Bessborough mother and baby home: We can’t blame the past for this latest shame

Bessborough burying children in unmarked graves as late as 1990 makes this a contemporary scandal, writes Conall Ó Fátharta

Teddies and flowers were placed at the gates to the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork after the ‘Irish Examiner’ revealed in 2015 that there had been 470 infant deaths at the home. Picture: Des Barry

When children are found buried in unmarked graves as late as 1990, it becomes impossible to label the mother and baby homes scandal as something of the past.

Too often, it has been referenced as a part of our history, something that we learned from as a nation. Ireland was a different country then. Things were done differently.

The revelations in yesterday’s Irish Examiner change that narrative. It explodes the argument that mother and baby homes were from a distant past. The scandal of children buried and left forgotten in unmarked graves in 1990 is contemporary.

Teddies and flowers which were placed at the gates to the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork, when news of the enormous scale of infant deaths at the home first broke in 2015. Picture: Des Barry

The numbers here are not the issue. The world was shocked by the revelations that 796 children who died in Tuam Mother and Baby Home were buried in a mass grave between 1925 and 1961. This newspaper revealed that death registers giving details of 470 infant deaths in Bessborough and 269 infant deaths at Sean Ross Abbey were handed over to the HSE in 2011.

The numbers uncovered by this investigation are far smaller but no less instructive. What is key here is that as late as 1990, children were being buried without so much as the basic dignity of headstone or a marked plot. Indeed in the case of the latest death found, the birth is not recorded.

Without knowing the exact section, row and plot number of these graves, you would walk right past them or, indeed, right over them. It’s illustrative of a mindset that lasted long beyond the heyday of the mother and baby home system. A mindset where some lives appear to have mattered more than others.

An unmarked grave for St Patrick’s Orphanage at St Finbarr’s cemetery, Cork. Pictures: Eddie O’Hare

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission now has quite the task ahead of it. Despite being in existence for three years, it is only now getting around to looking at the issue of burials relating to the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, making a public call for information earlier this month. Much of the focus and media coverage has been on one institution — Tuam — and one issue — infant deaths.

However, the commission is tasked with examining 14 mother and baby homes and a sample of county homes. Many feel its terms of reference are not even remotely near wide enough.

For example, the plots uncovered by the Irish Examiner were bought not by the order that ran Bessborough, but rather the St Anne’s Adoption Society and St Patrick’s Orphanage. Many of the children buried in these graves relate to these institutions which are outside the commission’s terms of reference.

The records are there if the commission seeks them out. The details on these deaths were handed over to the HSE in 2003. They are now in the hands of Tusla.

The Irish Examiner has now uncovered where a small number of children are buried in relation to Bessborough, but where are the rest? Unlike in Tuam, where the burial area was highlighted, the order that ran Bessborough has never publicly stated where the children that died in its care are buried.

The site of the former mother and baby home does have a small burial plot but it is unclear if such a small area could hold the 470 documented deaths recorded in the order’s death register between 1934 and 1953. If the children are not buried there, then where are they?

An unmarked grave discovered by the ‘Irish Examiner’ at St Finbarr’s cemetery, Glasheen, Cork.

A major excavation took place in Tuam. It would seem logical that the commission will have to physically examine other locations in relation to such deaths. It is impossible to argue that Tuam is different to any other institution under investigation.

Indeed, one of the key lines in the Expert Technical Group report in relation to the Tuam site stated that the Government may be obliged under international human rights law to “fully investigate” the deaths of all children who died in Ireland’s mother and baby home system.

However, the commission has already said it will be “difficult to establish the facts” surrounding the burials of children who died in all of the homes it is investigating.

And that’s before the elephant in the room is tackled — that of forced and illegal adoptions.

The commission has been very lukewarm on the topic. In its second interim report, it focused largely on one type of illegal adoption — illegal birth registrations and offered a narrative that such criminal activity may have been done by ordinary, well-meaning couples rather than being facilitated by any other power structure such as a religious order or, indeed, the State.

And what about adoptions contracted on the basis of extremely questionable consents, sometimes in false names, in the absence of birth certificates of any kind, and in the case of children whose parents were married?

An unmarked grave for St Anne’s Adoption Society at St Finbarr’s cemetery, Cork. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Such an analysis won’t wash with tens of thousands of adoptees. They are angry. While the dead no longer have a voice, the living are out there and want answers. They’ve waited long enough.

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