No evidence of human remains in test trenches at Bessborough, planning hearing told

Experts called by developers of apartments on grounds of former Mother and Baby Home

The Bessborough Centre, Blackrock, Cork, former children’s home operated by the Sacred Heart nuns. Photograph: Provision

The Bessborough Centre, Blackrock, Cork, former children’s home operated by the Sacred Heart nuns. Photograph: Provision

 

Archaeological experts for the developers of a controversial housing project on the grounds of a former Mother and Baby Home in Cork have told a planning hearing that they found no evidence of human remains in an area marked as a Children’s Burial Ground in a 1950s map.

Archaeologist Niamh Daly told the An Bord Pleanála Oral Hearing into the proposed 179 apartment development on the grounds of the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Blackrock in Cork, that she been involved in the excavation of eight test trenches at the site in December 2019.

“My role was to provide constant osteoarchaeological supervision during the work. The results of careful monitoring and systematic archaeological excavation of the eight test trenches confirmed the absence of human bone and human tooth enamel,” said Ms Daly.

“Therefore, no human remains, or graves were recovered or identified in the eight test trench areas,” said Ms Daly, adding that some animal bone and tooth samples were recovered from the eight linear test trenches, which were to the east and west of the development site.

A campaign group, Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance has opposed the development, submitting the proposed apartments will intrude on an area, north west of a landmark folly, which is marked in a 1950s Ordnance Survey Field Trace map as “Children’s Burial Ground”.

Fellow archaeologist, Colm Chambers, who like Ms Daly was retained by the developer, MWB Two Ltd, also testified that he was tasked with undertaking a programme of licensed archaeological testing within the proposed development area to identify any potential archaeological remains.

Mr Chambers said that he consulted with John Nicholls of Target Geophysics as to the suitability of the landholding for geophysical survey, specifically ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey but Mr Nicholls felt the site was not suitable for such a survey.

Overgrown

Mr Chambers said that Mr Nicholls ruled out carrying out a GPR survey due to the overgrown nature of the site, the presence of extensive dumps of waste material and previous disturbance which had been noted in a series of aerial photographs so it was decided to carry out licensed test trenching.

However, the National Monuments Service suspended the licence before all ten test trenches were fully dug but no evidence of any human remains was found in any of the trenches excavated on the footprint of the proposed development, said Mr Chambers.

Surveyor, Paudie Barry told the hearing that he examined an aerial photograph taken of the site by the Irish Air Corps in 1951, in particular the area near a “blue swoosh” which surrounds the label Children’s Burial Ground on the 1950s Ordnance Survey Field Trace map.

“I carefully examined the area of the blue swoosh which was extracted and projected from the 1950s OSI trace map. I can say with a high degree of confidence that I saw no evidence of excavation in this area.... (or) ... no evidence of soil disturbance reflected in the vegetation within this.”

Forensic archaeologist, Aidan Harte also testified on behalf of MWB Two Ltd, who have offered to carry out an examination of the area where it proposes to build the 179 apartments prior to any construction work commencing to ensure the development is not covering up any human remains.

Mr Harte, who was retained by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes during excavation at the Children’s Burial Grounds in both Tuam and Sean Ross Abbey, said it was clear that the proposed development site at Bessborough had been disturbed by previous groundworks.

He identified two priority areas for examination in any forensic excavation, measuring 88m x 25m and 31m x 25m. These were identified as priority areas due to their proximity to the only known burial ground in the area, an enclosed cemetery surrounding the landmark folly.

“These priority areas would be searched to a forensic standard. Using a small mechanical excavator, it is recommended the soil be slowly removed while monitored by at least one Forensic Archaeologist and one Osteo-archaeologist/Forensic Anthropologist,” he said

“This combination of specialisms is an appropriate method of evaluating disturbed (and possibly very small fragment) skeletal remains. Where items of evidential value are noted in situ, a completed record should be made prior to their being logged and removed.

“In the case of human remains, no such action would take place, instead securing the scene,” said Mr Harte, adding it was his understanding that forensic recovery of remains would only happen when directed by a Coroner and, in all likelihood, supported by the gardaí. The hearing continues.