In September​ , the Irish government held a state funeral for the exhumed remains of Thomas Kent, a rebel and a patriot who was executed in 1916 and buried in the yard of what is now Cork Prison, at the rear of Collins Barracks, once the Victoria Barracks. His coffin was first removed to the garrison church, where thousands of people – including Dr John Buckley, the bishop of Cork and Ross – filed past to pay their respects. The funeral echoed the reinterment of Roger Casement – thrown in a lime pit in Pentonville Prison in 1916 and repatriated in 1965 – when Eamon de Valera got out of his sickbed to attend and a million people lined the route. Thomas Kent was buried in the family plot at Castlelyons and the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, gave the graveside oration. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘we take him from the political Potter’s Field to lay him with all honour among “his own”.’ Although the land in which he had lain is now, technically speaking, Irish, the prison yard still held the taint of Britishness, the memory of his dishonour.

‘Potter’s Field’ is not a term much used in Ireland, though we have many traditional burial plots for strangers. These are marked ‘Cillíní’ on Ordnance Survey maps. Sometimes translated as ‘children’s graveyard’, the sites contain the graves of unbaptised infants, but also of women who died in childbirth, ‘changeling’ children, suicides, executed criminals and the insane (infanticides were typically disposed of without burial). Some are situated on sacred sites and in ancestral burial grounds that existed before the shift to the churchyard in early medieval Ireland. These earlier graves served a territorial function: they are found near the boundaries of ancient kingdoms, and by the water’s edge. Cillíní are often situated between one place and another, at the limits of things. After the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, allowed burial rites for the unbaptised, the Cillíní, along with the idea of limbo, fell out of use.

Some of those I visited in Connemara command a mighty view. One lies beside a path known as Máméan (the Pass of the Birds) that pilgrims still use on the way to the well of St Patrick. Individual graves are built up with large stones, for the length of the body beneath, and there are no crosses to be seen. The bodies of infants were buried by a father or an uncle, often at night. The scant ritual and the isolation of the setting is offset by the beauty that surrounds it: the place feels both abandoned and sacred. Which is not to say that the women whose babies were so buried did not resent the lack of a marker, or feel the loneliness of the spot (if, indeed, they were told where it was). It was a great difficulty to have someone close to you, buried apart. Irish graveyards are, above all, family places. ‘Would you like to be buried with my people?’ is not a marriage proposal you might hear in another country, even as a joke.

Emigration split families, and this may have made the need to gather together stronger for those who remained, even after death. In a country of the dispossessed, it is also tempting to see the grave plot as a treasured piece of land. But the drama of the Irish graveyard was not about ownership, and only partly about honour (in the Traveller community, to step on a grave is still an indelible insult). Irish ghost stories tell of graveyards actually rejecting those who do not belong – by which is meant Protestants. The ground itself might refuse, and yield their bodies up, or if they did stay put, the wall could jump over them in the night, to put the Protestants on the other side. Whole churchyards went wandering in order to leave them behind, and these ideas of purity and aversion persist in the undisturbed Irish earth, even into modern times.

When Enda Kenny praised the nieces who’d lobbied for the reinterment of Thomas Kent – ‘These three women have tended the flame of his memory’ – he was speaking from the heart of the Irish rhetorical tradition. Under the censorship of British rule, the graveside was a rare opportunity for political speech, and it was a woman’s role not just to mourn and love, but also to remember the revolutionary martyr. The job of remembering was also a work of silence: ‘O breathe not his name!’ was the song by Thomas Moore, the name being that of the patriot Robert Emmet, executed after leading the 1803 rebellion, who asked that his epitaph remain unwritten until his country had taken its place among the nations of the earth. High speech and silence, this was the patriotic way, and no silence more urgent than that of the graveyard. And so we get the great speech by Patrick Pearse, eight months before the 1916 Rising: ‘the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’

It is tempting​ to see Antigone as a play not just about the mourning female voice, or about kinship and the law, but about the political use of the body after death. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, dishonours the body of his nephew to serve as a warning to other potential enemies of the state. One brother, Eteocles, has been buried ‘in accordance with justice and law’, the other, Polynices, ‘is to lie unwept and unburied’ – this according to their sister Antigone, who has already decided at the play’s opening to ignore Creon’s edict and bury the corpse. And so she does. When asked to deny the crime, she says, in Anne Carson’s 2012 translation of Sophocles: ‘I did the deed I do not deny it.’ She does not seek to justify her actions within the terms of Creon’s law: she negates the law by handing it back to him, intact – ‘If you call that law.’

