Mother and Baby Homes: What lies beneath
As the State publishes the final Commission of Investigation report into Mother and Baby Homes, campaigners want the site at Bessborough in Cork thoroughly investigated and say they won’t rest until the truth of what lies beneath is established.
he’s tired and weary and her voice is weak as she endures another winter of health difficulties but it’s her broken heart that hurts most. Ann O’Gorman is still haunted daily by the thoughts of the newborn daughter she never held being whisked from her and buried in a hole somewhere on the grounds of the former Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork shortly after her birth almost 50-years ago.
Despite the passage of time, the grief is still raw, the pain of not knowing what happened, or not knowing where baby Evelyn is buried, hurts now as much as it did then.
But the emergence of plans for over 200 apartments on an area of former Bessborough land which has been identified as a ‘children’s burial ground’, was like a dagger through her heart.
Despite her health difficulties, she remains as determined as ever to find the truth, to find her daughter’s final resting place.
“I have my health battles. With all the stress and worry over the years, I ruined myself with smoking and worrying. It’s bad at the moment but I am just praying to keep strong and to stay alive until I see justice done. I believe I will get to the truth eventually,” she says. Ms O’Gorman was 17 in the summer of 1971 when she gave birth to baby Evelyn in Bessborough.
She says she heard her baby cry before she passed out. When she woke three days later she was told the infant had died. She asked if she could see where her daughter was buried but was refused.
Evelyn’s date of birth was recorded as July 24, 1971, but her birth certificate records it as June 24, 1972. The death certificate lists the baby’s cause of death as prematurity, yet in another entry on the same document, the birth is described as “full term” and “normal”.
Baby Evelyn was one of the estimated 900 children who died at, or while in the care of Bessborough over the years. The burial places of just 64 have been identified.
Ms O’Gorman is one of many women who gave birth at Bessborough but who don’t know what happened to their children. She is one of the few willing to speak out publicly.
“I am heartbroken but not bitter. Micheál Martin knows my story. I just hope that they (the government) do the right thing and have the site investigated thoroughly. If they find one bone, they will find more,” she says. The controversial residential plan earmarked for a privately-owned area of the former mother and baby home estate has reopened old wounds for Ms O’Gorman and others, and reignited the debate over the search for truth relating to one of the darkest chapters of Irish history.
Ms O’Gorman, who reported her daughter as missing to gardaí in April 2019, is being supported in her quest for answers by academic, Maureen Considine and by campaigner, Catherine Coffey-O’Brien, both members of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA). Ms Coffey-O’Brien fled Bessborough as a teenager in 1989.
Last August, Ms Coffey-O’Brien wrote on Ms O’Gorman’s behalf to Pope Francis asking him to intervene and help find Evelyn’s grave.
In his letter of reply, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, the apostolic nuncio, said close aides of the Holy Father had asked him to contact the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, who owned and ran Bessborough from 1922 to the mid 1990s, to try to establish what had happened.
He told Ms Coffey-O’Brien that the congregational leader had written to him saying they can “only try to understand the pain and suffering” this matter is causing Ms O’Gorman. “But regretfully we do not have any information on where her baby daughter is buried,” he wrote.
All the congregational records pertaining to Bessborough were sent to the HSE in 2010 and are now held with Tusla, the nun’s leader said in the letter.
“None of the Congregation still living has any recollection of a baby being buried in the grounds of Bessborough in the 1970s. The responsibility for the burial of infants who died in Bessborough mother and baby home from the later 1920s onwards has rested with the state.”
The congregational leader said they have given their “fullest cooperation on all matters to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation” and recall just one child being buried in the nun’s cemetery on Bessborough grounds in the 1990s.
The Papal Nuncio expressed his “sincere and profound sense” of sympathy to Mrs O’Gorman for all she has suffered and continues to endure, and added: “Borrowing a leaf from the thoughts of Pope Francis in circumstances such as this I would like to say this. You know Evelyn….is surely in heaven in glory. That is great spiritual consolation. For Mrs Ann to meet her there would be the greatest joy ever. “Obviously it was a grave error not to give the due honour of a decent burial ground to this child and too many others in similar situations.
“That negligence should not have happened at all. On the other hand it would be worthwhile to look ahead with hope and joy to the fullness of divine grace.”
But Ms O’Gorman says she doesn’t want prayers - she wants the Bessborough estate thoroughly investigated for potential mass burials of children, especially her Evelyn.
The CSSA has expressed outrage and concern over developers MWB Two’s plans to build 246 apartments on a privately owned 3.7-acre parcel of land in the south-eastern corner of the Bessborough estate in a residential development called Gateway Views.
