but said that “the Commission’s final report is scheduled for completion in February 2020. Your questions will be answered in that report.”

‘I felt like a slave’

Michael O'Flaherty was fostered out of Tuam home to abusive foster families who were paid by the Irish state.

Life for children like O’Flaherty, born at the Tuam home which operated from 1925 to 1961 and was run by the Sisters of Bon Secours, was plagued by malnutrition, neglect and trauma.

Mortality rates for children were far higher than national averages, with 802 child deaths recorded during the 36 years it was in operation.

The picture was similar in other homes around the country. In County Cork’s Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, infant mortality rates peaked in 1944 at 82%, according to records from the Department of Local Government and Public Health which were unearthed by Irish journalist Conall Ó Fátharta – who has extensively reported on the mother and baby homes.

Children who survived were either adopted, fostered, or sent to industrial schools – workhouse-style, church-run institutions where abuse was rampant.

When O’Flaherty was 5, he was moved to a foster home where he lived for 10 years. There, he says he was subjected to daily abuse. “I was like a whippet, skin and bone,” he remembers, saying that “there wasn’t a day that wouldn’t go by that I wouldn’t get a clip across the ear.”

While O’Flaherty knew that his foster family weren’t his biological parents, he hadn’t been given any further details as to who his mother or father were.

“I was treated low caste. You weren’t in the same genes as they were,” he added.

When he turned 15, O’Flaherty was sent to another foster family, as his first foster father was no longer entitled to receive state payments for housing him.

The conditions at the next home, on a dairy farm, were even worse.

O’Flaherty slept in an 8-by-4-foot shed, away from the rest of the family. He never ate at the same table with them and toiled the land from dawn until dusk.

“I felt like a slave,” O’Flaherty said. “You wouldn’t do to an animal what was done to me.”

He believes his life took a positive turn when he joined the army at age 24, finally learning what it felt like to be in a family. But he still had no idea who his birth parents were. He came to learn that the army acquired that information when it ran checks on him before accepting him.

He is among many survivors of the mother and baby homes who have found themselves blocked when they try to find out information such as who their parents are, their medical records, and their experiences in the homes.

It took numerous freedom of information requests, a chance encounter with a priest who had connections to many families in the community, and the help of a social worker before O’Flaherty and his wife, Ann, were able find some of his records and to track down his mother, Patricia.

Patricia had been sent away from the parish a week after returning from Tuam just 12 months after she gave birth. The local priest there had told her family that she had brought shame on them and the community.

When they reunited in 1998, Patricia told O’Flaherty that there had never been a day that went by that she hadn’t thought of him.

The mothers were required to sign a consent form after delivering, with many saying that they were coerced into giving up their children, only to later be denied information on them when they approached state bodies.

About nine months after mother and son reunited, Patricia succumbed to cancer.

O’Flaherty’s experience has pushed him to call on the government to “stop the secrecy.”

But he and his wife, Ann, say that those calls are falling on deaf ears.

Grim discoveries

The last mother and baby home shut its doors in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2014 the secrets of Tuam started to be unearthed.

Galway historian Catherine Corless filed extensive freedom of information requests and found death records for 796 children – many of them infants – who had died at Tuam, but for whom there were no burial records.

Her work found that children had been buried in what is now thought to have been a series of chambers located inside a decommissioned sewage tank near the home. The revelation was the catalyst for the 2015 commission that was launched to “provide a full account of what happened to women and children” across 14 mother and baby homes and four “county homes” from 1922 to 1998.

Since then, the commission has released five interim reports, with grim details in each.

In March 2017, an interim report said that “significant quantities of human remains,” had been found in Tuam.

The names of some of the 796 children who died at the Tuam home are seen at a memorial at the site.

The Archbishop of Tuam responded, saying he was “horrified” by the discovery.

“I was greatly shocked, as we all were, to learn of the extent of the numbers of children buried in the graveyard at the mother and baby home in Tuam.”

The most recent report in April also found that the bodies of more than 950 children who died in some of Dublin’s mother and baby homes between 1920 and 1977 were sent to university medical schools for “anatomical studies.”

