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Survivors call plan to build apartments at Bessborough site 'an abhorrent act of desecration'

The developer has said it is “highly unlikely” the land in question is a burial site, but that this can’t be ruled out.

Updated Apr 21st 2021, 6:00 PM

bessborough-single-mothers-and-babies-homes The site of the former institution at Bessborough Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

IF PLANNING PERMISSION is granted for a controversial housing development on the site of a former mother and baby institution in Bessborough in Cork city, it must include conditions that ensure a “comprehensive” investigation of the entire site takes place, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has said.

The minister was speaking at an oral hearing arranged by An Bord Pleanála to examine proposals to build 179 apartments in three blocks at the site of the former institution.

As well as O’Gorman, ABP today heard from a number of survivors or their relatives, and developer MWB Two Ltd which has submitted plans for a Strategic Housing Development (SHD) at the site.

The company has argued it is “highly unlikely” that the land in question contains a burial ground.

MWB Two’s submission to ABP stated: “Though highly unlikely, it cannot be ruled out that the SHD site contains human remains.” As such, the company said it “is happy to conduct further site investigation”..

However, survivors and their relatives have labelled the plans “an abhorrent act of desecration” and “a travesty”.

Speaking at the virtual hearing this evening, O’Gorman said, if planning permission is fully or partially granted, it must include conditions which ensure “there is a comprehensive and appropriate investigation of the entire application site prior to any works taking place”.

O’Gorman added that “any burial site identified by this investigation” must be “appropriately protected” and that “appropriate memorialisation would be provided for”.

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.

O’Gorman told the hearing: “It’s very clear that there are unresolved questions about the location of the burial of the hundreds of babies and children who died in Bessborough.”

The minister said, through engaging with survivors in recent months, he is “very aware of the importance many of them place on the appropriate and dignified memorialisation of burial sites for those who died in mother and baby and county institutions”.

He said this is particularly relevant in relation to Bessborough given the fact the burial place of so many children remains unknown.

“I think this planning application, if it’s granted in its current form, would have a very significant impact on that potential location of a burial site and I know this possibility has caused real distress for survivors,” O’Gorman stated.  

Campaign groups such as the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) have repeatedly requested a thorough examination of the site in question. The CSSA will address the hearing tomorrow.

Prior to today’s hearing, the board sought further clarification from the developer on the plans for the site. The board noted that the southern part of three blocks may encroach on to a potential burial ground. 

‘Fundamental misunderstanding’

In its submission, MWB Two Ltd noted that the area where the development is proposed to be built “is very unlikely to be a burial ground and is no more likely to be a burial ground than other areas in the 200 acres which constituted the Bessborough Estate until the early 1970s”.

The submission stated: “The mistaken view of these particular lands as a “potential burial ground” is based entirely on a fundamental misunderstanding of the OSI maps (from 1949/1950). There is no other basis for that view. The words “Children’s Burial Ground” on the OSI maps in fact refer to the rectangular area just north of the folly and within the circular surround of the folly.

“High resolution aerial photographs in 1951 showed no evidence of burial grounds in the area in question. 2019 excavations in the area in question by an Archaeologist and Osteoarchaeologist, specifically looking for human remains, found none.”

BBsb 1 1949/1950 Ordnance Survey revision trace map of the site Source: ABP

The company’s submission added: “Though highly unlikely, it cannot be ruled out that the SHD site contains human remains. Accordingly, and in hope of reassuring stakeholders, the Applicant is happy to conduct further site investigation”.

MWB Two Ltd proposes that such an investigation should occur after the granting of planning permission but before development on that part of the SHD site which has been “mistakenly identified” as a children’s burial ground.

Michael Flynn, a former member of Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI), told the hearing that a blue line on the OSI map in question was intended to draw attention to a remark relating to the text ‘Children’s Burial Ground’.

He explained that the blue tick indicates the matter was attended to, and does not indicate the actual location of a burial ground.

In its submission, the company said it “recognises, respects and sympathises with the anxiety of family, friends and others who seek to identify and resolve the burial places of the children who died at Bessboro”. It added that it is “anxious not to compound the distress of those family, friends and others or, in particular, disrespect those children”.

MWB Two Ltd said it would welcome “appropriate memorialisation, at its expense and in consultation with stakeholders, of former and/or deceased residents, in particular children, of the Bessboro Mother and Babies Home”.

David Holland BL, representing MWB Two Ltd, told the hearing it was understandable that campaigners would oppose building on land they they believe to be a children’s burial ground, but said the company is strongly of the view that this is not the case.

He noted that, understandably, different survivors “have different views” on what should happen with thesite..

“Some consider that the remains should be left in place and in peace, others consider that perhaps they should be removed to a dignified and proper burial elsewhere,” Holland said.

He noted that some survivors want the remains exhumed in the hope that DNA may help identify them. Holland said it was not the developer’s desire or place to comment upon which approach to take in this regard.