The earmarked site runs parallel to the Blackrock Passage West greenway, which is also earmarked as part of the route of the proposed Cork light rail system. The developers have applied to Cork City Council for permission to build 67 apartments in an eight-storey building on the southern portion of the landbank, and separately, because of land zoning issues, to An Bórd Pleanála through the fast-track strategic housing development (SHD) process, for 179 residential units in three buildings ranging in height from five to seven stories, on the northern portion of the landbank.
The closing date for public submissions on the SHD application is today (January 12) - the same day the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation is due to be published. A planning decision on the SHD is due by the end of March.
The CSSA, which represents more than 50 Bessborough survivor families, has an Ordnance Survey (OS) map of the estate, dated 1950, which identifies an area immediately west of the development parcel, and close to the estate folly, as a “children’s burial ground”. The map makers drew a circle around this area to indicate what they thought might be the extent of the burial site. Part of the site earmarked for the SHD apartments overlaps part of this circle. The CSSA said construction just cannot be allowed to happen in this area until a thorough and detailed investigation of what may be buried there is conducted.
A day after campaigners posted a video on social media explaining the significance of the OS map, Ms O’Gorman visited Bessborough with a friend who recalls a child being buried in this area in the 1970s.
Both women, who have given evidence to the Commission, are very concerned about the location of the proposed apartment development.
They, and the CSSA, are also highly critical of the timing of the planning application, coming just weeks before Christmas, which gives them little time to prepare a submission for the various planning authorities, and just ahead of the publication of the Commission’s final report.
Historian and campaigner, Catherine Corless, whose research uncovered the mass burial scandal at the former mother and baby home Tuam, told the Irish Examiner in November that she believes Bessborough could hide similar horrors.
Ms Corless, who visited the estate in August 2019, said she believes most of the 900 children must be buried near the former mother and baby home itself.
“Those babies at Bessborough, like the babies of Tuam, were just discarded. They were not seen as human beings at all. They were just seen as things to be discarded, not treated with any dignity or respect, and it’s time to turn the tables to give healing back to all the survivors,” she said.
Bessborough is one of 14 former mother and baby homes which are the subject of the Commission’s investigation. In its fifth interim report, published in March 2019, it devotes an entire chapter of the 529-page report to Bessborough.
The Commission says it has established that more than 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough but despite “very extensive inquiries and searches”, it says it has been able to establish the burial place of only 64 children in various city cemeteries.
The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary has told the Commission that they do not know where other 800-plus children are buried.
The Commission said it finds it very difficult to understand that no member of the congregation was able to say where the children who died there are buried given that the congregation was still providing services to mothers and children right up to the end of the period covered by its investigation, up to 1998.
The congregation was unable to explain why there were designated child burial grounds in Castlepollard and Sean Ross mother and baby homes, but not in Bessborough.
The congregation provided the Commission with an affidavit about burials generally but the Commission said the affidavit was, “in many respects, speculative, inaccurate and misleading”.
“The affidavit states that all of the children buried in the burial grounds of these two institutions were accorded the rites of the Catholic Church and the congregation “did not bury infants in unapproved cemeteries”,” the Commission’s interim report says.
“These assertions may well be true but the congregation provided no evidence to support them. The congregation was unable to elaborate on what the rites of the Catholic Church in relation to child burials were.
“As the congregation accepts that it does not know where most of the Bessborough children are buried, it cannot definitively state that they were not buried in unapproved burial places.”
One member of the congregation who was in Bessborough for most of the period from 1948 to 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 nun’s burial ground. The Commission says that between 1950 and 1960, 31 children died in Bessborough “so it is rather surprising” that this nun does not remember any deaths.
The nun’s burial ground on Bessborough lands was opened in 1956 but the Commission said it has seen no evidence that the approval of the Minister for Local Government for the opening of this burial ground was sought or granted as was required by law.
It said it has been assumed by former residents and advocacy groups that all the children who died in Bessborough were buried in this cemetery.
But the Commission said just one child, who died in 1994, is buried in this plot, and that while there are some individual memorials to other children who died in Bessborough here, it is unlikely that they are buried in this plot. It said it is possible that dead children were buried within the 60-acre grounds but it said it has found no physical or documentary evidence which indicates that this actually happened.
It also said it is possible that burials took place in the grounds that no longer form part of the Bessborough estate, an area that could extend up to 200 acres.
Bessborough, Cork. Aerial photograph from 2014, Picture: Denis Scannell
The 1950 OS map identifies an area around the Bessborough folly as a children's burial ground.