In the case of Cork’s Bessborough home, the commission was only able to establish the burial place of 64 children out of more than 900 who died.

At the time, Ireland’s Taoiseach or prime minister Leo Varadkar said: “We inherit a deep shame for what was done back then, and we must now endeavor to learn, to atone and to put things right.”

When Ireland’s Minister for Children Katherine Zappone sent a letter to Pope Francis last year asking if “the church will accept its responsibilities and make reparation for its party in a very shameful chapter of Irish history,” he responded by saying that he wished to “assure you of my prayerful solidarity and concern for this sad situation and I pray in particular that efforts made by the Government and by the local Churches and religious congregations will help face responsibly this tragic chapter in Ireland’s history.”

Many hope the commission’s final report, due in February, will bring that atonement.

But the way in which the commission has carried out its work has led survivors and human rights defenders to believe that the state is still doing its best to perpetuate secrecy around institutional abuse, as it has been accused of doing in other cases, like the Magdalene Laundries – Ireland’s mainly Catholic-run workhouses where generations of women were forced to work without pay from 1922 until 1996.

The government’s 2013 McAleese report, which drew on testimony from survivors of the laundries, found that there was “direct state involvement” in compulsory labor and servitude of the women, and said that “for too long, they have been and have felt forgotten.”

The survivors were issued an apology by then-prime minister Enda Kenny, who said at the time: “On behalf of the State, the government and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry.”

But key to the report’s findings, was the omission of some survivors’ testimony, which had detailed physical abuse and torture as a feature of the laundries, according to advocacy groups.

Today, the McAleese report’s archives remain sealed off from the public. The government said last year that there were “no plans” to reopen them.

Now, activists worry the Mother and Baby Homes Commission could follow a similar pattern.

The Commission has refused to give survivors a transcript of their own evidence and has also rejected survivor requests for their testimonies to be publicly available, referencing that the commission is operating under the terms of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.

That Act, states that in general, evidence is to be given in private, “unless a witness requests that all or part of his or her evidence be heard in public and the commission grants the request.”

The commission has told at least one survivor that if they wish to see their testimony they can return to the commission where they can view it “in the presence” of a staff member.

Survivors have also been denied access to any personal information that the commission might hold on them, which could aid them, as it did O’Flaherty, in discovering what happened in their past.

In one letter to a survivor who had asked for information, the commission responded that it was necessary and proportional to withhold her personal records in order “to safeguard the effective operation of the Commission and the future cooperate of witnesses.”

‘My body remembers’

Survivor Teresa O'Sullivan holds a photo of herself as a baby, a photograph that was taken of children who were to be adopted from Tuam home.

Teresa O’Sullivan has suffered from ear problems she attributes to her time at Tuam. She says that at the least, survivors are due their medical records.

O’Sullivan was born at the home in 1957 to a 16-year-old mother who had become pregnant by a young man from England who was on holiday in Ireland.

Her mother traveled to England to continue the relationship, and took a job set up by an agency associated with the Catholic church. But by the time her pregnancy began to show, she says, it was reported to the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society of Ireland, who sent her back to Ireland – and to Tuam.

Like O’Flaherty, O’Sullivan’s mother was unable to spend any time with her as a baby and left the home a year after she delivered.

But she was determined to get her child back. The nuns lied and told her that “she had messed up her own life” and that her baby had been sent to America.

At 10 months, O’Sullivan had instead been placed in another institution in the country’s southwest.

There, she spent six weeks in hospital, suffering from perforated ear drums and chronic ear infections. She was eventually adopted by an “absolutely beautiful” family who advocated for her after not being told about her ear problems nor given any of her medical records.

When she was ready to start her own family, O’Sullivan doggedly pursued her local authority for details on her early life, encountering similar barriers to O’Flaherty.

She was in her 30s when she found her mother in 1990.

