Call for burial grounds at former mother and baby homes to be given protected status

Forensic archaeologist says move would give ‘breathing space’ without planning proposals

An area marked Childrens’ Burial Ground on a map of the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home site in Cork

An area marked Childrens’ Burial Ground on a map of the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home site in Cork

 

The Government should consider granting the equivalent of national monument status to burial grounds at former mother and baby homes, according to a leading expert in forensic archaeology.

Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin said when it comes to remembering those who died in mother and baby homes, the government should look at following the example of Canada where the burial places of indigenous children who died in residential schools were granted protective status.

“The Canadian truth and reconciliation commission, which looked at how mostly indigenous children were taken from their families and put in residential schools where there was a high mortality rate, proposed granting all these burial sites protected status.

“If the children’s burial sites at former mother and baby homes were given the equivalent of national monument status here, it would remove them from any future planning proposals and give us the breathing space to consider what to do with such places,” he said.

A lecturer at the Department of Archaeology in UCC, Dr Ó Donnabháin said each former home should be considered on its own merits but at least it would provide a chance for each burial site to be assessed as to whether excavation or simply memorialisation might be most appropriate.

Dr Ó Donnabháin was speaking ahead of a decision later this week by An Bord Pleanála on a planning application by developers MWB Two Ltd for 179 apartments under a Strategic Housing Development initiative on a 3.7 acre site at the former Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes found that 923 infants born at or associated with Bessborough died between 1922 and its closure as a home in 1998.

But the commission could only find burial records for 64 infants, prompting a campaign group, Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance to call for a proper examination of the Bessborough grounds to see if it contains the remains of the other 859 infants whose burial places remain unknown.

In a detailed submission to Cork City Council on the planning application for the “Gateway View” development, the CSSA said the northerly parts of two blocks of the proposed development would be located on an area, marked as the children’s burial ground on a 1950 Ordnance Survey map.

An archaeologist retained by MWB Two Ltd, John Cronin pointed out in a report that archaeological investigation under licence from the National Monuments Service in 2019 found no evidence of bones to support the CSSA contention there was a children’s burial ground in the area.

Mr Cronin also pointed to aerial photographs, taken by the Irish Air Corps in 1951, around the same time the OS surveyors were on the Bessborough site, which showed no evidence of ground disturbance in the lands around where the children’s burial ground was marked.

But Dr Ó Donnabháin said the fact that the Ordnance Survey had marked an area was significant.

“The Ordnance Survey map shows the Children’s Burial Ground to the south east of the folly and then in a later map it moves to the northwest of the folly – the reason for the move is that a big label marking the ‘Convent of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary’ had to be squeezed in,” he said.

“And in all these maps, the landowner, in this case, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, which owned and ran Bessborough, had to sign off that they agreed it was accurate so I don’t think there can be any doubt about its accuracy showing the Children’s Burial Ground.”

Dr Ó Donnabháin said it was not surprising that no evidence of infant remains were found at the site as it had been hugely disturbed during the early 2000s during the construction of a roadway through the grounds.

“According to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes’ final report, the vast majority of the babies who died at Bessborough died within three months and when you are dealing with such young infants, there are a number of issues that distinguishes them from adults.

“Firstly, the likelihood is they were buried in shallow graves so were more likely to be disturbed but secondly, baby bones are not as strongly mineralised as adult bones and do not survive so you won’t find them by digging a test trench with a digger, you need to examine the area sensitively by hand.”