Septic Children by Michael C Keith

Johnny McKenna's searing account of his childhood as a ward of the Church of Ireland; by Michael C. Keith.

It must be said that charity can, in no way, exist along with mortal sin.
- Thomas Aquinas

Hello there. Name's Johnny McKenna, and I'd like to ask you a question... that is, if you don't mind... Thank you.

First, allow me to tell you a little about myself. Until I was nearly seven years old, I lived at St. Mary's on Dublin Road, in Tuam, Ireland. It was referred to as the "Home" by everyone, but it wasn't a home in the true sense of the word. It was more like a former military billet or an old mill that had been emptied of its crude tools and only slightly modified to accommodate a bunch of parentless kids and members of a religious order.

We were cared for by the Bon Secours nuns. I use the words "cared for" very loosely, because the treatment provided us was nearly always harsh and without compassion. Yes, the sisters watched over us but in a manner similar to that of a guard over his prisoners. The nuns showed us little affection and, in point of fact, appeared more burdened by and resentful of our presence than anything else.

To say we lived a meager existence is an understatement. We were fed twice a day - usually cold mush in the morning and boiled potatoes and bread for supper. Occasionally, we were given a shred of mutton, usually on a high holy day, like Christmas or Easter. The sisters would make us say an extra Hail Mary for receiving such a bounty.

Every child possessed only the clothes on his back, and on Saturday night we stripped naked so that our threadbare garments could be washed while we were sleeping. This created a particular problem for us, because the single blanket we were allotted was hardly enough to keep us from freezing on the bitter winter nights. So, as soon as the lights were turned off promptly at seven o'clock, we would slip in bed with another child in order to generate enough warmth to lessen our individual misery. This was dangerous, since if we were caught cuddling together - and we often were - the nuns became very agitated and seized the opportunity to punish us.

"You filthy little urchins! What were you doing together in the same bed without a stitch on? Shameful! The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. For your penance, you'll spend the rest of the night in the hall until the breakfast bell."

We were told to kneel with our faces to the wall. As we did, we received a hard whack on our bare rumps with the sister's rosary beads. Soon the burning of our flesh gave way to a horrible numbness from the icy currents that flowed through the dark corridor. At dawn, our damp clothes were tossed to us, and we were informed that for being such disgusting creatures we would also be deprived of our breakfast.

It was during the coldest months that there was the most sickness at the Home. Practically every child had the sniffles and deep phlegmy hacks. Rather than inspiring sympathy in the nuns, it seemed to compound their general disdain for us. Without anything else to wipe our noses on, our shirtsleeves became hardened with the gooey contents of our oozing nostrils. When a nun caught someone wiping snot on his or her sleeve, the culprit would be duly cowed in the most egregious way.

"You're less than a pig's slop, child! Disgusting animal, you are! Take that shirt off, and you'll go without it until it is cleansed of your foulness!" bellowed Sister Meaghan, the nun we most feared because of her explosive temper.

No one incurred the wrath of the habited mucus monitors more than little Sean O'Halloran. And no one went without his pullover more than he did. Two years younger than me and barely up to my elbow, he seemed to be singled out more than anyone else by the ever-scowling brides of the Almighty. Because he was more vulnerable and helpless than the rest of us, I tried as best I could to keep him out of harm's way, but my efforts were seldom effective.

"There's no room in Heaven for a devil's child such as you, O'Halloran! The Lord keeps vulgar beings from entering His paradise so as not to contaminate it," barked Sister Meaghan, who appeared to gain distinct pleasure in berating Snotty Sean, as he came to be known.

Not long after he was christened with the sad moniker, his chest congestion worsened and he was removed from the sleeping hall and placed in the orphanage's tiny infirmary. The single bed that it contained was already occupied by another suffering soul, so Sean was given a makeshift place to recline on the floor. For two days I saw him curled up beneath a thin blanket as we passed the sick room on our way to and from our meals. On the third day, he was gone.

When I asked a nun where he was, I was told in no uncertain terms to mind my own business. It was the last we ever saw of poor Snotty Sean. That's the way it was with other children that got sick, too. They just went away... never to return. We all figured they'd either gone to the hospital or were adopted. Billy Morrissey, an older kid who swept floors in the infant ward, told us that the babies didn't last long before they were taken away.

"They wrap them up and bring them someplace else, especially the ones that got the croup bad. They never come back either. Maybe they died or got taken by somebody for adoption."

We all speculated about the fate of those no longer among us, and we tried to convince ourselves that they had either been taken in by loving families or transferred to a better facility with nicer sisters. Yet the thought that our fellow orphans may really have come to a bad end haunted many of us... and would forever. Although a wonderful couple from Galway eventually added me to their kindly household, I've carried the bleak experience of the Home with me to this day.