Antigone later says she is being punished for ‘an act of perfect piety’, but that act is also perfectly wordless in the play. The speeches she makes to her sister Ismene and to Creon are before and after the fact. She is a woman who breaks an unjust law. We can ask if she does this from inside or outside the legal or linguistic system of the play, or of the state, but it is good to bear in mind that Antigone does not bury her brother with words, but with dust.

Her appeal, when she makes it, is not to Creon but to a higher order of justice, ‘the unwritten unfaltering unshakeable ordinances of the gods’. Antigone looks into her heart, you might think, and towards the heavens, while Creon looks around him to the business of government. But this system collapses before the end of the play into something more simple and self-enclosed. ‘The dead do not belong to you,’ Tiresias tells Creon, ‘nor to the gods above.’ There are moments – and death (or more properly decay) is one of them – that belong neither to sacred nor to secular law, but to themselves. Antigone has known this all along: ‘Death needs to have Death’s laws obeyed.’ Carson doesn’t use the word ‘ghost’. The idea that Polynices has some residual agency or voice creeps into other translations, but not into this one. The body remains a body – ‘rawflesh’ for dogs and birds – not a human presence. It is only when Antigone herself goes to die that she calls her brother’s name.

‘They say​ a grave never settles,’ Catherine Corless remarked as we walked the convent wall in Tuam, where she suspected adult remains might lie. I looked at the ground and I could believe it; the shadow of vegetation that grew more lush formed an oblong, seven feet by five. This was beyond the little plot where locals say babies from the town’s Mother and Baby Home were buried. A small grotto in the corner is tended by the residents of the housing estate that was built on the site in the early 1970s. Corless was doing a local history project and, intrigued by the unmarked burial plot, went to the Bon Secours sisters to ask for records. These had been passed on to the county council in Galway they said. The county council told her they were passed on to the Health Board, the Health Board said it only had ‘individual records’, which she would not be allowed to see. She then went to the Births, Marriages and Deaths Registration office in Galway to get, at her own expense, the death certificates of 796 babies and children who died in the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961. The location of their bodies is unrecorded. They have not yet been found.

In 1975 local boys had told of seeing the small bones of children in some kind of tank, under a broken concrete top. There was a strong response from the media when Corless said that this might be a disused septic tank that is marked on the map as lying under this spot. There was much rifling through the statistics and records; yes, the death rate among illegitimate children was up to five times that of those born within marriage, but institutions are great places for disease to spread, and what about measles? In fact, Corless was accusing no one of murder, and besides, the story was not new. There had been a brief report in a local paper two years earlier, and no one had seemed to care. It was the word ‘septic’ that did it; the association with sewage, the implication that the bodies were not just carelessly buried, or even discarded, but treated like ‘filth’. After the words ‘septic tank’ appeared in the world’s press Corless found herself besieged by journalists. She was misquoted, then called a liar for things she hadn’t said. With all that shame flying around, it needed a place to stick and clearly it was her fault, whatever it was – sewage tanks, babies, all that dead history, Ireland’s reputation abroad.

Maps, photocopies, ledgers and certificates littered the kitchen table. Over the course of an hour, two people rang Corless’s mobile, looking for female relatives who may have been in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. They might already have asked the nuns and the county council and the Health Board, but even babies born in the home do not have the statutory right to see their records, because of the secrecy clauses signed by the mothers who, willingly or not, gave them up for adoption. The information they do find may have been falsified at the time. Great desperation leads people to local historians like Corless. She told me about a man she helped, who was born in the home seventy years before. He had led a full life, with six children of his own – but one of them was disabled and he thought this was a punishment of some kind. When he found his mother’s grave, he brought flowers to it, and wept. He just wanted to meet her, he said, and tell her that it was all right.

When I asked Corless why she had brought the problem of the missing dead to light, she said: ‘It was the little ones themselves crying out to me.’ Her interest in historical research began when she tried to trace her origins after the death of her own mother. There was ‘some load there, some secret’. Her grandmother had entered a second relationship with a Protestant man, her mother was fostered out and never went back home. Corless managed to trace an aunt and when she made contact, decades after these events, the woman said: ‘We have nothing here for you now.’

It did not take many women to run the Mother and Baby Home – four or five nuns, Corless said, for up to a hundred pregnant and nursing women, and their children, who might be taken away for adoption at any time. They had nowhere else to go, clearly, but they must also have been very compliant. What were they like? Fear kept them quiet, Corless said, the threat of being sent to the asylum or the laundry. ‘That,’ according to Julia, a long-term resident, ‘is how the argument was settled.’

