Justice at last for lives unlived

What strikes us is the ordinariness of the forenames. The Patricks, the Julias, the Marys, the Peters, the Johns, the Mauds.

And then the surnames. Put them together and you get the sense these are people who you have met on a country street, who would run the farms, the shops, the businesses of your youth.

They had names that didn’t belong to babies, but grown people. Serious names for people who would be at the heart of the community and not the fringes. People who would have made a difference to Galway and Mayo and beyond, wherever their kin were from.

My mother Maura passed away just over a week ago. She was born in November 1930, just five years after the first of the recorded names of the 796 babies who died in Tuam. When she passed, we honoured a life lived, a life loved. Almost nine decades of a purpose, a legacy, an existence.

We gathered and waked, we recalled stories, we bore our shoulders to the carrying of the coffin, we watched solemnly as she was laid into the ground, a great inspiring and loving mother who gave us so much.

We sat back and after the adrenaline had subsided, we let the cloak of grief drag its way over us in ways we never expected, putting lie to the myth that a good age makes it all the more palatable.

Today when I think of the list of names of the 796 babies in Tuam, I think of my mother. Born in the same era, but a different circumstance. Those 796 names should have lived lives like hers. They should have lived beyond their short months and years; they should have known love for longer than they did. They should have known that humanity was greater than that which they experienced.

They should be passing away in their dotage around now, borne to their graves by the stiff shoulders of their offspring. They should be waked to the hum of kettles making strong tea to wash down tear-stained sandwiches.

They should be having funerals, the likes of which my mother had last week; nice, respectful, and dignified. With their names engraved subsequently into limestone, to bear testimony that they had been born, they had lived, they had contributed and that when they could give no more, they faded from life like the setting sun. That they had seen out a life of matter, of import, of giving and receiving.

This they were denied. And so they were left, forgotten, without names or marker, without honour or dignity.

Catherine Corless gave them life by giving them names. When Catherine allowed us last year to print the names of those babies, the reaction was overwhelming.

It put flesh on the bones; it ran blood through them, ridding them of their pallid lifelessness. It gave them enough soul to shout out that they mattered and that their lives mattered. It sent a message to their families that they were worth pursuing.

I hope one day that there will be a Catherine Corless bursary in our university to encourage other local historians to effect social change in the way that she has. To get us all thinking about how we can override the established rhetoric.

The process announced this week will be painstaking, but worthwhile because at last it will treat them with a dignity they deserve. It may not bring the result that everyone wants, but more importantly, it will bring hope. It will also send out a signal that every life matters, no matter how short.

It also shows the importance of history and what a role it plays in shaping our future. We are not the makers of history, we are made by it. It is a clock that we use to tell our political and cultural time of day.

It is a compass we use to find ourselves on the map of human geography. It tells us where we are but, more importantly, what we must be. The actions that were taken this week were inspired by Catherine Corless; let her work be a guiding force in ensuring that time no longer plays a part in covering up our shameful past.

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