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'It's a children's burial ground': Expert claims map of Bessborough site is correct

Survivors have criticised plans to build apartments at the site of a former mother and baby institution.

The graveyard at the Bessborough Centre in Blackrock in Cork, formerly Bessborough Mother and Baby Home (file photo).
The graveyard at the Bessborough Centre in Blackrock in Cork, formerly Bessborough Mother and Baby Home (file photo).
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Updated Apr 22nd 2021, 3:20 PM

SURVIVORS HAVE CALLED for planning permission to be rejected for a controversial housing development on the site of a former mother and baby institution in Bessborough in Cork city.

David Dodd BL, speaking on behalf of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA), today noted the group’s strong opposition to the planning application.

Dodd was speaking on the second day of 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.

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.

Dodd told the hearing this morning that there is both “a human rights perspective and a planning perspective” to the case.

“We don’t build apartment blocks on burial grounds, and we certainly don’t build them on children’s burials brands.

“We certainly, I hope, don’t build them on burial grounds at mother and baby homes, which have been the subject of such public outcry and controversy because of the way the mothers firstly were treated, and their deceased children,” Dodd said.

MWB Two ltd has argued it is “highly unlikely” that the land in question contains a burial ground.

The company’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, John Clarkin, a mapping expert with Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI), today told the hearing he believes a children’s burial ground is indeed located on the land in question.

Clarkin told senior planning inspector Karen Kenny he believes a children’s burial ground is located in the field as indicated on an OSI trace map from 1949/1950, and not in an adjoining graveyard for nuns, as the developer has claimed.

“What I’m saying is that is the position and wording are correct – it’s more than a burial ground, it’s a children’s burial ground”, he said.

Earlier in the hearing, Dodd noted that the Fifth Interim Report by the Commission of Investigation diminished the argument that children and mothers were buried with nuns. He said this would have been unprecedented and did not happen at any other institution.

BBsb 1 Source: OSI map from 1949/1950

Dodd told the hearing the CSSA is “not opposed to appropriate and sensitive development of the site at Bessborough” in line with the Cork City Development Plan 2015-2021.

“While the proposed development on the Children’s Burial Ground is entirely unsuitable, the CSSA is not opposed to the development of Bessborough per se and appreciates that the applicant developer would wish to develop the lands.”

The CSSA is seeking the following:

  • The Children’s Burial Ground is respected by avoiding any placement of buildings, structure or the carrying out of works (enabling works/grounds works) within the Burial Ground
  • A condition be imposed that the burial grounds at Bessborough be appropriately recognised and maintained in accordance with the objectives of Cork City Development Plan 2015-2021; and in line with the shared obligations of the Developer and the Local Authority to record and maintain historic burial grounds
  • A condition be imposed for the provision of reasonable access to the burial grounds at Bessborough in respect of former residents of Bessborough and for family members of those buried within Bessborough

‘We want somewhere to remember our children’

The CSSA represents a group of survivors of Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, including former residents and family members of women and children who resided within the institution.

The CSSA’s membership includes more than 50 family members of children who died while resident at Bessborough, and whose burial location is not recorded.

Quoting statements from survivors and relatives, Dodd said: “We want somewhere to go to remember our children and siblings. To go up, sit on a bench, lay a flower, have a moment.”

Speaking about one survivor in particular, Dodd continued: “She wants to be able to bring flowers, say a prayer, talk to them, sit down. This is the way it should be in Cork.”

Over the course of the two-day hearing ABP has heard from a number of survivors or their relatives, archeology and cartography experts, and developer MWB Two Ltd which has submitted plans for a Strategic Housing Development (SHD) at the site.

Survivors and their relatives yesterday labelled the plans “an abhorrent act of desecration” and “a travesty”.

Archaeological experts for the developers yesterday 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.”

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Comprehensive investigation

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

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”.

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

O’Gorman 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.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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