Originally at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/eamonnfingleton/2014/06/09/that-story-about-irish-babies-in-a-septic-tank-is-a-media-hoax/
by Eamonn Fingleton
Few of us are inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth, and that applies in spades to journalists running with a sensational news story. But even by normal media standards, recent reports about the bones of 796 babies being found in the septic tank of an Irish orphanage betray a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility rarely surpassed by allegedly reputable news organizations.
Although the media attributed the “dumped in a septic tank” allegation to Catherine Corless, a local amateur historian, she denies making it. Her attempt to correct the record was reported by the Irish Times newspaper on Saturday (see here) but has been almost entirely ignored by the same global media that so gleefully recycled the original suggestion. That suggestion, which seems to have first surfaced in the Mail on Sunday, a London-based newspaper, reflected appallingly on the Sisters of Bon Secours, the order of Catholic nuns at the center of the scandal.
Today the Irish Times has published a reader’s letter that has further undercut the story. Finbar McCormick, a professor of geography at Queen’s University Belfast, sharply admonished the media for describing the children’s last resting place as a septic tank. He added: “The structure as described is much more likely to be a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used in the recent past and still used today in many part of Europe.
“In the 19th century, deep brick-lined shafts were constructed and covered with a large slab which often doubled as a flatly laid headstone. These were common in 19th-century urban cemeteries…..Such tombs are still used extensively in Mediterranean countries. I recently saw such structures being constructed in a churchyard in Croatia. The shaft was made of concrete blocks, plastered internally and roofed with large concrete slabs.
“Many maternity hospitals in Ireland had a communal burial place for stillborn children or those who died soon after birth. These were sometimes in a nearby graveyard but more often in a special area within the grounds of the hospital.”
For anyone familiar with Ireland (I was brought up there in the 1950s and 1960s), the story of nuns consciously throwing babies into a septic tank never made sense. Although many of the nuns may have been holier-than-thou harridans, they were nothing if not God-fearing and therefore unlikely to treat human remains with the sort of outright blasphemy implied in the septic tank story.
So what are we left with? One fact seems beyond dispute: conditions in Irish orphanages up to the 1960s, if not later, were positively Dickensian. Certainly the death rate at many was shockingly high. But how should blame be apportioned? A major part of the problem would appear to have been the pervasive poverty of the time (the institution at the center of the scandal operated from the 1920s through the early 1960s). Because they were so desperately underfunded, Irish orphanages were disgracefully overcrowded, which meant that when one baby caught an infection, they all caught it. Not the least of the hazards was tuberculosis, a then incurable disease that spread like wildfire in overcrowded conditions.
The nuns who ran the orphanage have long since gone to their reward but if they could speak for themselves they would no doubt claim they were doing their best in appalling circumstances. Certainly it is reasonable to suggest that the wider Irish society of those days cannot be exempt from blame. As for the nuns, they were so young when they entered religious life — typically in their late teens or early 20s — that they had little understanding of the secular world and were evidently short on managerial skills. Less forgivably, however, they took a highly puritanical attitude to the “fallen women” who had the misfortune to come under their purview. Allegedly they even — in some cases at least — banned the use of anesthetics in childbirth, the better to ensure that mothers would atone for the “sin” of having an out-of-wedlock child.
At the end of the day, the verifiable facts that have emerged so far amount merely to a strong story for the media of one small country. The one “fact” that turned all this from a disturbing national story to a screaming global sensation is one that is almost certainly false.
There is a moral here for those who are increasingly bewildered by the modern world: the global media are becoming less and less accountable. Sometimes the truth eventually does come out, or at least some of us have sufficient knowledge to suspect the facts are misstated. But very often readers do not have the experience and worldly wisdom to see through the nonsense, particularly in interpreting reported developments in nations whose cultures diverge sharply from those of the West (I am thinking in particular of East Asia, a region about which on the basis of 27 years of residence I can claim some knowledge ).
While we are constantly assured that we live in an Information Age, in reality the noise to signal ratio in our media has probably never been higher. This is an age of disinformation.