Burial place of over 800 children who died in Bessborough unknown; Read commission's findings on Mother and Baby homes

Stonework being removed from the detached three-bay-two story folly which was built in 1880 at Bessborough in Blackrock, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan.

The burial place of well over 800 children who died in the care of Bessborough Mother and Baby Home is unknown - despite "very extensive inquiries and searches".

The findings are contained in the long-awaited burials report from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission.

The long-running inquiry found that some 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough. However, it could only establish the burial place of some 64 children who died between 1922 and 1928 despite "very extensive inquiries and searches".

Of these, 53 are buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery, two are buried in St Finbarr’s Cemetery.

Five of the remaining children died after being transferred to Cork District Hospital and are "likely" to have been buried at Cork District Cemetery, Carr’s Hill. However, the Commission has no documentary evidence of this.

The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who owned and ran Bessborough do not know where the other children are buried.

The burials of children who died in the three Sacred Heart Homes (Bessborough, Castlepollard and Sean Ross) are not recorded at all. "More importantly, there is no certainty about where they are buried," said the report.

The Commission pointed out that it was clear that in the initial years of operation, the Order took responsibility for the children that died in Bessborough and used a number of cemeteries in the locality.

However, it speculated that the "abrupt cessation of child burials at St Joseph’s in June 1928 may have had something to do with costs".

Death registers for both Bessborough and Sean Ross Abbey were handed over to the HSE by the Order in 2011 and were later reported on by the Irish Examiner.

In the case of Bessborough, the register shows that 470 infants and 10 women died in Bessborough between 1934 and 1953.

A total of 273 deaths took place in just a six-year period between 1939 and 1944.

The interim report's findings on Bessborough Mother and Baby Home

More than 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough. However, the Commission says it has been unable to establish where the vast majority of those children are buried. The small on-site burial ground was confined to the congregation, and the Commission said it seemed only one child was buried there.

The Commission has been able to establish the burial place of only 64 children. The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who owned and ran Bessborough do not know where the other children are buried.

Bessborough Mother and Baby Home - which opened in 1922 - was owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

The Commission said that more 900 children who were born in, or admitted to Bessborough died in infancy or early childhood. Most died either in the Sacred Heart Maternity Hospital soon after birth or in the Bessborough Home itself to which infants were transferred some weeks after birth (many more died in the Home than in the Maternity Hospital).

The Commission says it believed it unlikely from an early stage that all the children who died in Bessborough were buried in the estate's small burial ground, which would not have been large enough for the number of children involved and "in any event, it would be unlikely that children would be buried in the same burial ground as members of the congregation".

The report says members of the congregation who provided affidavits and/or oral evidence to the Commission were able to provide "remarkably" little evidence about burial arrangements, and that "the congregation does not know where the vast majority of the children who died in Bessborough are buried".

The report also deemed it "rather surprising" that a nun who was in Bessborough for most of the 50 years between 1948 and 1998 did not remember any child deaths, although 31 children died in the 10 years between 1950 and 1960 alone. Another congregation member who was in Bessborough from 1978-1985 told the Commission that one baby died during her time there.

Maps, site searches, interviews, and a public appeal

Forensic archaeologists and the Commission’s researchers reviewed all available maps and aerial images as part of their investigations, and conducted a site survey. They interviewed a landscaper who had conducted extensive groundwork on the estate over a 30-year period, including work that required him to dig up to eight feet deep in an area marked 'Children's Burial Ground'. He found no evidence of human remains. Finally, a public appeal for information or evidence of burials on the estate produced no results.

Nonetheless, the Commission considers it "highly likely" that children who died in Bessborough were buried within its 60-acre grounds - due in part to how expensive it would have been to arrange off-site burials in the 1940s in particular, when many of the deaths occurred and when petrol was scarce. However, it found "no physical or documentary evidence (of child burials in the grounds)".

It also notes the possibility that burials took place in grounds that no longer form part of the Bessborough estate, a total area of about 200 acres. However, without physical evidence of possible locations in the 60-acre grounds of the current estate (and the 200-acre area of the old estate), the Commission said it "did not consider it feasible to excavate 60 acres, not to mention the rest of the former 200-acre estate".

The Commission examined the burial records of other possible burial sites in Cork. During the period under review (1922-1998) eight burial grounds were in operation in

Cork city and surrounding hinterland. These were:

  • St Joseph’s Cemetery, Tory Top Road (53 children who died in Bessborough were buried here)
  • St Finbarr’s Cemetery, Glasheen Road (two burials)
  • St Michael’s Cemetery, Mahon (two burials)
  • Cork District Cemetery (All Saints), Carr’s Hill (five likely burials)
  • Douglas Municipal Cemetery, Douglas
  • St Mary’s Cemetery, Curraghkippane
  • St Catherine’s Cemetery, Kilcully
  • Rathcooney Cemetery, Glanmire

REPORT SUMMARIES

Dublin Union/St Patrick’s, Navan Road (Pelletstown)

Pelletstown and the Dublin Union were one institution with separate premises run by the Daughters of Charity.

