DUBLIN (AFP) - Almost 800 babies and children were buried in a mass grave in Ireland near a home for unmarried mothers run by nuns, according to new research Wednesday which throws more light on the Irish Catholic Church's troubled past.
Death records suggest 796 children, from newborns to eight-year-olds, were deposited in a grave near a Catholic-run home for unmarried mothers during the 35 years it operated from 1925 to 1961.
Historian Catherine Corless, who made the discovery, says her study of death records for the St Mary's home in Tuam in County Galway suggests that a former septic tank near the home was a mass grave.
The septic tank, full to the brim with bones, was discovered in 1975 by locals when concrete slabs covering the tank broke up.
Until now, locals believed the bones mainly stemmed from the Great Irish famine of the 1840s when hundreds of thousands perished.
St Mary's, run by the Bons Secours Sisters, was one of several such 'mother and baby' homes in early 20th century Ireland.
Thousands of unmarried pregnant women - labelled at the time as 'fallen women' - were sent to the homes to have their babies.
The women were ostracised by the conservative-Catholic society and were often forced to hand over their children for adoption.
Health issues and problems associated with the homes have long been documented. As far back as 1944, a government inspection report of the Tuam home described some of the children as "fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated."
The recently discovered death records for St Mary's show the 796 children died from malnutrition and infectious diseases, such as measles and TB.
Conservative Catholic teaching at the time denied children of unmarried parents baptism and therefore burial in consecrated lands.
The home was knocked down many years ago to make way for new houses, but the area around the unmarked mass grave has been maintained by locals.
A fundraising committee has now been formed and it is hoped that a memorial will be built with all the names and ages of the children displayed.
The Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary said he would meet leaders of the Bons Secours Sisters to assist with the memorial.
Meanwhile, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said that if a public inquiry into the 'mother and baby' homes in Ireland was not established then a social history project was necessary.
Martin also said he supports "excavating what may be unmarked graves" at these sites.
A junior government minister has called for an inquiry to be established and the issue is expected to be discussed at cabinet.
The development is a yet another damning disclosure of a Church-run institution in Ireland following almost countless revelations of abuse and neglect at Catholic-run schools or institutions in recent decades.