Cork apartments would be over burial ground, survivors say

Expert believes 1950s Ordnance Survey map correctly indicates Bessborough child graves

Two apartment blocks planned by a private developer will be situated directly over a children's burial ground in the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork while a third block will overlook the burial area, a campaign group opposed to the development has told a planning hearing.

The Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) has said the plan by MWB Two Ltd to build 179 apartments on a privately owned 1.5 hectare site in the grounds of the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Blackrock in Cork will intrude on an area it believes children were buried in.

“The proposed development is placed on the children’s burial ground, in particular the southerly parts of Block A and Block B of the Strategic Housing Development application are situated directly on the children’s burial ground while Block C directly overlooks the children’s burial ground.”

Opening the case for the CSSA, barrister David Dodd said the group, which represents more than 50 families of children who died at Bessborough, was not opposed to residential development on the former grounds of Bessborough but did not want any development on a children’s burial ground.

Mr Dodd said that both the CSSA and the developers agreed there was a children’s burial ground on the former Bessborough estate but they differed as to where it was located, with the developers submitting it was located within the bounds of a nuns’ cemetery near a landmark folly.

"The question for An Bord Pleanála is whether the children's burial ground is located in the nuns' graveyard as the applicant says or is it in the field as shown on a 1950 Ordnance Survey field trace map which, we say, is the best available evidence as to the locus of the children's burial ground."

Field trace map

The location of the children's burial ground has proven highly significant after a Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report found 923 infants born at or associated with Bessborough died between 1922 and 1998 and some 859 of these have no recorded place of burial.

Expert witness John Clarkin who is a cartographer with Ordnance Survey Ireland with 46 years' experience, told Thursday's An Bord Pleanála hearing that the 1950 field trace map was drawn up by an experienced reviser, J Horgan and senior reviser, BJ O'Rourke, who were highly professional.

Mr Clarkin said the children’s burial ground was the most obvious inclusion on the 1950 map as it was not shown in the previous 1932 map which suggested the burial ground, which was different to a cemetery or a graveyard in that it had no markers, was established between 1932 and 1950.

This was consistent with the establishment of the Sacred Heart Maternity Hospital in Bessborough in the 1930s and the resultant need for a place to bury stillborn and deceased babies born in the maternity hospital within the grounds of Bessborough, he said.

He said the children’s burial ground was recorded in green ink which meant it was recorded by the senior reviser, Mr O’Rourke, who would only have marked it on the map in keeping with Ordnance Survey rules if he was satisfied that it accurately denoted a feature in the area.

Nuns’ remains

Mr Clarkin rejected a submission made on Wednesday by a cartographer for the developers, Michael Flynn, that the label "children's burial ground" referred to an enclosure which was established in 1956 next to the folly and now contains the remains of 25 nuns attached to Bessborough.

Mr Clarkin said it was his opinion that the label “children’s burial ground’ referred to the locus over which it was placed on the trace map, indicating that that was where children were buried in an area about three times the size of the circular area where the folly was located.

"Revisers employed by OSI Ireland do not record children's burial grounds that are not present – not only is a burial ground recorded, it is recorded as a children's burial ground and its inclusion had to be signed off by the owners of the land, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary.

“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,” he said, pointing out the congregation never sought to correct the children’s burial ground designation.

The hearing continues.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times