Developers have been refused permission to build apartments on the former Bessborough mother and baby home estate in Cork city amid concerns about the possible location of a children’s burial ground on the development site.
An Bord Pleanála has today said it would be premature to grant planning to MWB Two for their 179-unit strategic housing development (SHD) in three apartment blocks on a privately-owned 3.7-acre site in the south-eastern corner of the former estate before establishing the presence, and the extent of, any such burial site.
In its decision, posted to participants in last month’s oral hearing on the project, the board said having regard to the fifth interim report and the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, and on the basis of the information submitted in the course of the application and oral hearing, it is not satisfied that the site was not previously used as and does not contain a children’s burial ground.
It said it considers that there are reasonable concerns in relation to the potential for a children’s burial ground within the site associated with the former use of the lands as a mother and baby home over the period 1922 to 1998.
“In this context, the board considers that it would be premature to grant permission for the proposed development prior to establishing whether there is a children’s burial ground located within the site and the extent of any such burial ground," it said.
“It also considers that it would be premature to grant permission given the implications of such for the satisfactory implementation of the development as proposed.”
It said the proposed development would therefore be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.
The SHD proposal was the largest element of a wider residential development called Gateway View.
The developers have separately appealed a city council decision to refuse planning for the other element — a fourth apartment block. A decision is awaited.
The SHD site overlaps an area of land marked on historic maps as “children's burial ground”.
The Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance told last month’s oral hearing into the SHD project that they were not opposed to residential
development on the Bessborough site — just to development on the burial site.
Witnesses for MWB Two told the hearing that the words ‘children's burial ground’, which appear on a 1949/1950 OSi trace map of Bessborough, relate to an existing burial site near the estate folly, and not to the area of land over which they were written.
John Clarkin, who has worked with OSi for over 46 years, and who has been an expert witness on boundary matters for over 30 years, was called as a witness for the Cork Survivors and Supports Alliance (CSSA).
Mr Clarkin told senior planning inspector, Karen Kenny, that OSi maps have been recognised in court as the gold-standard of mapping in Ireland, and he believes a children’s burial ground is located in the field as indicated on the trace map — and the words do not relate to the small adjoining graveyard which was associated with the burial of nuns from 1956.
He told the hearing that he believes the use of those specific words, "children’s burial ground" on the trace map, combined with the size of the font, and the placement of the letter C, was done deliberately by expert mappers to indicate the location of a children’s burial ground.
He said the OSi revisers who annotated the trace map — a Mr Horgan who spent four days on site-work at Bessborough in October 1949, and a Mr O’Rourke who spent a day-and-a-half on the site in January 1950 — were regarded as “legends” in the mapping world, and worked to strict OSi guidelines set out in the agency’s so-called ‘red book’.
“Revisers employed by OSi Ireland carrying out detailed mapping exercises such as this, in accordance with the rules, do not record new things which are not there. They do not record children’s burial grounds that are not present,” he said.
He said the inclusion of the new name on a map would have been signed off by the nuns who ran Bessborough, and he added: “The remainder of the map is highly accurate and professionally made.
“Leaving aside the ‘children’s burial ground’, there is not one other detail in the trace drawing that appears to be incorrect.
“It is highly improbable, given the fact that the maps were published and were publicly available and used for numerous statutory purposes, including the setting of the net annual values, that the inclusion of a children’s burial ground in error would not be corrected by the Congregation, or any other person.”
However, barrister for the developers, David Holland, said vital documents linked to the map preparation process in this case, and which could help interpret the annotation marks on the Bessborough maps, cannot be provided by the OSI.
He also pointed to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes’ examination of a high-resolution aerial photograph of Bessborough, which the developers say was taken by the Irish Air Corps in 1951, and which showed no signs of ground disturbance in the area.
The developers told the oral hearing that they would agree to forensic site investigation works
to determine the possible presence of human remains in the contested area, if so directed by the board.
They said they would agree to the work being informed by the methods used in the forensic archaeological investigation of the Sean Ross Abbey burial ground - another former mother and baby home.
They committed to survivor oversight of any forensic site investigations and said they were open to the works being open to spot-checks or visits by survivor group representatives.
They also committed to funding and developing any memorial of the legacy of the site should that be attached as a condition.
Bessborough was run as a mother and baby home by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary from 1922 until 1999.
Some of the nuns are buried in a small cemetery that opened near the folly on the Bessborough estate in 1956.
Some 9,768 mothers entered the home and 8,938 children were born or reared there over the years.
Of those children, 923 died while at, or in the care of Bessborough.
The commission found that the congregation failed to keep proper burial records for the vast majority of those infants, with burial records being found for just 64.
In its final report, the commission said it was “highly likely” that burials did take place in the grounds of Bessborough.
It also said it found it “very hard to believe that there is no one in that congregation who does not have some knowledge of the burial places of the children”.
In her report to the board, the chair of the oral hearing, planning inspector Karen Kenny, said the proposed development would not materially contravene the landscape designations of the site, and that she considered the height, scale and appearance of the development would not be out of character with the emerging pattern of development in the area.
But crucially, she said when she considered the range of mapping evidence submitted by the CSSA, when taken in conjunction with the findings of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, it raised "a reasonable concern in relation to the potential for unrecorded burials including modern human remains within the site".
The inspector said that she had considered whether the matter could be satisfactorily addressed by way of a planning condition.
But she said given the complex and sensitive nature of the matters involved, she considered that a grant of planning at this stage would be premature until such time as it is established whether there are remains present within the site or not, and she recommended that planning permission be refused on this basis.
The Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA), which played a key role in the presentation of the crucial mapping evidence to the oral hearing, welcomed the decision.
Spokeperson Maureen Consider said they have done everything that could have been expected of us and more - from submissions on the burials bill and the Cork City Development Plan to objections and observations on the MWB Two development.
"We have engaged with local and national government," she said.
"We have done extensive research and provided expert legal arguments informed by survivors' wishes and needs.
"We are concerned by the possibility that a commercial developer may be authorised to carry out investigations which should be the responsibility of the state.
"Excavation is desecration and will result in the removal of what remains of the little angels and mothers.
"We appeal to those in power to step in and use compulsory purchase order legislation to protect and respect the childrens' burial ground at Bessborough."
MWB Two Ltd said it is disappointed with the decision.
The objection to the concept of building on a burial ground expressed by survivor groups and others is fully understood by the developer,” a spokesperson said.
“However, as MWB Two Ltd. has previously said, experts in the areas of archaeological conservation and heritage found no evidence to suggest that its proposed development site contains any undocumented burials associated with the former Mother and Baby Home.
“Furthermore, MWB Two Ltd. believes that the identification of a burial ground on its land based on a single interpretation of old Ordnance Survey Ireland records is erroneous.”