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  • Knowing and Unknowing Tuam:State Practice, the Archive, and Transitional Justice*
  • James M. Smith (bio)

"Everyone knew, but no one said…. Perfectly decent people can know a thing and at the same time not know it…. We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today." John Banville, "A Century of Looking the Other Way," New York Times, 22 May 2009.

"The Irish added another category: unknown knowns, things that were understood to be the case and yet remained unreal." Fintan O'Toole, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (London: Faber and Faber, 2009). 180–1.

This essay proposes to document what the Irish state did know about the Tuam Baby Home, where 798 children died between 1925 and 1961. What did the state know about the health of the children there, when did it know it, and most troubling of all, what did the state do with its knowledge? Part of the answer lies in documents housed in the Department of Health that detail the substantial administrative apparatus whose appointed duty was to gather knowledge about the women and children in these institutions, the conditions in which they lived and died, and the pathways that those lucky enough to survive could find back to society. As a state practice, however, compiling data has rarely resulted in meaningful intervention to alleviate deficits in the provision of care. The information—like the infants entombed at Tuam—was and remains buried. And as with the punitive carceral response to female sexuality and so-called "illegitimacy," the state's readiness to unknow what it knew about institutional abuse was at bottom an act of self-preservation.1 [End Page 142]

The essay's archival research also suggests that very little has changed in the Irish state's current posture. When confronted with evidence of historical abuse in the present, the state again cultivates unknowingness by way of a routine set of responses: first, it establishes an investigation; second, it draws from the National Archives to support the investigation; and third, upon publication of a final report it then denies access to all the evidence by asserting a statutory obligation to protect the privacy and confidentiality of testimony taken from survivors, other witnesses, and alleged perpetrators. With this final step the Irish state once again impedes truth-telling about its own involvement. To document the coupling of historical amnesia and the contemporary erasure of witness testimony, I will move from four sample archival documents to the state's responses to demands for greater transparency. A transitional-justice approach to historical abuse should always view truth-telling and guarantees of nonrecurrence as intrinsically linked: there cannot be one without the other.2

InSight/Site: Knowing Tuam

Ireland knows about St. Mary's Home for Unmarried Mothers and its so-called illegitimate children, managed by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam, Co. Galway, because of the work of historian Catherine Corless.3 Corless's findings—summarized by Alison O'Reilly in her May 2014 feature article "A Mass Grave of 800 Babies"—were first published in 2012 but received with silence.4 Corless's research led [End Page 143] her to acquire, at significant personal expense, the death registration records for 798 children officially documented by the state as having died at the public-assistance-authority institution operated by Galway County Council. Securing those records led Corless to ask the decisive question: where were these babies buried? She identified graves for two children at the local public cemetery, but there was no public record of graves for the other 796.5

Shortly after the story broke in 2014, the names of all 796 children appeared in newsprint, on a plethora of websites, and in an incessant scroll on numerous Twitter feeds.6 Each child now possessed a name, and details regarding his or her age and cause of death. The Tuambabies story quickly became an international media event, and Irish politicians had little choice but to respond. They did so—initially with exclamations of shock and horror—by asserting the "need to know what happened" at places like Tuam.7 Simultaneously, politicians disclaimed...


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pp. 142-180
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