An Bord Pleanála has opened an oral hearing on Wednesday over plans to build apartments on a former mother and baby home estate in Cork.
The online hearing into the proposed strategic housing development (SHD) of 179 apartments on a privately-owned site on former Bessborough lands has focused on historic maps which campaigners claim show part of the development site overlaps a "childrens’ burial ground’".
Senior planning inspector Karen Kenny opened the hearing just after 10am, and a list of submissions to be made over the next two days was outlined.
Planning consultant, Harry Walsh, speaking on behalf of developers, MWB Two Ltd, said they unveiled plans last year to build 246 apartments in four blocks, in a scheme called Gateway View, on a privately-owned 3.7-acre landbank near the Bessborough folly.
He said the developers adopted a twin-track approach to secure planning for the overall scheme, and simultaneously sought planning from Cork City Council for 67 units in one eight-storey apartment building, and applied to An Bord Pleanala under the SHD process for planning for 179 apartments in three buildings, ranging in height from five to seven storeys, with a creche, step-down housing and facilities for the elderly, on an adjoining portion of the site.
Part of the SHD site overlaps an area marked on a 1949/1950 Ordnance Survey trace map as "childrens burial ground".
David Holland BL, representing MWB Two, said it had not set out to cause any further distress to anyone affected by the events which occurred at Bessborough over many decades.
He said it was only natural that campaigners would oppose building on what they believe to be a children's burial ground, but added the company is strongly of the view that no such prospect arises.
Most of the morning session was spent focusing on the 1949/1950 trace map which show the words ‘Childrens Burial Ground’ just to the north east of the Bessborough folly, and surrounded by a large blue circle, which overlaps the site earmarked for the SHD.
Mr Holland called several expert witnesses on behalf of the company, including archaeologist John Cronin, who said in his opinion, the label on the trace map refers to the enclosure to the right of the label – a “known and extant burial ground”.
Cartographic expert Michael Flynn, a former member of Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI), who spent 24 years on field work, explained OSI procedure at the time, and said the blue line on the field trace map which Bessborough campaigners claim defines the extent of a burial ground is simply there to draw attention to a remark relating to the text ‘Childrens’ Burial Ground’.
He said the blue tick next to the text indicates the matter had been attended to, in line with OSi procedure, and that neither indicates the actual location of such a burial ground.
Mr Holland said the company is prepared to conduct further site investigation for remains, and fund a memorial.
“It is far from a salve for old wounds but it will help some and can make a contribution to healing,” he said.
In a statement, MWB Two Ltd said it was very conscious of the historical concerns and sensitivities regarding the Bessborough mother and baby home.
“The company has engaged experts in the areas of archaeological conservation and heritage in order to approach the development in the most sensitive manner possible," it said.
“The experts’ report concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that the proposed development site contains any undocumented burials associated with the former mother and baby home.
“However, as part of the planning process, MWB Two Ltd has committed to carrying out a full archaeological investigation at its site in Mahon."
The hearing continues.