Mother and Baby Homes report: Scathing criticism of Order’s role in running of Bessborough

Teddies and Flowers were placed at the gates to Bessborough in Cork. The commission did not consider it feasible to excavate the full 60 acres, let alone the rest of the 200-acre estate on which there has been extensive building work since the institution closed. Picture: Des Barry

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission has said it is “very difficult to comprehend” how the Order which ran Bessborough has no information as to where over 800 children who died in their care are buried.

The scathing criticism of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary is contained in the Commission’s long-awaited fifth interim report into burial arrangements at Ireland’s main mother and baby homes.

The report confirms that some 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough. However, despite “very extensive inquiries and searches” over the past five years, the Commission could only find the final resting place for 64 children.

The burial locations of over 800 infants — including some 470 infants on the Order’s own death register as revealed by the Irish Examiner — remain unknown.

The Commission was scathing in its criticism of the Order stating that the affidavit it supplied on burial arrangements was “in many respects, speculative, inaccurate and misleading”.

A number of individual members of the congregation provided affidavits and/or oral evidence to the Commission but provided “remarkably little evidence about burial arrangements”.

“The Commission finds this very difficult to comprehend as Bessborough was a mother and baby home for the duration of the period covered by the Commission (1922-1998) and the congregation was involved with it for all of this time.

“The Commission finds it very difficult to understand that no member of the congregation was able to say where the children who died in Bessborough are buried,” states the report.

One member of the Order who worked in Bessborough for most of the period between 1948 and 1998 told the Commission that she did not remember any child deaths during her time there but she implied that the children who did die there were buried in the nuns’ burial plot.

View of Douglas estuary including Bessborough with Douglas village in background 27/8/1980. Pic. Richard Mills
View of Douglas estuary including Bessborough with Douglas village in background 27/8/1980. Pic. Richard Mills

The Commission found it “surprising that she does not remember any deaths” considering that 31 children died there between 1950 and 1960 alone.

Of the 64 children the Commission found burial locations for, 53 are buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery in Cork City, while 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 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”.

With respect to burials having taken place on the site of the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home itself, the Commission said there is “no significant surface evidence of systematic burial anywhere except for the congregation burial ground” where one child is believed to have been buried.

The Commission considers that it is likely that some of the children are buried in the grounds but has been unable to find any physical or documentary evidence of this,” said the report.

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