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Council unable to find burial place of babies despite checking records of 13 graveyards

Mary Donovan’s siblings are among the 923 children who died at Bessborough mother and baby institution in Cork.

Margaret Mary Finn
Margaret Mary Finn
Image: C/O Mary Donovan

CORK CITY COUNCIL has been unable to find the burial place of twin babies who apparently died in Bessborough mother and baby 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, The Journal has learned.

Donovan’s mother Margaret Mary Finn gave birth to twins, Ann Veronica and Vincent Joseph, in Bessborough on 24 March 1959. They both died as newborns, according to their death certs. However, no burial records for the twins have been found to date.

Some 923 children died at Bessborough or in hospital shortly 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 – meaning the burial place of 859 children is unknown.

Many other relatives are in a similar position to Mary Donovan and cannot find burial records for their loved ones.

Donovan’s mother, who died in 2014, passed through a number of psychiatric institutions and Magdalene laundries throughout her life. According to her records, Margaret Finn had 13 pregnancies and suffered multiple miscarriages.

Donovan spent her childhood in the Pembroke Alms House Industrial School in Tralee in Co Kerry. Over the years, she discovered she had extra siblings than she previously thought. She only found out about Ann and Vincent in December 2020.

I grew up thinking I had only two brothers and a sister, so to find out I had many more siblings was a big change for me.

“My mother is a survivor of two Magdalene laundries and Bessborough twice. Over a 50-year period she was in five different psychiatric asylums in Ireland,” Donovan said.

Donovan has death certs for Ann and Vincent, but no burial records. Ann apparently died on 25 March 1959, just one day after she was born. Vincent’s date of death is listed as both 26 March and 27 March 1959 on different documents – so the correct date is unclear.

The babies were born four or five weeks premature and the cause of their deaths is listed as ‘atelectasis prematurity’ – a condition that causes the lungs of premature babies to collapse.

Screenshot 2022-06-27 16.25.12 Mary pictured with her mother, Margaret Source: C/O Mary Donovan

For the past 18 months, Donovan has been trying to find out where her siblings are buried. In recent weeks, an official in Cork City Council checked the records of 13 local graveyards but could not find any mention of Ann or Vincent.

The records of the following graveyards were checked:

  • St Joseph’s, Tory Top Road, Ballyphehane
  • St Finbarr’s, Glasheen Road
  • St Michael’s, Blackrock
  • St Catherine’s, Kilcully
  • St Oliver’s, Ballincollig
  • St James’ Chetwynd, Togher
  • St Mary’s, Curraghkippane
  • St Senan’s Tower, Blarney
  • St Columba’s, Douglas
  • St Senan’s Abbey, Inniscarra
  • Rathcooney Cemetery, Rathcooney, Glanmire
  • Carrigrohane Beg, Carrigrohane
  • Old Kilcully Cemetery

Donovan had previously been unable to find burial records for her siblings at Carr’s Hill Cemetery.

She told The Journal she is devastated by this latest setback and needs to know the truth:

Where are my brother and my sister? Where are they buried?

After reviewing documents related to her siblings, Donovan believes they may be buried at the Bessborough site.

Alternatively, she thinks they could have been sent to the US for adoption – one document related to the children has ‘America’ written on it, but no further explanation is given.

Donovan believes she will not get answers until the Bessborough site is excavated. She has called for the site to be permanently protected from any development while the burial place of hundreds of children remains unknown.

“It needs to be excavated or something needs to be done. Officials say that because it’s a private estate it’s not feasible to excavate, but that’s not my problem. There are babies missing here and I’ll keep fighting for them.

“923 babies died in Bessborough, there are only records for 64 of them. That’s a lot of babies without burial records,” Donovan said.

Parliamentary question

Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, a TD for Cork South Central, yesterday submitted a parliamentary question to Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman about the issue.

The question asks O’Gorman if he is aware of Donovan’s situation, “if he will assist in this search and if he can explain the lack of burial records”.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson Department of Children told The Journal that Minister O’Gorman is “very conscious of the pain experienced by families in relation to the deaths of children at former Mother and Baby Homes, including Bessborough, and the uncertainty surrounding some of their burial locations”.

bessborough-single-mothers-and-babies-homes Toys and flowers at the 'Little Angels' memorial plot in the grounds of Bessborough House in Blackrock, Cork Source: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

They noted that the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes “concluded that it is likely that some of the children who died in Bessborough are buried in the grounds but was unable to find any physical or documentary evidence of this”.

