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Children's toys and flowers at the 'Little Angels' memorial plot in the grounds of Bessborough, Cork (file photo) Laura Hutton/
mother and baby homes

'This isn't justice': Relatives criticise fact Bessborough site won't be excavated like Tuam

The burial place of over 850 children who died in Bessborough mother and baby home, or shortly after being transferred to hospital from there, remains unknown.

A WOMAN WHOSE brother was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home has criticised the fact the site of the former institution will not be excavated in a bid to locate the burial place of over 850 children.

In July, the Government confirmed long-awaited plans to excavate the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam, Co Galway.

Cabinet signed off on a proposal to establish an independent office that will oversee the excavation, recovery, analysis, identification – if possible – and re-interment of the infant remains located at the site.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman proposed the office be set up following the signing into law of the Institutional Burials Act 2022 earlier in July.

The Act allows the Government to direct an intervention at a site where “manifestly inappropriate burials” of people who died in residential institutions took place. The Government has confirmed that the site at Tuam meets the criteria for such an intervention to take place.

At the time, survivors and relatives expressed concerns that the site of other former insisitions may not be excavated for years, if at all.

Carmel Cantwell, who has long campaigned for the Bessborough (sometimes spelled Bessboro) site in Blackrock in Cork city to be excavated, was yesterday told by Minister O’Gorman’s office there are no plans to establish a similar office to oversee excavation of that site.

The minister’s office told Cantwell that “in the absence of identifying the burial places of children”, no such office similar to Tuam can be established in the case of Bessborough.

The Bessborough institution operated from 1922 and 1998, during which time 923 children died at the home or in hospital shortly after being transferred there.

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 – meaning the burial place of 859 children is unknown.

Cantwell’s brother William died in December 1960, when he was just six weeks old, in St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork after being transferred there from Bessborough.

Through one of the Commission’s interim reports, Cantwell discovered that William was buried in Carr’s Hill graveyard – a former famine graveyard – and not at the Bessborough site, as her family previously believed.

Cantwell has been calling for “a thorough investigation” into the deaths and burials at Bessborough for several years and in May wrote to Minister O’Gorman asking for the site to be excavated.

In the email sent by O’Gorman’s office to Cantwell yesterday, a spokesperson wrote: “The Minister is very conscious of the hurt that continues to be felt by you and other families regarding the death of relatives who were resident in the institution in Bessborough and the uncertainty regarding their burial places.

However, in the absence of identifying the burial places of children, a proposal to establish an Office of a Director of Authorised Intervention to oversee the excavation, recovery and identification of remains cannot be brought forward under the Institutional Burials Act.

“The Minister has emphasised that adequate consideration should be given to the views of survivors and family members and the findings of the Commission In the context of the proposed development of Bessborough site.

“He will continue to promote engagement with all survivors and family members associated with Mother Baby Home institutions and liaise with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage In relation to the respectful treatment of burial sites.”

‘I can’t express enough the upset we feel’

In her letter to O’Gorman, Cantwell wrote: “Please can you appoint a Director to look into burials at Bessborough. I can’t express enough to you the upset amongst families who suspect their relatives are buried on the grounds of Bessborough but as yet have not seen any proof…

“All of us in the Bessboro Support Group and the Bessboro Commemoration Group want the truth to be established. We want to respect every child and mother that died at Bessborough even if that means after an exhaustive investigation no mass burial site is found.

This is not justice. We know many random burials took place on different parts of the grounds, but at the moment we or anyone else does not know if there is a mass burial ground there.

Cantwell said she is very disappointed by the confirmation that an office will not be set up to oversee an excavation at the Bessborough site, asking: “What was the point of the Burials Bill?”

Speaking to The Journal today, Cantwell said she was “dubious” about whether or not the Institutional Burials Act would lead to the Bessborough site being excavated, but wanted to remain optimistic.

“I was a little bit surprised to see them confirm in writing that an office will not be set up. They are basically telling us they are not going to investigate and that’s the end of it.”