Dr Coughlan was GP for the Galway Magdalene Laundry from 1981 to 1984. ‘The Residents were a delightful and happy group of ladies,’ he says, ‘each lady presented as a unique individual, with a unique personality, well able to ask relevant questions and to express her opinion and, above all, ready and willing to gossip, to tease and be teased and to joke.’

And perhaps it is true. Irish women are often nice.

When the Bon Secours nuns left Tuam for good, they exhumed the remains of their dead sisters – 12 in all – and took them with them to their new home in Knock. The controversy Corless started about the 796 missing bodies has provoked a commission of inquiry into the Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland, led by Judge Yvonne Murphy. A few weeks ago a geophysical survey was taken of the ground using penetrating radar and magnetometry. Corless is confident that the remains of an untold number of children will be found there. But if they are not found – and that is also possible – there will be much fuss and distraction from the fact that no one knows where the bodies of 796 children have gone.

The living​ can be disbelieved, dismissed, but the dead do not lie. We turn in death from witness to evidence, and this evidence is indelible, because it is mute. It started in 1993, when the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge sold off a portion of their land to a developer in order to cover recent losses on the stock exchange. As part of the deal, they exhumed a mass grave on the site which they said contained the bodies of 133 ‘auxiliaries’, women who worked until their deaths in the Magdalene Laundry of High Park, which closed in 1991.

There were ten of these laundries in Ireland. They are styled, by the nuns who ran them, as refuges for marginalised women where they endured, along with their keepers, an enclosed, monastic life of work and prayer. The women were described as ‘penitents’, and the act of washing was seen as symbolic. The laundries were run as active concerns, washing dirty linen for hotels, hospitals and the army, and they undercut their rivals in the trade by the fact that their penitential workforce was not paid. So the laundries might also be styled as labour camps, or prison camps, where women were sent, without trial, for a crime that was hard to name. In 1958, 70 per cent of the women in the Magdalene Laundry in Galway were unmarried mothers. Asked how long they would be there, the mother superior answered: ‘Some stay for life.’

To the apparent surprise of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, 22 extra bodies were found in the opened grave at High Park. The nuns didn’t appear to know the names of several of the women buried there, listing them by their religious names as Magdalene of St Cecilia or Magdalene of Lourdes, and more than one third of the 155 deaths had never been certified. It was clear the nuns were not used to dealing with outside authorities. Costs were high; they allegedly haggled with the undertaker to ask if he could get three bodies to a coffin. In the end, the remains were cremated, in contravention of Catholic custom, and everyone who heard the news then or read the reports knew, in the silence of their hearts, exactly what was going on, and what had been going on, and what all this meant.

It was another ten years before Mary Raftery wrote about the High Park exhumations. Raftery’s documentaries, the three-part States of Fear (1999) and Cardinal Secrets (2002), provoked two commissions of inquiry, one into abuse in Irish institutions for children, which were usually run by the religious, and one into clerical abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese. These were published in 2009, as the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report respectively. Before her death in 2012, Raftery was hailed as the most influential broadcaster of her day, but she got what we used to call ‘drag’ from RTE television on these projects, especially States of Fear; the kind of delay, indifference and non-compliance that runs through an institution when someone seeks to disturb the status quo. Sheila Ahern, who worked with her as a lone researcher, remembers being told that the story was, in media terms, ‘done already’. There was no budget, no resources, the whole thing was deemed, in audience terms, ‘a turn-off’ and Raftery was asked to ‘lighten it up a bit’. Mostly patronising, this is an attitude that only turns aggressive at the last moment; it is particularly suited to dealing with women when they are troublesome, and Mary Raftery was very troublesome. Passionate for the victims of abuse, she had a bad attitude when it came to authority: non-compliant, endlessly tenacious and full of glee.

I don’t think a man could have done what she did, but it would be wrong to cast Raftery as some kind of Antigone; all her concern was for the living. Her work was founded on the personal testimony of people who had been abused in institutions. She brought those voices into vision, and shaped an argument with and around them that was incontrovertible. For some reason they had been hard to hear: now you couldn’t look away – their stories were unbearable and, for the country, deeply shaming. Bertie Ahern, the then taoiseach, issued an apology before the third part of the series hit the air.

