Skeletons unearthed: Bones that halted a family’s dream home

Yvonne and Ross Mitchell bought a plot in Carton Demesne but bones foiled their plans

Yvonne and Ross Mitchell paid €300,000 for a plot of land with planning permission only to find that the land was once a medieval burial ground. To excavate the land would cost the couple a further €150,000.

 

When the Mitchell family bought a plot of land on the exclusive Carton Demesne estate in Co Kildare, they thought they had secured their dream home. Then the builders began to dig up bodies.

In a two-year ordeal, the young family watched helplessly as their life savings disappeared into a site that turned out to be dotted with shallow medieval graves. As building work progressed on neighbouring properties, their emotional wellbeing and finances began to deteriorate.

Today, Yvonne and Ross Mitchell and their two young children Joshua (4) and Julia (1) are trapped – renting a house a short drive away for €1,700 a month while also paying a mortgage on the 1.1 acres which lie untouched in overgrown weeds. The skeletons are less than half a metre under the topsoil.

Efforts by Swindon Investment Company Ltd, the company behind the Temple Wood estate at Carton, to provide a smaller alternative property have so far come to nothing.

It all began in May 2014 when the Mitchells signed contracts for the €300,000 plot which came fully serviced and included planning permission. Excited for their future, they put their belongings in storage and moved in with family to start saving.

I called him back and they said we are having a problem on site; we have found two human skulls

In January of the following year they secured planning for a smaller revised house more in keeping with their budget, and in June the builders arrived to turn the sod.

Human skulls

“I was in work. It was about 12 o’clock and I was in a meeting,” recalls Yvonne. “I got a text from the builder saying ‘we are good to go’. They sent a picture of the digger and I remember saying to the girls in work: it’s finally happening.

“Two hours later I had missed a couple of calls from the architect. I called him back and they said we are having a problem on site; we have found two human skulls. He said we have actually found two human bodies.”

That phone call began two years of enduring stress; a test of their relationship and mental health. It would lead to Yvonne, pregnant with Julia during much of the saga, taking stress leave from work and to countless legal exchanges on their future prospects.

When the Mitchells approached Swindon about the discovery, they say they were told the developer bore no responsibility. Swindon stresses it has nonetheless done everything it can for the family, including fighting to provide an alternative home.

“The communication that came back from Carton from then on was that anything was our problem, it wasn’t their problem,” Yvonne says.

“It’s [a case of] buyer beware. It’s the same as the people who bought in Priory Hall or [homes]with pyrite.”

An Garda was contacted and it in turn phoned the State archaeologist’s office. Ross Mitchell met a representative on site the next day “to get a feel for what it meant; what the implications were”.

Dr Geraldine Stout of the National Monuments Service (NMS) walked the picturesque site bordered by the old stone walls of Carton and peppered with tall sycamores. She knew instantly what lay underfoot.

“In the southwest corner of the construction site I identified at least four grave cuts into the boulder clay,” she later recorded in a letter to the architect.

“In the immediate area of the cleared site there were numerous dark friable soil patches in the boulder clay which probably indicate further graves.”

Dr Stout believed the evidence was indicative of an “extensive burial ground”, likely “to extend beyond the limits of the area uncovered to date”. Later archaeological work commissioned by Swindon established the remains extended into a neighbouring property but were undisturbed and away from any construction sites.

“The lack of association with a church building, grave slabs or dedicative saints may suggest that this is a secular cemetery of early medieval date,” Dr Stout concluded.

Sitting in their rented home, the Mitchells say they are uncertain of their legal position and consider litigation unlikely due to the punitive cost

The policy of the NMS is to preserve such remains as they are found. The findings were hugely problematic to the Mitchells: a full excavation and clearance of the site would cost at least €150,000 they say (no final quote was obtained) and even then there were ethical considerations around exhuming bodies.

Dr Stout told them the build would have to be stopped and so they found a piece of old tarpaulin and pulled it over the exposed graves. About two hours in total, it was the only building work that would ever take place on Site 14.

Temple Wood

Two years later and well into development, the rest of those Temple Wood homes have been sold. An extraordinarily picturesque development, the buildings are a combination of stonework and wood cladding, perched on lavishly manicured gardens.

Enveloped by Carton’s endless stone walls, they neighbour the more modest Leinster Wood estate with its scenic lakes and golf course, resting in the shade of tall, majestic tree lines.

Sitting in their rented home, the Mitchells say they are uncertain of their legal position and consider litigation unlikely due to the punitive cost. They have already spent about €370,000 on land and expenses, including stamp duty.

For almost two years they have been paying rent and their mortgage, and their children are in a creche. Temple Wood is an exclusive development but the couple stress they are not of the same means as many of their would-be neighbours.

“[The discovery of the graves] was like a bereavement for us. Family was so important; we had put ourselves through hell to achieve this,” says a tearful Yvonne.

In the aftermath of the discovery, the Mitchells say they were disappointed at the response from Swindon.

In December, they had a meeting with the company which, they said, told them it was not obliged to help and would not refund their money.

However, as an act of good faith, Swindon said it would apply for planning permission to relocate their home to an alternative green site – not part of the original estate design – near the burial ground for which they could swap their original purchase.

The Mitchells say they were never offered one of the other original serviced sites in the development and the process of attempting to redesign a house on the alternative plot – which was intended as a common area – caused significant stress, half a year later.

Permission refused

In February, Kildare County Council denied them permission. Carton has appealed to An Bord Pleanála and a decision is due next month although the Mitchells, drained by the experience, had asked it not to.

“We have taken as much as we can,” Yvonne later outlined in a note setting out the timeline of events. “We are a young family who have been left homeless.

Legally we do not have responsibility for this unfortunate and unforeseen scenario – however we have acted in good faith to help the site owners

“The stress is negatively impacting all areas of our life and we decide[d] to walk away before one of us has a nervous breakdown.” Yvonne took stress leave from work last March.

Swindon says it had no knowledge of any burial grounds on its land and that the plot bought by the Mitchells was the only one affected (all other sites were excavated and “confirmed clean from any burials”). Since the discovery, it has done everything it can for the family, it says.

“Legally we do not have responsibility for this unfortunate and unforeseen scenario – however we have acted in good faith to help the site owners and to help mitigate against their loss,” it said in a statement.

“We started a long and difficult process with planners and architects and a tree arborist to relocate this site to an adjacent site subject to planning.”

It said it “fought” to secure this alternative and lobbied neighbouring land owners to support it.

As regards offering the Mitchells one of the alternative serviced sites, it said this was not an option as a bank had a charge over all of them, ruling out a direct swap.

“This was explained in detail to the Mitchells and is the reason why we have tried to gain planning on another site which is common area, so there would be no loss to the bank.” Other available sites being sold in a separate, nearby phase belonged to another company and so were unavailable, it said.

“The agreement with the Mitchells is that they will swap their current site with this new site which is in for planning and that their current site will be returned to woodland and become part of the common area.

The Mitchells appear resigned to fate and are considering alternative uses for the land given that building is highly improbable

“There will not be an extra site here – this is a straight swap of one piece of land for another,” it said, adding the planning appeal was filed despite the Mitchell’s objections because a lot of work had been done and there was, it felt, a “reasonable chance of success”.

In the meantime, the Mitchells appear resigned to fate and are considering alternative uses for the land given that building is highly improbable.

“Our little boy who was nine months when this began turns four [this month] and the baby I was pregnant with when the bodies were uncovered will be two in September,” Yvonne says.

“We have kind of accepted now that we can survive financially. We can just stay here renting and paying for the site.”