A SECOND test excavation is underway at the site of an alleged mass grave site at a former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co. Galway.
The first excavation was ordered by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation (MBHCOI) in October 2016, and concluded after five weeks.
In a test excavation, a sample of the site will be excavated by a team of specialist archaelogists lead by a forensic archaelogist.
While the MBHCOI has not confirmed the purpose of this test excavation, the first excavation was carried out to resolve a number of queries that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission had in relation to the interment of human remains at this location.
The site at the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home came to light in 2014 after it was alleged that as many as 796 bodies were buried at the site.
Here’s what we know about the story so far…
796 children died
In 2012 Tuam historian Catherine Corless was working on a local history project when she began researching the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, a maternity home for unmarried mothers and their children.
The home was run by the Bon Secours Sisters on behalf of Galway County Council from 1925 to 1961.
In the course of her research, Corless obtained death certificates for 796 children that had died at the home.
But contrary to the number of death certs, there were only official burial records for two children.
It is not known where they were laid to rest
Corless says she interviewed elderly residents in the area who witnessed night-time burials from upstairs windows in their homes that overlooked the eight foot walls of St Mary’s Home.
Corless requested Galway County Council’s records from 1925 to 1961 under the Freedom of Information Act, but was refused.
Instead, she was given documents from the 1970s including the official map of the present-day housing estate the council built on the site.
She believes that the alleged mass grave could actually be in a nearby playground.
“They obviously didn’t see the importance, there is an area across the map marked ‘Burial Ground’,” she told The Guardian. “First, the houses were built, around that area. Finally a playground was built on part of the burial ground itself.”
No bodies have been exhumed from the site to date
The excavation will focus on timeline and stratigraphy (layers) through the soil in test trenches dug based on information provided by a geophysical survey carried out in 2015.
The 2015 survey was conducted to detect the presence of any anomalies in the soil beneath the surface. It was carried out using non-invasive methods.
Senator and Minister for Youth and Children Affairs Katharine Zappone visited the site last year, in what she called an “emotional visit” on Twitter. She also commended the Commission for making “every effort".
“I’ve met the Commission a couple of times,” she told RTÉ News. “They’ve identified that many more people have come forward to give evidence to the confidential committee.”
“[The Commission] have made every effort to ensure they will hear anyone who wants to come forward,” she added.
Solid evidence is still needed
Tuam historian Catherine Corless, whose research uncovered the Tuam babies story, was also in attendance.
Ms Corless said the Commission needed “solid evidence”.
“We know there are children buried here, but we need solid evidence for the case to go forward,” she said. “So hopefully this probe will show exactly where the burials are.”
A full report is not due until 2018
A full report into the investigation is not expected to be produced by the Commission until February 2018.
Last month Senator Zappone received the second interim report from the Commission.
“It is my intention to publish the report after I have an opportunity to study it carefully and to consider its findings,” Senator Zappone said.
“I am mindful that many people and their families have strong personal connections to the work of this Commission,” she added.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was set up in February 2015 by the then Minster for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr James Reilly TD.
Chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy with two commissioners, Professor Mary E. Daly and Dr William Duncan, there are 14 mother and baby homes under investigation and four county homes.