Raftery worked within the law, sharing the churches’ and the state’s obsession with records, files, account books, ledgers, baptismal certificates, adoption papers, gravestones and mortal remains. She took an almost childlike pleasure in undoing the riddle of power. I knew her a little. She was good fun. One of our conversations was about the redress scheme established in 2002 as a result of her work, to compensate those who had suffered abuse in childcare institutions. This seemed to me like a good thing. But the money, Raftery said, was subject to a confidentiality clause and this recalled, for some victims, the secrecy imposed on them by their abusers, the small bribes they used: a bit of chocolate, a hug. ‘You see?’ she said. Back in the trap.

In the late 1980s I met a woman who had been committed to Saint Ita’s, a mental institution near Dublin. The papers were signed by her mother and a priest. The priest had the power to sign a section order in those days – though a doctor might also have been involved. The priest was the woman’s uncle, her mother’s brother, and they were putting her away because she said that the priest had felt her up. This was a woman my own age, or younger. In St Ita’s she was medicated for three months, and kept in for another three and then let go. The doctors, she said, knew there was nothing wrong with her. I remember laughing in horror at this story, and she laughed too: ‘They have you every way.’

It is, of course, this woman’s mother who is the most interesting person in this story; how she disbelieved her daughter and pushed her away. The graveyard at St Ita’s is a walled plot that contains, by repute, five thousand bodies. There is only one personal headstone – raised by an inmate’s uncle, on behalf of his grieving sister, in the early 1900s. The priest at Grangegorman, another huge asylum, got so lonely burying the abandoned mad that he requested company – just one other living person, to say the word ‘Amen.’ The dead, we feel, should be freed from their sorrows, from the projections of the living. The shame should die with them. They should be allowed back in.

‘The boy​ is dead,’ Tiresias says to Creon, ‘stop killing him.’ Instead, Creon kills Antigone. He kills his own future daughter-in-law, breaking his son’s heart. Creon is concerned with anarchy (‘obedience saves lives’) and with keeping himself superior to womankind: ‘never never never let ourselves be bested by a woman.’ He is also concerned with pollution. His son’s nature has been ‘polluted’ by being subject to a woman. The pleasure of sex that women afford is ‘an open wound in your house and your life’. Creon is speaking about all women here, but Antigone is a woman squared, being the product of an incestuous union between her father, Oedipus, and his mother, Jocasta. Their family, Ismene says, is ‘doubled tripled degraded and dirty in every direction’. The line of kinship is hopelessly tangled, so when Ismene says, ‘O sister don’t cross this line,’ she is speaking to someone in whom all boundaries are broken.

The line of Creon’s edict is only one of the ‘lines’ in the play. There is the city wall, and there is also the horizon line, where Polynices’ body lies on the unopening ground. Antigone is neither outside nor inside. She is ‘a strange new kind of inbetween thing … not at home with the dead nor with the living’. As the play proceeds she moves deeper into the other world; ‘my soul died long ago,’ she says, ‘so it might serve the dead.’ This self-involvement makes her seem a bit adolescent in the face of Creon’s unyielding, corporate fury – she is like a teenager ‘doing’ death – but this is not a rehearsal of adult autonomy. Antigone is buried alive by way of punishment for her crime. As she goes to her tomb – she calls it ‘a bridal chamber’ – she looks to her own incestuous contradictions, and goes to meet her people: father, mother and brother. According to the chorus, she is ‘the only one of mortals to go down to Death alive’. The paradox of living death completes the incestuous paradox of her origins. It is like a bad joke. Antigone is a pun that was never funny. She never had anything to lose.

Creon, by contrast, is free of incestuous taint. ‘A man who runs his household right/can run a government.’ To be a man is to be a man. He will not get mixed up in her or by her. In order to stay whole and free he must assert his authority, he must kill Antigone. If he lets her get away with it then ‘surely I am not a man here/she is the man.’ He ‘will be clean of this girl’. He will put some food in her burial chamber, ‘just enough to avoid the pollution, a sort of/sacred technicality’. When his son kills himself, Creon bemoans his own folly and the god who was his undoing, but the sight of his wife’s corpse makes him cry: ‘O filth of death.’ By trying to keep himself clean and separate – from the incestuous, from the female, from death itself – Creon has fallen into a different trap. ‘If you find you’re confusing evil with good/some god is heading you down the high road to ruin.’ It is Tiresias, history’s first transsexual, who puts him straight: ‘for you’ve housed a living soul beneath the ground below/and held a dead man here/without his grave or rights.’

