'Initial testing' of burial plot at Bessborough Mother and Baby Home carried out

A nuns' burial plot at the grounds of the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home has been "examined" but no geophysical survey has yet taken place at the site.

Speaking in the Dáil, children's minister Katherine Zappone said the Mother and Baby Homes Commission (MBCHOI) had carried out "initial testing" at the site which "may lead to more invasive test excavations" if necessary.

The burial plot in Bessborough contains the graves of a number of nuns as well as a plaque commemorating infants who died at the home.

It is unclear if the Commission examined or intends to examine any other section of the property as part of the inquiries. It did not respond to a request for clarification on the nature of the examination of the burial site.

Last month, the director of the MBCHOI, Ita Mangan said it has "no plans at present" to carry out a geophysical survey at the site but said that burial arrangements at Bessborough will be addressed in a report the Commission will submit to the minister in March.

"The burial arrangements at Bessborough are being examined and will be reported on in the burials report which we propose to submit to the minister in March. We have looked at the grounds but have not conducted a geophysical or similar examination of Bessborough," she said.

The Commission has recently conducted geophysical testing on the burial grounds located on the site of Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary following information received by a member of the public.

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. However, the Order reported 353 deaths to State inspectors in this period.

Running to more than 50 pages, it lists each child’s name, date of death, former residence of the deceased, gender, age at last birthday, profession (which is marked ‘son’ or ’daughter’ in most cases), cause of death, duration of illness, initials of the officer recording the death, and the date when the death was registered.

The principal cause of death in some 20% of the deaths is marasmus (severe malnutrition). It is unclear where all of the children are buried.

Last year, an Irish Examiner investigation revealed that children from the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home and the former St Anne's Adoption Society, who died as late as 1990, are buried in unmarked graves in a Cork city cemetery.

Three grave plots in St Finbarr’s cemetery in Cork city were found to contain the remains of at least 21 children. Two of the three plots are completely unmarked. The third plot records just one name despite 16 children being buried in the grave.

Meanwhile, a report examining if it is possible to start taking DNA samples from survivors of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home will be completed within eight weeks.

Special Rapporteur on child protection Dr Geoffrey Shannon has been asked to examine whether it is possible to meet this request within the current legislative framework.

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