A map from the SHD planning application which shows how the proposed development overlaps the area identified as the children's burial ground.
As part of its extensive work, the Commission engaged forensic archaeologists to carry out a cartographic and landscape assessment of possible unrecorded burial arrangements on Bessborough grounds.
The forensic archaeologists and the Commission’s researchers reviewed all available cartographic sources and aerial images, and a site survey was conducted. The Commission said it is clear that there are a number of locations where burials could have taken place but it said it has found “no significant surface evidence of systematic burial” anywhere except for at the nun’s burial ground.
One witness told the Commission that he had personally undertaken excavations in the area marked on the 1950 OS map as a “children’s burial ground”, and that he had to dig six to eight feet deep across this area and found no evidence of human remains or any evidence to suggest that the site was formerly used as a burial ground.
The Commission also examined vertical aerial photography taken by the Irish Air Corps in 1951, which included high-resolution aerial photos of the Bessborough estate.
It said given that over 700 child deaths at Bessborough occurred before 1951, it would be reasonable to expect that if there were burials at this location near the folly, an aerial photograph taken in February 1951 would show some ground disturbance.
The aerial photographs were examined by forensic archaeologists who determined that there were no visible features on the landscape to indicate an obvious mass burial site.
The Commission said it is clear that there are a number of locations within the Bessborough grounds where burials could have taken place but there is no significant surface evidence, and that while it is likely that some of the children are buried in the grounds, it has just been unable to find any physical or documentary evidence of this.
It underpins its belief by suggesting that during the 1940s, when many of the deaths occurred and when petrol was scarce, it would have been very expensive to arrange off-site burials.
The CSSA point to the nuns’ questionable statements and the Commission’s own belief that burials are likely to have taken place on Bessborough lands and say that makes it all the more painful that the Commission did not consider it feasible to excavate 60-acres at Bessborough, not to mention the rest of the former 200-acre estate.
As the developers were preparing their apartment plans, archaeological investigations were carried out on their behalf in December 2019.
A team of three archaeologists, including a human bone specialist, was granted a licence by the National Monuments Service to dig eight trenches, but the licence was subsequently withdrawn and the work was halted.
The team did manage to excavate six of eight intended test trenches before the work was stopped. They did not find human bones.
A report based on these investigations was prepared by archaeologist John Cronin, a town planner and conservation consultant, who previously co-ordinated geophysical surveys and archaeological investigations at the former Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well, Cork.
His report says the archaeological investigations do not support CSSA’s claims that the 1949/50 OS map indicates that the ‘children’s burial ground’ extends beyond the enclosure around the folly.
His report also refers to the Irish Air Corps 1951 aerial photographs, mentioned by the Commission, which he also says show no evidence of ground disturbance beyond the enclosure.
The report says as of now, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that the proposed SHD development site contains any unrecorded burials associated with the former mother and baby home. But crucially, he also says the potential that unrecorded burials took place within this specific site, whilst remote, cannot be fully discounted.
He said MWB Two must be conscious that the Commission will provide a definitive appraisal of the legacy of sites such as Bessborough and they must remain conscious of the apprehensions and sensitivities of many survivors of Bessborough.
“They should also endeavour to support any commemorative measures that the likes of Cork City Council or other civic bodies may deem suitable and appropriate for ensuring the painful legacy of the Mother and Baby is respectively honoured,” he said.
The report recommends that, if planning permission is granted, that a suitably-qualified specialist, assisted by a fully qualified and experienced osteoarchaeologist, be employed to monitor the construction.
“Any finds of human remains will have to be reported to An Garda Síochána and the Commission of Investigation. The developers would welcome the application of a condition of planning permission to that effect,” he said.
As part of any SHD process, a developer must apply to enter into consultations with An Bórd Pleanála about the application, and as part of these consultations, the Bórd issued an opinion in June on a range of issues which it said needed to be address before a formal SHD planning application could be lodged.
It included a suggestion that the applicant address the important and sensitive cultural heritage issues associated with the site, including how its history could be interpreted and communicated, proposals to address the potential discovery of previously undocumented burials during construction or site works, and the involvement of key stakeholders.
In response, the developers said an “indicative location” has been identified as the most appropriate location to provide an interpretative item to communicate the sensitive cultural and historical context of the estate.
But the developer’s agents said the applicants do not consider it appropriate or fair that they decide the form or content of this interpretative piece and will work with Cork City Council and other key stakeholder groups to identify the most appropriate means of interpreting and communicating this history.
Documents submitted as part of the SHD planning application show that the developers are keenly aware and conscious of the sensitivities involved.