Sometimes,​ the things we have said all our lives look strange again, like the way the religious style themselves as family: Father this, Mother that, Brother, Sister.

It is hard to say if it is a question of aversion, of purity or of privacy, but the nuns’ plot in High Park was as far as the land would allow from that of the auxiliaries. This is also true of Sunday’s Well Magdalene Laundry in Cork: the nuns are in the north-east corner, in neat rows with a neat cross for each; the auxiliaries are in a mass grave, now vandalised, in an overgrown and inaccessible part of the complex. Ordinary Magdalenes were buried in the local public cemetery, though anxiety persists about the names on their headstones and the actual occupants of the graves. This anxiety was not alleviated by the most recent report, in a line of reports, by the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries (IDC), known as the McAleese Report.

Martin McAleese trained as a dentist and as an accountant and served the state well as the spouse of President Mary McAleese over 14 years, in which time he played an active role in the Northern Irish peace process. In his introduction McAleese says he wants to protect the privacy of the Magdalene workers, who have, for too long, suffered the stigma of being called ‘fallen women’. They came to the homes through various routes: the courts, the industrial schools; by free will and at the behest of their families. He stresses that they were not prostitutes, as commonly thought, and hopes this label will not simply be replaced with the word ‘criminal’. He does not discuss the anonymity of the nuns within the report, or their potential ‘criminality’: these are not at issue. The congregations have since refused either to apologise or to contribute to any redress scheme.

Published in 2013, the report is a strange document. The first mention that the women were not paid for their work comes in Chapter 15, in a section about social insurance. There is another reference to their lack of wages in Chapter 19. And that’s it, really, on the slavery question. The report is a thousand pages long. And money is much discussed. Accounts are provided, to show that the laundries operated on a ‘break-even basis’. The documents were furnished by the congregations to their own accountants and were not subject to separate audit.

Some accounts are listed as missing, including that of Sunday’s Well in Cork. During her time as an RTE researcher, Sheila Ahern came into possession of accounts for Sunday’s Well dealing with the years 1957 to 1966. She photocopied them and posted the originals back to the nuns of the Good Shepherd; in March 1999 they wrote back, saying: ‘The material you forwarded is a cash receipts record for the laundry … it bears no relationship whatsoever to profit.’ Of course these accounts may subsequently have been lost, along with those that explained the absence of profit, so we cannot say that Martin McAleese was less than obsessive in his hunt for the truth. Still it’s an odd – almost journalistic – thrill to look at documents on your own laptop that the public record says do not exist.

Broadly speaking, the report asks us to believe that women working an eight or ten-hour day (‘we never knew the time,’ one of them says) six days a week, before falling asleep in unheated dormitories, could not earn enough to keep themselves fed. If the nuns were bad with money they were like no nuns I ever knew, but the issue of profitability is another distraction. The question is not one of business management, but of human rights. Why do we feel confused?

The advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes has challenged the IDC’s findings about the number of women in the system and the average duration of stay. The report puts this at 3.22 years, with a median of 27.6 weeks, but this ignores women who went in before Independence in 1922, many of whom stayed for life. Claire McGettrick has checked electoral registers to find that 63.1 per cent of the adult women registered in the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry in 1954-55 were still there nine years later. Local grave records show that over half the women at the institution between 1954 and 1964 were there until they died.

The Magdalene story, like the other stories here, is one of people maddened by information, misinformation, lies and ledgers, and there is much and persuasive talk of statistics. But it is the voices of the women that interest me. They spoke to McAleese in person. The report breaks down their testimony into different categories, moving from ‘sexual abuse’ through ‘physical abuse’ to ‘lack of information and a real fear of remaining there until death’. Only one woman complains that she was not paid for her work. Perhaps the others did not feel entitled to pay, or entitled, indeed, to complain. Their idea of difficulty might be different from yours or mine. The report uses their voices in brief quotations to say that there was no sexual abuse, there was very little physical abuse (by which is meant beatings): there was ritual humiliation, long hours of thankless labour, bewilderment and fear.