Archaeological experts for the developers told the hearing that they found no evidence of human remains in an area marked as a children’s burial ground on a map created around 1950.

Archaeologist Niamh Daly, who was involved in a test excavation at the site in December 2019, said: “The results of careful monitoring and systematic archaeological excavation of the eight test trenches confirmed the absence of human bone and human tooth enamel.

“Therefore, no human remains, or graves were recovered or identified in the eight test trench areas.”

‘Desecration to their memories’

Mary Slattery, a member of the Know my Own group whose child was adopted against her will in 1979, said: “The proposed building on lands that have been identified on an ordnance survey map to include a burial ground is an abhorrent act of desecration to the memories of those babies and their mothers.”

Slattery said she and other women were treated like criminals and “demonised” for getting pregnant outside marriage.

“We lived in a most perverse society that demonised women who had sex outside marriage. The hurt that I have experience, the shame that I have experienced, the silence that I have experienced – you have no idea of the depth of it.”

Slattery said the religious orders who ran the institutions treated women like her “just like dirt on their shoe leather”. She said the fact the burial place of over 800 children remains unknown shows how little respect they were given in life and death.

During the afternoon session, Slattery called on the developers to “donate” the site to Cork City Council.

She told the hearing: “The identified ground on this ordnance map should be incorporated in to the area of lands and burial sites that lead down to an area called the folly and also the cemetery of the deceased nuns. All of these grounds should form a historical preserved heritage site, similar to preserved famine sites. These sites should now be in public ownership not in private ownership…

“The area of the folly and the walk way down to is of such archaeological and historical importance that it should also have the protective status of the state. This is the area where families come to grieve, where the future generations can come and pay respect to the past generations.

“Mothers and their adult children do not want to be retraumatised with this proposed development.”

Slattery added that “under no circumstances should the burial area of the babies in Bessborough and those mothers who died” should be exhumed, as some have called for.

‘We may never know the truth’

In her submission, Carmel Cantwell, whose brother died shortly after he was born in the Bessborough institution in 1960, stated: “For the last 27 years I have visited Bessboro regularly as my mother was told by the nuns that her baby was buried on the grounds.

“Not knowing the exact place her baby was buried has caused her great stress in her life. She has had some comfort in visiting Bessboro as this was the last place she saw her baby alive. She has regularly said a prayer for him at the memorial at Bessboro and has enjoyed this space as a place for reflection.”

Cantell noted that survivors and their relatives hold an annual commemoration at the folly for the women and children who died.

“This event has become a gathering of all those that spent time in Bessboro, many coming from America to attend. It feels peaceful there surrounded by the grounds. It particularly upset me that the developers drew up their plans using the folly as a feature to complement their apartments. We do not want apartment blocks overlooking this special place.”

Cantell told the hearing that the grounds in question “have an historical legacy which must be respected”.

“Any building here will compound the hurt felt by those mothers, children and extended families who have a relative buried here. The ‘Children’s Burial Ground’ must be preserved. Anything else would be a travesty,” she said.

“The full truth of the burials at Bessboro may never be known but I propose in the memory of the 923 children that died along with the 19,000 girls, women and their children that went through this barbaric system of incarceration and separation should at the very least be acknowledged and honoured by keeping these grounds untouched and create a space for the community and for healing.”

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Burials Bill

Cork County Council earlier this year rejected part of the controversial development when it refused planning permission for an eight-storey block of 67 apartments on 3.7 acres of privately-owned land at Bessborough. 

MWB Two Ltd had applied to build 258 residential units – six houses and 252 apartments – on the site, as well as a creche.

The developer separately applied under the the fast-track strategic housing development (SHD) process for 179 of these units in three buildings ranging in height from five to seven stories, which will be the subject of today’s oral hearing.

The controversial plans were discussed during a hearing of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee last week.

The committee was debating the Burials Bill – legislation that would allow excavations, exhumations and re-interment of remains at the sites of former mother and baby homes.

A number of contributors said that proposals for apartments on the Bessborough estate should not be granted planning permission – at least until proper excavation at the site takes place.

Martin Parfrey, a Bessborough survivor from the Know My Own group, noted that the burial place of over 800 children remains unknown.

“The current fear is that these infants are buried in the ground intended for the apartment block planned for Bessborough,” he told the committee.

David Dodd BL, speaking on behalf of the CSSA, noted the group’s strong opposition to the planning application.

“As a country and a people, we do not build apartment blocks on children’s burial grounds, though that is what is proposed now.”

He added that the CSSA does not want the remains buried at Bessborough “to be excavated, exhumed or otherwise removed”, saying this would be “re-traumatising” for the mothers involved.

“What may be right for one site like Tuam is different to what may be right for another site like Bessborough…

“The CSSA seeks the maintenance, preservation and memorialisation of the children’s burial ground on the site of the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Institution, and in the absence of legislative intervention the issue remains unsettled.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan and Cónal Thomas

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