“The Commission carried out cartographic and landscape assessments of possible unrecorded burial arrangements and also followed up with people on responses to its appeal seeking information about burials in Bessborough.

“As no evidence of locations was found, the Commission did not consider it feasible to excavate the full available site, which amounts to 60 acres. As the land is in private ownership, it is not open to the Government to procure or carry out investigations there,” a statement noted.

The spokesperson added that making decisions regarding planned developments in the grounds of Bessborough is a matter for Cork City Council and An Bord Pleanála.

Protected area

In March of this year Cork City councillors voted to protect one section of the grounds of the former institution in Bessborough, but not the whole site.

An area identified as a ‘children’s’ burial site’ on a 1949/1950 Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) map was earmarked to be designated a ‘landscape preservation zone’. This decision was ratified by the council on Monday, 27 June.

This particular area was at the centre of an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála into a proposed apartment development at the site last year.

Planning permission for this development was refused in May 2021 because ABP was not satisfied that the site was not previously used as a children’s burial ground.

download Source: OSI map from 1949/1950

Being a ‘landscape preservation zone’ doesn’t mean the site can never be developed, but any such development will only be considered if safeguards are put in place to respect the sensitivity of the area.

The Bessborough estate originally covered 60 acres, but sections of the land have been sold off over the years. MWB Two Ltd – the developers who failed to receive planning permission last year – owns 3.7 acres of the site, for example.

‘People are traumatised’

Councillor Eolan Ryng, a Sinn Féin councillor for Cork City South-West, has been helping Donovan with her search.

Speaking to The Journal, Ryng said: “It’s incredible that you have death certs but no burial certs. This is not that long ago in terms of history and this State was very good at record keeping.

The State can’t undo the hurt of the past, but what the State can do is provide every answer possible and support survivors of institutions.

In terms of potential developments being built on the Bessborough site, Ryng said he is “very, very aware of the huge need for housing” but he is “not sure we can justify development on land where there are still questions that haven’t been answered”.

“As long as a question mark hangs over the burial place of hundreds of children, I’m not sure you can justify disturbing the grounds,” he added.

Ryng said he knows that survivors have different views on the excavation of the Bessborough site, but he believes a further survey of the ground should be conducted “as soon as possible” in a bid to get answers for Donovan and others.

“Every arm of the State should be mobilised to provide answers for survivors, and relatives, who are still traumatised and carrying a huge burden,” he told us.

When asked about Donovan’s situation, a spokesperson for Cork City Council said the local authority does not comment on individual cases.

Burials Bill

Legislation that would allow for excavations and exhumations of remains at the sites of former mother and baby institutions is currently making its way through the Oireachtas.

The Burials Bill would also 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.

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If the legislation passes as expected, the initial focus will be on excavating the site of the former Bon Secours institution in Tuam, Co Galway – where around 800 babies are believed to be buried.

That process alone could take several years, and some campaigners have expressed concerns that the sites of other institutions may not be excavated until the process at the Tuam site is complete, or at least well underway.

Ryng said the possibility that sites such as Bessborough won’t be examined for years is “very concerning” and “causes an awful of anxiety for people”.

“Answers have to be given, people have already been waiting too long,” he stated.

Ryng also paid tribute to Donovan, saying: “She’s been a really strong person to carry this fight, to continue looking for answers. She has been through an awful lot.

“I have to pay massive credit to her tenacity, courage and bravery in persisting in trying to open doors that have been closed in her face.”

While some survivors and relatives want the site to be excavated, others have called for it to remain untouched and for a memorial to be installed on the grounds.

The spokesperson for the Department of Children noted that, in 2021, Minister O’Gorman made submissions to An Bord Pleanála and Cork City Council “in respect of two planning applications made on the Bessborough lands, requesting that due consideration be given to the sensitivity of the site and the conclusions of the Commission”.

The spokesperson continued: “The Minister considers it important to have regard to any need for further investigations by appropriate experts in relation to works commencing on the lands and monitoring of such works. He is also of the view that adequate consideration needs to be given to the request from relatives of the deceased and survivors for appropriate access and respectful memorialisation in due course.”

Donovan said she is “not interested in memorialisation until the babies are found”, adding: “Bessborough needs to be excavated”.

She said she will not give up her campaign until she gets answers.

“I’m not afraid, I have nothing to lose anymore. How much more pain can I take? I need to fight my mum’s fight. I need to fight for the voices of the deceased.

“I think we owe it to my family and all the missing children to find out exactly what happened to them and to find out where they are buried,” Donovan stated.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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