The children who died here were mainly buried in the "Angels’ Plot" at Glasnevin Cemetery where detailed records are kept. A small number were also buried in Mount Jerome while the Commission is continuing to check others.

The burial register records the children as "abandoned", "deserted" and/or "illegitimate". The Commission’s report notes the analysis of deaths at the home is complex for reasons including that many of the children were sent there because they were very ill.

More than 950 children who died here between 1920 and 1977 were sent to the medical schools at UCD, Trinity and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, for “anatomical studies”.

The sending of the bodies of unclaimed deceased residents from institutions to medical schools was common practice until the mid-60s.

The Commission found that the bodies of a number of children were transferred for anatomical studies before the 48-hour period for claiming the body was over. The law states that bodies cannot be sent to medical schools until at least 48 hours after death to enable family members to claim the body and/or object to the body being sent for anatomical studies.

All but 18 of the children received as anatomical subjects were “illegitimate” children.

In general, they were buried in Glasnevin more than a year after their death. There was no distinct section of the “Poor Ground” for these bodies and the usual practice was for the remains of a number of anatomical subjects to be collectively buried in the same plot on the same day. These children were identified in the Glasnevin Poor Ground Burial Registry by the letters “AS” (anatomical subject).

Sean Ross

Sean Ross Abbey
Sean Ross Abbey

Records concerning the Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home show that more than 1,000 children and 29 mothers died there or in the District Hospital, Roscrea, where they were sent when they became very ill.

There is no evidence that any record of burials was kept by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who owned and ran the Sean Ross home, despite a canon law requirement to keep a record of burials. There is no certainty about where these children are buried.

The Commission said that an affidavit about the burials provided by the congregation was "in many respects, speculative, inaccurate and misleading".

The affidavit states that all of the children buried in the Sean Ross burial ground received the rites of the Catholic Church and that the congregation “did not bury infants in unapproved cemeteries”. The Commission says this “may well be true but the congregation provided no evidence to support (these assertions)”.

The congregation had said that the child burial grounds were "created within existing by-laws and with the approval of the local Bishops". The Commission said it had no reason to doubt that the bishops were aware of them. The involvement of local bishops and priests in the institutions will be documented in the Commission’s final report.

The congregation also said the infants buried at Sean Ross were buried without cost to local or central government. The Commission dismissed this, saying it was “not true in respect of some, if not all, of the burials”, and said it had seen evidence of burial bills being sent to the local authority.

The Commission has carried out a geophysical study and a test excavation of the site and is examining the results of the excavation.

Bethany Home

A memorial at the former Bethany home
A memorial at the former Bethany home

Bethany Home was located in Blackhall Place, Dublin between the years 1922 and 1934 and in Orwell Road, Rathgar after that.

The home’s records have been digitally copied and are being analysed by the Commission.

Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, was the main burial site for the children who died in the Bethany Home. The report notes the cemetery has kept very good records of all burials.

The cemetery’s burial registers show that 240 children who were born in, or at one time admitted to Bethany, died between September 1922 and October 1964. Of that 240, 213 were recorded as coming directly from the Bethany Home.

These, and 18 stillborn children, were buried in unmarked graves at Mount Jerome Cemetery. The Commission notes it “seems unlikely that they were buried in the same place as baptised children”.

The oldest recorded age at death was 36 months; the others were all aged 19 months or under.

There are at least 20 other children who died and are not recorded in the Mount Jerome burial register. Bethany Home survivors identified over 310 Bethany children buried there.

The Commission said that once a particular grave was full, it was closed and the next available grave with spare capacity was used.

The Bethany children were buried in, or next to, those used for other private/public adult or child interments.

The burial records show that the children were usually buried within two to three days of their death. There is no evidence of any child from Bethany being used as an anatomical subject before being interred in Mount Jerome.

Cork County Home

The Commission has established that, between 1922 and 1998, 552 “illegitimate” children died in Cork County Home/St Finbarr’s Hospital.

So far, no burial records have been found for these children. It is likely that they are buried in Carr’s Hill Cemetery but there is no documentary evidence available.

Both the Cork County Home and the Cork District Hospital were renamed St Finbarr’s in the 1950s.

Castlepollard

The Commission has so far established that over 220 children died in Castlepollard (or in hospitals to which they were sent) and there were eight mothers who died from complications of pregnancy/childbirth.

There is no evidence that any record of burials was kept by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in respect of burials in Castlepollard, despite a canon law requirement to keep such records. An affadavit from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who owned and ran the institution, was deemed " in many

respects, speculative, inaccurate and misleading".

The Commission found that the children who died in Castlepollard are likely to be buried in the burial ground there. However, there is no documentary evidence to confirm this.

Castlepollard ceased to be a mother and baby home in 1971. The Commission has made digital copies of the records it can find relating to Castlepollard, and is in the process of analysing them.

Report summaries compiled by Peter Towe

More on this topic

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