Documents that she received from Ireland’s Child and Family Agency raised what O’Sullivan calls “huge concerns” about whether her birth mother gave consent in giving her up for adoption. In some of the adoption records she has been able to see, O’Sullivan says a piece of the form had been torn off.

Her birth mother’s story, which detailed the efforts she made to get her back as a baby, supports those concerns.

Today, O’Sullivan wears two hearing aids. She attributes her chronic health issues to the poor medical care she believes she received during her time in Tuam.

“Even though I don’t remember my time in the home,” she said, “I believe my body remembers.”

Setting a precedent

While the release of personal records remains a huge priority to many survivors like O’Sullivan, a bill that is making its way through the Irish Parliament is also causing wider concern about the way the state has addressed its part in the treatment of women and children in church-run institutions.

The Retention of Records Bill 2019, proposed by Ireland’s education minister, proposes to retain, withhold and seal from the public for 75 years every document gathered or made by three bodies that previously investigated or made payments to survivors of industrial and reformatory schools.

This would remove the opportunity for survivors of these institutions to obtain a copy of their own testimony within their lifetime.

While that bill doesn’t cover the Mother and Baby Homes Commission’s archive, activists say that it sets a chilling precedent for transparency and accountability.

Acknowledging “how sensitive an issue” the proposed legislation is, Education Minister Joe McHugh said in a press release in February that “The legislation takes a balanced approach. We want to ensure records of such huge historical importance are preserved while at the same time respecting the real life stories and deeply personal testimony of all of the individuals….”

The minister added that “75 years is a very long period of time to restrict access to records but it is essential given the sensitivity of the material.”

Maeve O’Rourke, a human rights lawyer and lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway told CNN that the proposed legislation is overly draconian. “There are many survivors who would like their testimony to be made public, and certain details could be anonymized while still making the information available,” she said.

She added that the way the Mother and Baby Home Commission, whose final report will be published by the minister for children, has handled survivors demonstrates “major violations” of European human rights law.

Survivor Christina Caroll lived at Tuam home until she was 8. "I have a memory of being hungry all the time. I was so hungry I remember one of the nuns asking me to feed a small baby -- I gave the child a little bit and ate the whole thing myself. When I was finished the nun beat me because I took the baby's food."

“The testimonies to that Commission also stand to be sealed, and the Commission is refusing to give survivors their own personal records,” she says.

Her worry is that the final report will be “more about satisfying the general public,” rather than sharing the experiences of survivors or giving them access to personal information they have a right to.

In addition, because human rights are not the focus of the investigation, she said, she worries that February’s final report “will kind of give a historical overview of what happened and then leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.”

To counter that, alternative archives are being made public.

Historical justice

In October, The National University of Ireland, Galway, will launch “The Tuam Oral History Project,” a multidisciplinary, survivor-led project that gives a platform to the voices of the Tuam Home survivors and will live as a public, educational resource for generations to come.

Sarah-Anne Buckley, project lead and lecturer in History at NUI Galway, says that it is imperative “to ensure the lives of survivors are documented and remembered in a variety of ways.”

“These stories have relevance not only to Ireland but to a variety of countries and contexts,” she said.

Buckley added that archiving survivor’s testimony and the associated research from the project is especially important in light of the proposed Retention of Records Bill.

“Historical justice, respect and recognition of past abuses are at the fore of the project, which is a human story and one that deserves to be treated with empathy, compassion and most importantly, persistence,” she said.

But for survivors who might want to bring a court case against the state, they’d likely be facing an insurmountable task due to not having access to their own recorded testimony and the commission’s evidence, as well as other constraints like the financial cost of such a case, according to human rights lawyer Colin Smith.

Those factors enable the state to “set a precedent that it knows can’t really be challenged and to treat survivors and victims in whatever way it wants,” he said.

Smith added that with many of the survivors approaching late stages of their lives, ultimately, “attrition will solve the problem for the state.”

Survivors like O’Flaherty and O’Sullivan fear that, even decades after the homes closed, sealing their histories to the public could mean that society might never learn the lessons of the past.

This story has been updated, and the name of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance has been corrected.