A campaign group set up to represent the families of infants who died in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork have called for an oral hearing into a proposal to build apartments on a site where they say babies may be buried.
The Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) has called for an oral hearing to be held by An Bord Pleanála into a planning application by developer MWB Two Ltd to build a total of 246 residential units on a 3.7-acre site at Bessborough.
MWB Two Ltd has made a planning application to An Bord Pleanála for 179 apartments under the Strategic Housing Development programme and a parallel application to Cork City Council for a further 67 apartments.
But, in a detailed submission on the planning application, the CSSA noted that the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes found that no proper records of burial locations were kept for Bessborough.
And it said the southerly parts of two blocks of the proposed development will be located on an area marked as the children’s burial ground on a 1950 Ordnance Survey, while a third block will directly overlook the site.
The alliance said it believes that an oral hearing was an appropriate means to try to establish the truth about where any infants are buried in Bessborough before planning permission is granted for any development.
“The proposed development of the site of Bessborough mother and baby home, as well as the dignified treatment of unmarked burial grounds on the site of Bessborough, is a matter of significant national and local concern.
“It is submitted that an oral hearing will be of benefit to An Bord Pleanála in navigating the complex legal and factual questions which arise in respect of the proposed development,” it added.
The alliance said that it was not opposed to “appropriate and sensitive development of the site”, but the proposed development on the children’s burial ground was “entirely unsuitable”.
The group was simply seeking that the site was “respected by avoiding any placement of buildings, structure or the carrying out of enabling grounds works within the burial ground”.
According to the alliance, the 1950 Ordnance Survey map shows an area marked as “children’s burial ground”, immediately to the northwest of a folly and the adjacent congregation cemetery near the eastern end of the estate.
The alliance said Ordnance Survey Ireland was Ireland's national mapping agency and was an entirely neutral, independent, expert body which provides advice to the public and statutory bodies such as courts and commissions of inquiry.
“It has confirmed that the trace map is reliable and correct and therefore convincingly shows the location of the children’s burial ground,” the CSSA said.
It said earlier OS maps from 1902 and 1932 do not contain any reference to a burial ground, which appears for the first time in the 1950 map, suggesting it was only opened after 1932.
It argued that this tallies with the commission of investigation, which found that, prior to March 1929, infants who died at Bessborough were buried at St Joseph's Cemetery in Ballyphehane.
The CSSA said that the building of a new maternity hospital in Bessborough in the 1930s alongside the home led to an increase in births and infant mortality, so the need for a burial ground rose sharply after 1935.
It said that in the event of An Bord Pleanála holding an oral hearing, Ordnance Survey officials should be available to give evidence regarding the authenticity of the trace map and its accuracy.
CSSA member and Bessborough survivor Catherine Coffey O’Brien (49), who ran away from the home as a pregnant 17-year-old in 1989, has called for Government action on the issue of infant burials.
“We have a simple request to the Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, who launched the commission report, and that is that the graves where babies are buried there should be marked, preserved and protected,” she said.
“We have the evidence, we have the documentation, we know where the children’s burial ground is and we don’t want any big huge development overshadowing it . We have been overshadowed all our lives.”