They show how PFS Private, a property development company based in Ballincollig, Cork, which is managing the various aspects of the development process for the developers, wrote to the Commission in August, to say they understand that there is a possibility that unrecorded burials took place within the proposed development site.
“While we consider this a remote possibility we acknowledge that this cannot be completely discounted. We are also extremely conscious of the sensitivities associated with the former mother and baby home,” they wrote.
“Therefore it is proposed that if planning permission is granted for the development suitably suitably qualified and experienced archaeologist, assisted by a fully qualified and experienced osteo archaeologist, be employed to monitor the proposed site development works.
“Any finds of human remains will be reported immediately to the Gardaí and to the commission or to anybody tasked with following up on the work of the commission once the final report is issued.”
The Commission has said that there must be many people who know more about the burials and who have not come forward with relevant information. It has said it would welcome any such new information
Ms Corless told the Irish Examiner that she believes there is an onus of people who were connected to, or associated with Bessborough, and who can help pinpoint the location of possible burial sites, to come forward.
But she is highly critical of the congregation.
“Do the sisters not understand the enormity, the importance to a mother of having a grave to go to, to just stand by and remember their little baby and the comfort that that might give them?” she said.
“Would they not just consider that for a moment and give the names out to the people of Cork so they can find these areas and just maybe we can claim an ‘angels plot’ of where the babies are buried.
“Surely the sisters have a conscience. It’s bad enough to lose a baby but not to know the burial spot and have nowhere to go - it’s like having a lost soul.”
The CSSA, which is receiving pro-bono legal advice and which is engaged in intense research, is preparing a submission for consideration in the SHD planning process, while at the same time trying to secure protection and preservation for the Bessborough landscape in the new city development plan.
Last June, they erected memorial signs on the Blackrock Passage railway line which read ‘The Lost 900+ Babies, Women and Girls of Bessborough Mother and Baby institution 1922- 1996. Lost but not forgotten’. As of last month, one sign remained on the Rochestown side of the flyover footbridge over the adjoining amenity walk. A second, placed near the ‘children’s burial ground’ area, disappeared soon afterwards.
“The CSSA feels it has done everything to the best of our ability. We were open to meeting the developers, we were calm, measured and honest in all our dealings with the council. We do not see how we could have been more reasonable and this is what is most disappointing about the developers decision to ignore us,” a spokesperson said.
That calmness and measured approach was referenced by Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil recently after Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns asked him to intervene in the planning issue. He said the planning applications are a matter for the relevant planning authorities.
Labour TD Sean Sherlock has also raised concerns with Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman that a successful planning application could hinder hopes of finding potential burial sites.
Mr O’Gorman said he shares the concerns of survivor groups about the proposed development. He also said the application is a matter for the planning authorities but added: “There is scope for the council, or An Bórd Pleanála, to consider archaeological and heritage concerns in the context of any proposal or application for redevelopment of a site, following on from submissions made which may raise such concerns.
“In addition, the planning process includes a specific focus on public consultation and it appears that campaigners are continuing to raise their concerns directly with the relevant authorities.
Ms O’Gorman says she has no doubt whatsoever that her daughter, Evelyn, and countless other babies, are buried near the folly on land which is now earmarked for apartments.
“She’s in the ground there along with all the other babies,” she said.
“I am fighting for them and all the poor mothers who can’t speak out.
“I feel so disgusted with this all now. It’s just unbelievable that they can build on top of the dead. It’s horrifying, like something out of a horror movie.
“They have to stop and listen to us. And I’m asking the public to help us.
“I am not going to rest, because I know my Evelyn is there. If God takes me before I get answers, my children will carry it on for me.”
“I bought a headstone before with Evelyn’s name on it, for her to be buried alongside me when my time came. But now, I just want the burial site found, the land consecrated, and a memorial, or maybe a bench, just so we can visit it with the family, and so that they can think of their sister and all the other little angels.”
Hundreds of children died at Bessborough
essborough House operated as a mother and baby home from the time of its purchase by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1922 until the late 1990s.
The congregation had been invited to set up a mother and baby home in Cork by a senior official of the Cork Board of Guardians as it was already running a number of mother and baby homes in England and Scotland.
The official identified the Bessborough Estate, a Georgian house on 150 acres, as a suitable property and the nuns bought it with financial assistance from the Archbishop of Westminster. The board’s objective was to implement the policy of removing unmarried mothers and their children from workhouses and placing them in “special homes”.
The first mothers and children in Bessborough came from the Poor Law Union workhouses in Cork. Over the years, the home accepted unmarried expectant mothers and unmarried mothers who had recently given birth who were admitted there and paid for on a capitation basis by the health authorities, but it also accepted private fee-paying expectant mothers.
