Suffer Little Children: The 800 Septic Tank Babies of Tuam

This piece relates to the discovery  of a mass grave, containing 800 babies and children, aged from a few months to nine years old, found in a septic tank at a former Catholic orphanage in Tuam, Galway, earlier this week.

It all comes back to the septic tank.

It dates from 1925, not a modern septic tank – plastic, air-tight, sterile. Not safe. Little more than a concrete filled hole in the ground. Was it even covered? Close-fitted lid, heavy? Or just a couple of planks of wood? The boys who found it in ’75 had no trouble breaking through; they still have nightmares about bones.

Dangerous things. My aunt fell into one once: submerged, the lid broke when she stepped on it; took her hours to climb out. She was lucky, many have drowned. We were told to avoid them as children, the fields they were buried in, don’t even play nearby.

A septic tank gathers waste water, separates solids and fats; effluent liquid flows out into a drain field, filters through stratas of earth and stone, re-enters the water table pure.

The tank must have smelled. When there’s more solid than liquid, it smells; if the soil isn’t porous enough, it smells; in the heat of summer, even an Irish summer, it smells. Who noticed? Not sewage or silage, but stronger and strange?

Who placed them there? Hard to imagine nuns getting their hands dirty. A caretaker or handyman? Taken at night, slumped, swaddled bundles in a hand-cart, the creak of a wheel trundling the dark, marked only by the yellow blink of hurricane lamp. The drag and thump of the cover, a hollow splash, a sign of the cross. Did he sleep sound in the service of the Lord? Or did a company of tiny figures march him home each night and stand guard, sucking thumbs, in the clammy wake of sleep?

Because it was somebody’s choice, to place them there, in the septic tank; where the bodies would be hidden, the smell hidden, the truth hidden.

Did the other children know? Did they wonder about a missing child – here today, then mysteriously gone? Wake, frightened at the sound of the midnight creak and rumble; huddle at a window and whisper about a light bobbing at the end of the field? Did they invent stories, endow it with nameless horrors, or were they too tired, beaten and hungry to be afraid of the unknown? Did one child dare to explore, see a sightless body, floating in the tank’s sulphur darkness, learn to believe in the existence of Hell? Did he live the rest of his short days in coiled silence, fear leaking yellow, night after night, through thin flannel?

Were the children told to avoid the septic tank, stay out of the field, don’t even play nearby?

Once the gases were emitted, doll-like bodies, heads, limbs, hands and feet would have formed a new strata on the bottom of the tank, amongst the solid debris of The Home’s waste; become bone. The average human body is 60% water; infants, much higher, typically 75%.

How long then for the water babies to slip their skins and be carried out into the fields of their fathers; sink though the dirt, the sand, the limestone, now, finally, clean of the taint of his sin?


For more on this, I recommend reading:

The Tuam Mother-and-Baby Homes and Ireland’s Unknown Knowns

Mass Grave of 800 Babies is Too Uncomfortable for Official Ireland

Tuam’s 800 Babies – A Legacy of Shame

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