But, you know, it wasn’t as bad as you might think. Many, many times longer than any woman’s testimony is the testimony offered by Dr Coughlan, who seemed to have a splendid time in the Galway Laundry: ‘After I sat down at my desk [name] a jovial Resident would proudly arrive with a linen-covered tray laden with tea and buns.’ The ladies wore colourful clothing, they brought him their small troubles, or bits of gossip – ‘Do you like my hair, Doctor?’ There was rarely anything wrong with them, medically: ‘Overall, my experience with the Magdalene was a happy and gratifying one.’ And as for death certs, he often had to tell people about death certs, we can assume he was worn out telling them. The women Dr Coughlan saw in 1984 were among the last Magdalenes. It is possible they were institutionalised, though he sees that damage as a kind of sweetness. It is possible – though it is really not possible – that it wasn’t all that bad and, besides, it is fine now.

The fragmentation of the women’s testimony – they are turned into a kind of chorus in the report – seems to show some unease. Justice for Magdalenes says that McAleese was at first reluctant to speak to the former inmates at all; they also say that ‘survivors were not made aware their responses would be used to cast doubt over their abusive experiences.’ Of course the report is not an oral history project, or even a history project, and it fulfilled its remit to prove there was significant state involvement in the laundries, but I felt I knew less after it than before. It is hard to describe how tiring it was to work through, chasing the sense that something is missing, that you are trapped within the paternalistic paradox: I am in charge, therefore you are fine.

So the taoiseach said sorry, and there is now a redress scheme in place. The records, which McAleese said were so willingly opened to him by the congregations, have been anonymised and the originals returned.

Times were different, this is what the men in my life say: my husband, my brother, my father. Martin, my husband, says that for the Athenian audience Creon was the real hero of the piece; his was the hubris and his the fall. Creon tries to control the natural order by his own will or ingenuity – a very Athenian impulse – and loses everything he loves. The death of his son, Haemon, is the real tragic event of the play, not the death of Antigone. At best, there are two parallel, dissonant tragedies here, two characters who cannot change their minds, with Antigone the unwitting agent and Creon the dupe of the gods. So it might even be time to feel sorry for the ageing Catholic congregations, who keep reaching for their PR companies and failing to understand. ‘When the Oh My God – mass grave in the West of Ireland story broke in an English-owned newspaper (the Mail) it surprised the hell out of everybody, not least the sisters of the Bons Secours,’ wrote Terry Prone of the Communications Clinic, who went on to say that most of the nuns she represents are in their eighties now.

The Adoption Rights Alliance believes the state has a strategy of ‘deny till they die’: stalling until the nuns and the birth mothers are all dead. But though the children were sent away, they do keep coming back. In the Examiner, Conall Ó Fátharta keeps breaking a story about Bessborough, another Mother and Baby Home, also in Cork. A 2012 health service report is concerned that ‘death records may have been falsified so children could be “brokered in clandestine adoption arrangements” at home and abroad.’ Ó Fátharta says that according to figures given to the public health inspector, 102 babies died there in 1944, a death rate of 82 per cent. There are, however, only 76 deaths on the order’s own register, and this pattern is repeated in the surrounding years. Where are the missing children? They may be alive and old, in America. If the problem in Bessborough and perhaps in Tuam, was one not of murder, neglect or the discarded dead, but one of baby trafficking, few people in Ireland would be surprised. One day we will all wake up and be shocked by it, but not yet. Meanwhile, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary may, in the interests of respectability, decline to open the records they hold on the deaths, births and adoptions of Irish citizens, except on their own terms.

In July, the Adoption Information and Tracing Bill was discussed in cabinet. It will give as many as fifty thousand adoptees the right to their birth certificate, if they promise not to contact their mothers directly. ‘What we want,’ says Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance, is ‘our file and nothing but the file’. In August, shortly before the reburial of Thomas Kent, John Buckley, the bishop of Cork and Ross, called for the exhumation of little Nellie Organ, from the graveyard of Sunday’s Well in Cork. Nellie was a wonderfully pretty little girl who suffered a long illness and a terrible death – probably from tuberculosis – in the infirmary of the orphanage there. She was the darling of the nuns, and of all who came in contact with her. She died in 1908, at the age of four. On her last day, she received the host, and Irish schoolchildren were often told she died of happiness. Her story inspired Pope Pius X to lower the age of communion for children, from 12 to seven. The bishop calls her the unofficial saint of the city. She was buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery but then exhumed and reburied within the convent grounds ‘at the nuns’ request’, Buckley said. At the time of the exhumation, a year after Nellie’s death, her remains were found to be intact. She is currently buried in the locked nun’s plot at Sunday’s Well, her grave made distinctive, among the low plain crosses, by a large statue of the Infant of Prague. The Sunday’s Well complex is now derelict. It is currently the property of Ulster Bank and the accountancy firm KPMG.

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