In the early years, expectant mothers living in Bessborough usually gave birth in Cork District Hospital but in 1930, a maternity ward was created in Bessborough house and in 1935, the Sacred Heart Maternity Hospital was built alongside the property. From 1930 to the 1980s, most expectant mothers resident in Bessborough gave birth in this unit.
An estimated 6,000 births were registered at the home between 1929 and 1987. The mortality rate for children born there was around 50% for extended periods, especially during the 1940s and 50s. The congregation told the Commission that a portion of land adjoining the estate was bought in 1930 to bring the total acreage of the estate to about 200 acres. About 100 acres were sold in 1973 for the building of the N25 and for social housing. More land was sold off in more recent years.
Computer-generated image of the proposed residential developments, including the Strategic Housing Development Gateway View, which have been earmarked for a parcel of land on the former Bessborough estate in Cork.
A 3.7-acre of privately-owned land in the southeastern corner of the former estate, running parallel to the former Blackrock to Passage West railway line, now a popular amenity walk and part of the city’s proposed light-rail route, is earmarked for the controversial housing development.
the numbers never did add up
Original report by
Conall Ó Fatharta
ack in 2015, the Irish Examiner revealed that the order which operated the Bessborough Mother and Baby home was reporting higher numbers of infant deaths to the State than it recorded in its own death register.
When pressed, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary declined to offer any answers. At the time, the order said it would only deal with the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.
One question stood out: Why was the order informing the State of higher numbers of infant deaths in Bessborough than it was recording in it’s own death register?
The figures are worth repeating. An inspection report from Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) by inspector Alice Litster in late 1944 revealed that between March 31, 1938, and December 5, 1944, a total of 353 infants died in Bessborough (out of 610 births).
Ms Litster stated that the figures for 1939 to 1941 “were furnished by the superioress”, while those for 1943 and 1944 had been “checked and verified and their accuracy can be vouched for”.
However, the order’s own death register — supplied by the Registrar General for Ireland “for the purpose of facilitating the accurate registration of deaths” in Bessborough — for the exact same time period, records just 273 deaths. That is a discrepancy of 80 deaths.
ABOVE: Pages from the death records of children from Bessborough House.
Take the figures for 1939 to 1941: For the year ended March 31, 1939, the DLGPH inspector was told 38 infants died. This is also what is reported in the death register.
However, for the following two years, the order informed Litster of higher numbers of deaths. For example, for 1940, Ms Litster was told 17 children died. The register records only eight. Similarly, for 1941, the DLGPH was told 38 children died, whereas the register records just 22.
For every other year cited by Ms Litster, the figures given to the DLGPH are significantly higher than what is recorded in the order’s own death register. This is particularly the case for the year ending March 31, 1943, and 1944. In these years, Litster reports that 70 and 102 infants died, respectively. In the latter figure, this amounted to a death rate of 82% in that year.
However, again, these figures differ greatly to the order’s death register, which records 55 and 76 infant deaths in these years. For 1944, this brings the death rate from 82% down to 62%.
This 82% death rate had caused such concern at Government levels that it was in regular contact with the head of Bessborough on the issue. So, why was the order content for a DLGPH report to publish higher numbers of deaths than it was recording itself?
Perhaps there is another death register for the same period where the order logged the other deaths.
However, the order is on the record that the register is the only one in existence. It confirmed this to Tusla via its solicitors, when it stated that “all records” it held were transferred to the HSE in 2011 and that it “does not hold any other death register”.
Given that Bessborough took in both public and private patients, perhaps the death register only recorded public patients. This appears unlikely, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the figure of 38 infant deaths for 1939 provided to Ms Litster by the order matches the figure in the death register. It would therefore seem that the register was the source for the figures she received from the superioress. However, they do not match for any other year.
Secondly, Litster points out that the 102 deaths recorded in 1944 include 35 deaths of children from private patients. The death register records 76 deaths in this period. Adding the 35 private deaths to this figure comes to 111. In short, it doesn’t explain the discrepancy in any way.
The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary is the only body that can provide an answer to all of this. At the time of publication, it declined to answer a series of queries posed by this newspaper, stating it was dealing directly with the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes on all such and related matters.
It has stated in the past that it reported all deaths to the appropriate authorities at the time.
The question then is what is the correct number of deaths for this period? Where are the other 80 children listed as having died at Bessborough in the DLGPH report? Why were their deaths not recorded in the order’s death register? These are questions which must be answered.
Teddies and flowers which were placed at the gates to Bessborough in Cork. Picture Des Barry.