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Bessborough survivor says more women 'will die not knowing if their child is rotting in a septic tank'

The Children’s Committee today discussed legislation that would allow exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby institutions.

Bessborough survivor Alice Coughlan addressing the committee today
Bessborough survivor Alice Coughlan addressing the committee today
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Apr 27th 2021, 6:15 PM

MORE WOMEN WILL die without knowing where their child is buried, unless legislation that would allow the exhumation and reburial of bodies at mother and baby institutions is passed without delay, the Oireachtas Children’s Committee has heard.

The Burials Bill would allow excavations, exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby homes.

The general scheme of the Burials Bill provides for the creation of an agency which would oversee the excavation, exhumation, identification and reburial of any remains found at sites where “manifestly inappropriate burials have taken place”.

The Bill would also permit excavations and exhumations from these sites and provide a basis for identification using DNA samples from unidentified bodies exhumed and from people who are or may be close relatives of those unidentified persons.

Speaking at a committee hearing in the Dáil chamber this afternoon, Alice Coughlan, a Bessborough survivor and member of the Mother And Baby Homes Collaborative Forum, said: “The longer we wait to excavate the bodies, the more women will die without knowing whether their child is rotting in the ground, or in a septic tank.”

Coughlan said that while she doesn’t support the Burials Bill wholeheartedly, it “must pass into legislation as soon as possible”.

She noted that some members of the forum – which was set up in tandem with the Commission of Investigation and tasked with enabling survivors to identify, discuss and prioritise the issues of concern to them – broadly support the Bill, while others oppose it.

For my part, I support the Bill, though not without reservation. As a survivor of Bessborough Mother and Baby Institution, as a mother whose child was taken, I can say from experience that to lose a baby – to not know whether your child is alive or dead – is the worst experience you can ever imagine.

“I know my child survived, but so many didn’t, and for far too many women, the question remains.”

‘Treated worse than murderers’

Coughlan told the committee that she was given two options when her daughter was born – put her up for adoption or else agree to her spending the first 16 years of her life in an institution.

She signed the adoption papers under duress and was given a false name – a common tactic used in a bid to prevent women later finding their children.

“I signed the paper. I was given a name, a new name, you wouldn’t be given that in Portlaoise or Mountjoy if you were a murderer,” Coughlan said.

She added that “a lot of women” have yet to come forward as survivors, noting that many of them have not told their partners or children what happened to them.

There are women scared stiff, sitting in a house, wondering if somebody’s going to knock at the door.

Coughlan stated that, despite it being public knowledge since 2017 that almost 800 buried are buried at the site of the former Bon Secours mother and baby institution in Tuam “we’ve made no progress in identifying the children – in providing closure for the survivors who fear that their child, their brother, their sister is among the bodies”.

“Four years later, and these babies have yet to receive a proper burial. It is for this reason that I think this Bill must pass into legislation as soon as possible. I’m not a legislator, I have no experience in matters of law, so if I’m told that a new legal framework is required to ensure that the children currently rotting in Tuam and other institutions are excavated, then I must trust that this is necessary.”

She said there can be “no more delays” and that action must “finally be taken to rectify what is yet another betrayal of the women and children of Ireland”.

Bessborough development

Coughlan also said that the proposed apartment development at the Bessborough site cannot go ahead, noting that the burial place of almost 900 people remains unknown.

If the development gets the green light, she stated: “We as a nation have to say to ourselves, there is something wrong.”

Coughlan said that if a person was digging up their garden and three bodies were found, the gardaí would immediately be called and excavation would begin.

Hundreds of bodies are buried in both Tuam and Bessborough, she said, but the same principle doesn’t seem to apply there. She said these sites should be “excavated immediately”.

A number of survivors’ groups and TDs have called for a compulsory purchase order (CPO) to be considered for the Bessborough site in an attempt to block the development.

An Bord Pleanála held three days of oral hearings about the proposals last week and is currently deliberately over whether or not to grant or part-grant planning permission.

More than 900 children died at Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred there from the institution, which operated between 1922 and 1998. Despite “very extensive inquiries and searches”, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was only able to establish the burial place of 64 children.

The burial places of more than 800 babies and children are therefore unknown, with the Commission concluding that it is likely some of them were buried in unmarked graves.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman told last week’s hearing that if planning permission for the development is granted, it must include conditions that ensure a “comprehensive” investigation of the entire site takes place.

Inquests and role of coroner

Maree Ryan O’Brien, founder of adoptees’ rights group Aitheantas, told the committee that while the group welcomes the Bill “as a first step in addressing urgent issues surrounding burials, in the context of an all-inclusive victim/survivor-led approach”, there are a number of issues with the proposed legislation.

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Ryan O’Brien questioned the remit of the agency that the Bill proposes to set up.

“We are very strongly of the view that existing agencies are no longer fit for purpose and should be replaced by a new agency with overall responsibility for these matters,” she said.

Numerous stakeholders, including Catherine Corless – whose research resulted in the discovery of a mass grave at Tuam – have called for the legislation to ensure that the jurisdiction of the coroner is applied to burial sites.

Ryan O’Brien said that while the coroner should play a role in inquests, “the coronial system is one with which there are known shortcomings”.

“As highlighted by other submissions, we also agree that there are fundamental questions on human rights and burials, our obligations in law and the European convention on human rights all of which require a more through investigative approach involving inquests, forensic investigation and storage of remains than is provided for in the Bill.

“We would also like to highlight the ownership of lands and burial grounds. We believe that the State should take ownership of all burial grounds, both those identified and those yet to be identified. By means of compulsory purchase order, an established system under constitutional law, to fulfil its international human rights obligations and to preserve and protect these grounds,” she said.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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