“We found out where my brother is buried – well, not exactly where, but we know he is somewhere on a five-acre site [in Carr's Hill]. We thought he was buried in Bessborough until a few years ago because the nuns told mother that’s where he was.

“We know now, roughly, where he is. But how do I walk away and leave the other 858 babies? This is about getting to the truth. We need to know how they lived, how they died and where they are buried.”

‘Different views’

When asked by The Journal in a recent interview if sites other than Tuam would be excavated, Minister O’Gorman said: “My own view at the moment is that we should probably let the Tuam process go through and learn from that process.

“But I think it’s also important to note that there isn’t a unanimity of views in any other group of relatives or survivors attached to an institution in terms of if they want to see an excavation. An excavation is a big step and disturbing remains is a big step.

“And the reason everyone agrees with it in Tuam is because of the absolute abhorrent nature in which the remains of the children have been treated there. There are different views in terms of Bessborough.

“One of the key questions about Bessborough is the protection of the identified burial site, I know Cork City Council are working on that in terms of their development plan.

“I’ve engaged with relatives in terms of Bessborough. I’ve also engaged with relatives in terms of Sean Ross [Abbey in Co Tipperary], I was actually in Sean Ross [a few weeks ago] and did a private visit there with some of the survivor groups there and they showed me the site. And again, I know the concern is the protection of the site.”

When asked if it’s probable that some sites may never be excavated, O’Gorman said: “I think a lot depends on the views of relatives.

“I think there are a number of survivors I would have met who would very strongly believe memorialisation is what they want to see. They may have religious or spiritual or cultural reasons they wouldn’t like to see remains disturbed where remains are buried in a reasonably respectful manner.”

Some survivors and relatives want to see an excavation at Bessborough, but others disagree with this approach and want a memorial to be erected there instead.

Cantwell said everyone is entitled to their own view on the matter but she believes the exact locations of where children are buried at the site will remain unknown unless excavation takes place.

Unable to locate burial records

In June, The Journal broke the news that Cork City Council (CCC) was unable to find the burial place of twin babies who apparently died in the Bessborough institution in 1959, despite checking the records of 13 local graveyards.

A CCC official checked the records of 13 graveyards within the local authority’s boundary after a councillor intervened on behalf of the twins’ sister, Mary Donovan.

Anna Corrigan, whose brothers were born at the Tuam mother and baby institution, last month said that the Government’s plans to exhume the bodies of infants at that particular site “does not go far enough”.

Corrigan said at the time she feared that by focusing on the Galway site, the Government would “ignore” other mother and baby institutions across the country.

Corrigan discovered after her mother’s death that she had two older brothers who were born at the Tuam institution.

Her brother, John Desmond Dolan, was reported as having died of neglect and malnutrition while at the institution. The whereabouts of her second brother, William Joseph Dolan, remains unknown.

Controversial development plans

Last week, Cantwell and others said they were “outraged” at plans to construct 420 apartments on the Bessborough estate.

Earlier this year, Estuary View Enterprises (EVE) lodged combined Strategic Housing Development (SHD) plans with An Bord Pleanála to construct 420 apartments plus a café and crèche on the site.

The Bessborough estate originally covered 60 acres, but sections of the land have been sold off over the years. EVE is the largest landowner at the site with its block totalling just over 40 acres.

Cantwell said last week: “Mothers come to reflect on their time there and grieve for their children lost to adoption or whose burial places are unknown…

“There is too much ambiguity surrounding burials at Bessborough and until a full independent investigation is carried out to determine the truth there should be no further construction on the grounds.”

In May 2021, planning permission for a controversial apartment proposal on 3.7 acres of privately-owned land at the site was refused.

Developer MWB Two Ltd applied under the fast-track strategic housing development (SHD) process. The site overlaps with an area of land identified on historic maps as a “children’s burial ground”.

An Bord Pleanála held an online oral hearing on the issue in April 2021. MWB Two Ltd had argued it was “highly unlikely” the site in question contains a burial ground.

However, in its decision, ABP said it is “not satisfied that the site was not previously used as, and does not contain, a children’s burial ground”.

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