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Toys and flowers at the 'Little Angels' memorial plot in the grounds of Bessborough House (file photo). Laura Hutton/

Babies from Cork County Home were buried in coffins with adults or amputated limbs

A Bessborough survivor has said the revelations are “heartbreaking and shocking”.

A NUMBER OF babies who died at Cork County Home were buried in the same coffins as adults, or in coffins containing amputated limbs.

The revelation is included in the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.

The report, which was released earlier this month, confirmed that about 9,000 children died in the 18 ‘homes’ under investigation.

The Commission had difficulty in locating certain burials records, if they existed, of several institutions such as Bessborough Mother and Baby Home.

The Commission also struggled to locate burial records for Cork County Home and District Hospital, a former workhouse that was subsequently renamed St Finbarr’s Hospital.

The Commission found that 2,318 unmarried mothers and over 2,400 children lived in the institution while it operated from 1921 to 1960. A number of the children were unaccompanied.

Some 545 children “died in infancy or early childhood” at Cork County Home during the same period.

The Commission also discovered that some infants were buried in the same coffins as strangers, or in coffins containing amputated limbs.

It located mortuary records relating to St Finbarr’s Hospital for the years 1968-85 at Cork University Maternity Hospital.

The report notes: “This set of index cards was compiled by a mortuary porter at the institution and recorded patient details including name, last address, date of death, name of undertaker and place of burial.

“Index cards relating to ‘illegitimate’ infants who died in St Finbarr’s Hospital in this period stated that all were interred in St Michael’s Cemetery.”

The Commission examined the burial registers at St Michael’s Cemetery but “found no burial record for the infants identified on the mortuary index cards”.

“Further analysis of the mortuary index cards revealed that in some instances deceased infants were recorded as having been buried in the coffin of a deceased adult patient.

“In other instances, infants were recorded as being buried in coffins containing amputated limbs.”

The Commission established that the Cork Health Authority/Southern Health Board bought burial plots in St Michael’s Cemetery since it opened in 1948.

“These burial plots were used to bury the unclaimed remains of adults who died in Cork county home/St Finbarr’s Hospital,” the report states.

The Commission was not able to establish if the practice of burying the remains of ‘illegitimate’ infants in the coffins of deceased adults was undertaken as far back as 1948.

As well as unmarried mothers, older, disabled and sick people, including people with mental illness, lived in county homes. The unmarried mothers often had to care for other residents in the institutions.

Many children were transferred to Cork County Home from Bessborough prior to being ‘boarded out’ (fostered) by the local authority.

‘Heartbreaking and shocking’ 

Mary Harney, who was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork in 1949 and campaigns on behalf of survivors, said the revelations about burials at the county home are “heartbreaking and shocking”.

After I read that, I had a terrible night of nightmares. Every time I closed my eyes it was all I could see, babies in shrouds buried with strangers.

“They say that children were buried with adults, not their own parents. They were put into coffins that already held a dead adult.

“Also, some children were put into coffins with limbs. The same hospital that is attached to the county home in Cork had an amputation and limb processing unit making false limbs.

“So when the limbs were amputated they were then buried, and some of the babies were put in with those limbs.”

Harney told the manner in which these children were buried reinforces that view held by some people in the past that “children born to single parents were disposable”.

“We are supposed to be a Christian country, a Catholic country, and the ritual of burial in Ireland has a very special history, it is very important to families.

“When you see that children born to single women were disposed of in such a fashion, it’s horrendous. It reinforces the image that we were not equal citizens, that the State did not cherish all of its children equally.”

The report also notes that the Commission and HSE staff “made extensive efforts to locate the mortuary records” related to Cork County Home “with limited success”.

“Although some mortuary records relating to the years 1968-85 were located, mortuary records from the 1940s to the late-1960s were not found.”

The Commission says it “examined all available burial registers relating to cemeteries in Cork city and hinterland”.

“Of the 449 confirmed deaths of ‘illegitimate’ infants and children in Cork County Home in the period 1922-60, burial records for just two were found. Both were found in the burial registers of St Finbarr’s Cemetery and related to burials in the ‘poor ground’ section in 1948 and 1950.”

Archivists at Cork City and County Archives made the Commission aware of a ledger called ‘Record of Deaths in Cork County Home and Hospital’ which covered periods between 1931 and 1984.

The report states: “The volume relating to the period April 1931 to August 1940 recorded whether the board of assistance issued a shroud, coffin or burial plot.

“Although many adults who died in the institution during this period were allotted burial plots, none was allotted to ‘illegitimate’ infants and children who died in the institution in this period.

“This volume recorded that 50 deceased ‘illegitimate’ infants and children were allotted shrouds: nine of these were also allotted coffins. It appears that those who were allotted coffins were children over one year old.”

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