Why Australia’s media bought the ‘Irish babies in the septic tank’ story
“Bodies of 800 children, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” was the headline in The Sydney Morning Herald. “Almost 800 ‘forgotten’ Irish children dumped in septic tank mass grave at Catholic home,” said the ABC. “796 Irish orphans in a septic tank tomb,” pronounced The Australian. The problem? There is little evidence that there are any bodies in that infamous septic tank at all.
Why is the story being reported everywhere if it might not be true? As many a news reporter has learned with chagrin and horror, it is often the headlines and photo captions that do you in — those bits of the newspaper you did not write but are in close proximity to the story you did.
Two weeks ago, The Irish Mail on Sunday, a British tabloid with an Irish edition, ran a story that fit into the Irish national zeitgeist so well that it instantly broke through all the other scandals, pieces on governmental malfeasance and analyses of economic woe that make up the front page of many an Irish paper. The headline read: “Mass septic tank grave ‘containing the skeletons of 800 babies’ at site of Irish home for unmarried mothers”. The caption under a grainy, black-and-white picture of a Dickensian-looking children’s home was clearer still: “The bodies of 796 babies and children were found next to the former children’s home at Tuam, Co. Galway.”
The story itself is a bit more nuanced. The intro begins: “The bodies of nearly 800 babies are believed to have been interred in a concrete tank beside a former home for unmarried mothers.” Note the “are believed”. The second paragraph begins, “The dead babies are thought …” and the third starts, “It is suspected …”.
The story hit the world’s wires almost instantly. The sober-enough Washington Post ran a story under the headline: “Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” (the SMH republished the story under a copy-sharing arrangement). But the story itself in the Post was hedged a bit. The story is given a feature treatment, so the reader is well into the third paragraph before learning the fate of the 800 children “… has perhaps now emerged: Their bodies were piled into a massive septic tank sitting in the back of the structure and forgotten, with neither gravestones nor coffins.” Perhaps.
All these stories are based upon research by a local historian named Caroline Corless, who has been researching the home for years. In her painstaking work, she has secured death records for 796 children who were in the home for unwed mothers, but for whom she could find no burial records.
Add to this an account from a local man, now middle-aged, that as a small boy he and a friend saw bones in the long-unused septic tank when they broke up the concrete slab covering it. Corless surmises that the babies are buried here or somewhere nearby.
In television interviews since the story broke, she has maintained that her goal all along has been to get a commemorative plaque placed on the site listing the names of the children who died. She does not want the site opened up and is adamant that it does not matter if there are 10 children buried there or 200. Or 796.
It is not possible from this remove to know exactly what she told the Mail on Sunday or what she told The Washington Post. But it is pretty clear that she did not say she had found skeletons of 800 children. The stories about the matter said she had unearthed records, not that she had unearthed bones. Headlines committed the worst of the hyperbole.
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