Colum McCann has written, “Dan Barry gives dignity even to the darkest corners of the American experience. He is the closest thing we have to a contemporary Steinbeck.”
Barry, a Maplewood resident and recipient of the Maplewood Literary Award, is now giving dignity to the darkest corners of the Irish experience, with his in-depth report “The Lost Children of Tuam.”
The New York Times published the article on Sunday, October 29, in a special section mailed to one million print subscribers. The story was also presented in a prestige layout in the Times digital version, with photographs and video embedded.
Barry provided a deep-dive examination of the small town of Tuam in western Ireland where St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home housed single mothers and their children for several decades in the 20th century. Through the work of a local resident, Catherine Corless, the truth regarding the internment of hundreds of infants and young children in a septic system on the home’s grounds came to light. In a series of interviews, Barry scrutinized the journey of Corless, the town, and the Republic of Ireland in confronting the shameful past with regard to the treatment of unwed mothers and their children and how this scandal, on top of numerous others, is challenging the country’s particularly Irish strain of Catholicism.
While the reporting is rigorous (Barry is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist), the writing is novelistic, a purposeful choice made in order to explore fully the emotional impact of the facts and revelations on the people they most closely affected.
“We wanted to be as novelistic as possible but within the constraints of fact,” said Barry in a phone interview. “We wanted the intimacy of using first names.” Barry noted that “no authority of history is quoted” in the story — usually journalistic writing is peppered with quotes from academics and pundits. In fact, the only famous figure quoted in the lengthy story is Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. Otherwise, the story focuses on the humble characters who make up the history, particularly Corless, a local house wife who was haunted by her own treatment of “home babies” in her youth and began publishing stories as an amateur historian in the the Old Tuam Society journal.
Barry’s description of Corless’s journey is almost as heart-wrenching as the tale of the mothers and children themselves. Barry chronicled Corless “grappling with debilitating headaches and anxiety attacks” as she pursued her research (“The episodes might last for days, with the only relief at times coming from lying on the floor, still, away from light”). Corless wound up unlocking a buried secret in her own family’s past. She also became the hub of a network of grownup home babies, connecting them with each other and estranged family. After aggressively shunning the spotlight, Corless finally reluctantly appeared on national television to tell the story of Tuam (“I’m married to her for 40 years,” her tearful and astonished husband told Barry. “And I don’t know her at all.”)
The Times story elicited strong responses from readers worldwide (The Times has a monthly global digital audience of 132 million as well as 3.5 million paid digital and print subscribers). Danielle Rhoades of the Times reports that although the Times does not “have specific audience data at the individual story level, I can tell you it was our most read online story that weekend.” Rhoades shared some of the reactions:
- “This is the 1st time I’ve really understood the bravery of my Irish-Am great-grandma to keep my ‘illegitimate’ mother, born at home in 1918,” Suzie Siegel tweeted. “My mother told only a handful of people in her life. Although I no longer keep this secret, it’s the first time I’ve mentioned it publicly.”
- “In 1959, my eighteen year-old birth mother was sequestered into a home for unwed mothers in San Francisco… I was born, given to an adoption agency and then placed with a loving couple. This story of the Tuam home absolutely devastated me. My personal story in no way compares, yet reading this exquisitely written story shook me to the core. I couldn’t speak after reading it,” Stephen commented on the story.
- “As a Tuam native, I’ve read many articles recently with insulting inaccuracies from US writers. This is 1st one to nail it. Bravo, Dan Barry,” @JFRalph tweeted.
The story also had a profound impact on its author.
“Three years ago the story broke,” said Barry. “Some of the reporting was overblown and inaccurate.” To get a true picture, Barry headed to Tuam, spending eight days in Ireland initially. He conducted interviews via phone and email for months then headed back to Ireland again for another eight days. All in all, it was “tons of conversations over four or five months,” said Barry.
Barry sees the story as being bigger than Ireland, bigger than Irish Catholicism.
“It’s the historic human condition through an Irish prism,” said Barry, relating to “the subjugation of women worldwide.”
“And the person uncovering it is a woman, fiercely determined, just one of us.”