The mystery of what had happened to so many of the less fortunate at the orphanage was finally and shockingly solved. It turns out that hundreds of infants and small children at St. Mary's had been consigned to its septic tank after succumbing to illness or malnutrition. The dead were not even given a pauper's burial. With no regard for the fact that they had been human beings - if not God's children, the Sisters of Bon Secours saw fit to rid themselves of their deceased wards by dumping their remains into a stink hole on the grounds of the Home. This was done without ceremony or markers signifying the site of the remains.

I was having breakfast with my six-year-old grandson when I opened the Irish Examiner and was confronted by the following story:

Horrific discovery of hundreds of children buried in a septic tank at St. Mary's in Tuam in Galway...

There it was... the answer to the question that had possessed me. I was overwhelmed with feelings of rage and sadness for all the Snotty Seans that were treated as if they were nothing more than toxic waste to be flushed from the planet by representatives of a so-called compassionate God.

Sorry, I... please give me a second to get the lump out of my throat. It's been there a very long time... So then, about that question I'd like to ask you:

Was there ever anything worse than the Church of Ireland?


  1. this is horrible. unrelenting misery. well written and to the point, no frills.
    thought provoking and a must read.

    Michael McCarthy

  2. What is done in the name of God . . . ugh!

  3. I'm curious as to what the inspiration for this story was--I hope nothing from real life? Does the author want to comment?

  4. Poignant and well written. I think this would have been a great story if it wasn't for the fact that it's directly, by name, linked to a fictitious account of a current news story. The Tuam orphanage was real, but it was run by catholic nuns, not the church of Ireland. Moreover the bodies werd spread in unmarked graves throughout the campus, the theory that one site was a disused septic tank was officially debunked, as the real septic tank used for the workers house remained in use for the orphanage, and no bodies had been dumped there. 80% of the seemingly staggering 800 bodies were less than a year old, and the mortality rates reflected those of all publicly unfunded, overcrowded orphanages in Ireland at the time. The conditions were poor, yet abuse by the nuns is unverified and the use of unmarked graves is indicative of a lack of burial funding. 20 children died of malnutrition. The conditions in the Tuam house were horrible, but this kind of writing should be used symbolically as pure fiction, as the author has more than enough talent to execute that. The fabrication of a true story give this the stigma of a "hate story", which I don't like. Society past and present can be pretty screwed up, but an author can make a statement symbolically that is more powerful than one based on fallacious reporting.

  5. Not sure if my response to your comments appeared, Pathos. I pressed preview, and they seemed to have disappeared. I did examine the information available at the time before writing the story. Perhaps it would have been wiser to employ the symbolic rather than the facts, but I felt they would strengthen the narrative, since clearly child cruelty did exist in Tuam. It was horrible whether it was 20 or 800 deaths. Hate story? No! The hate existed within the walls of this grim religious institution.

  6. I'm not trying to be a jerk, your writing skills are amazing. The reason it reads like a hate story is simply heaping the blame on the church of ireland, which wasn't even involved. I don't know much about the church of ireland, only that it has an identity crisis of sorts with catholic and anglican protestant influences. But a further examination into the poverty and culture of ireland at the time implicates politics, economy, religion, and social stigmatism as factors into the conditions at the Tuam house. My comment about fictionalizing it is mostly to save you from media inaccuracies, if the setting is fictional, the news story inspired the story, but the details don't lose credibility as the discrepencies surface, because you're not linked directly to the actual event. My biggest problem is that last line "was there ever anything worse than the church of ireland?" That is why it reads like a hate story, narrowing the spectrum of factors that made the tuam house miserable and blaming a religious denomination that wasn't directly involved strikes me as hateful. If you had left that single line out, I likely would have stopped at poignant and well written, as I'm not prone to over the factual basis of the septic tanks or other news discrepencies. I have the utmost respect for your writing skill, I don't like debating. I probably shouldn't have pulled the trigger on you, but that single spiteful line got to me. You don't have to agree with me, I'd prefer moving on with mutual respect. Despite feeling strongly about this, I would retract everything to generate good blood, I'm really not the argumentative type.

  7. I'm certain there were extenuating factors, but cruelty on the part of nuns at Tuam and elsewhere, not to mention the abuses by priests, is well known and documented. As far as the last line is concerned, it belongs to the main character, who was treated badly by the sisters. He is the one saying it, and rightfully so. All that said, if I could rewrite the last line, It would to read: "Was there ever anything worse than the Mother Church of Ireland?" I'm not sure that would placate your concern. Anyway, I do appreciate your good comments, Pathos.

  8. Thanks for a well told story which needed the light of day.

  9. Michael,
    Thank you for your well-written and riveting story. Horrible, isn't it, when human beings are deemed as disposable as used Kleenex.

    Keep up the good work.

    Oscar Davis

  10. Terrifying, grim...I'm struggling to speak but want to. Have the Church of Ireland done anything good?
    ...Reads more like manifesto than short story.

    Brooke Fieldhouse

  11. I'm glad I wrote a story that stirred emotions. I did so for all those lost innocents who had no voice.

  12. Furthermore, I'd like to thank Fiction on the Web for the courage to publish it.