Planning for apartments on Bessborough mother and baby home site is refused

Cork City Council rejects development due to historic landscape of site where over 900 babies died

Cork City Council has refused planning permission for a controversial housing development on the grounds of the former Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork where some 923 babies died over a near 80 year period.

Developers MWB Two Ltd had sought planning permission from Cork City Council for a total of 67 apartments as part of a proposed development on a 3.7 acre site on the grounds of the former mother and baby home.

The proposed development, Gateway View involved applying to Cork City Council for the construction of 29 one bedroom apartments and 38 two bedroom apartments in an eight storey apartment block on the site.

The proposal, which also involved an application to An Bord Pleanala for a further 179 apartments under a Strategic Housing Development initiative, had prompted huge controversy among former residents of Bessborough.


Some 923 infants born at or associated with Bessborough died between 1922 and its closure as a mother and baby home in 1998. However the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes could only find burial records for 64 infants.

The burial places of 859 infants remain unknown and a campaign group, Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA), called for a proper examination of the site to see whether it contains the remains of any infants buried in Bessborough.

Historic landscape

Cork City Council said that it was refusing planning on two grounds, including that the proposed development would contravene the Cork City Development Plan 2015-2021 which had zoned the land for Landscape Preservation.

The council said that the development would materially contravene the site specific objective of the zoning for the area which was to reinstate the historic landscape of Bessborough House.

In particular, the council cited the scale and the height of the proposed development as factors which would result in the project failing to protect the historic landscape of the grounds where it is located.

Secondly, the council also refused planning permission on the grounds it was part of a dual application by MWB Ltd and it would be premature to grant planning pending the decision of An Bord Pleanala on the other application.

“It is considered that the proposed development cannot be permitted in isolation, due to its scale, relationship to the Historic Landscape in which it sits and its physical detachment,” said the council.

The council went on to say that in the absence of planning permission being granted by An Bord Pleanala, the proposed development would be “contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area”.

Campaign group

The council’s decision was warmly welcomed by the CSSA campaign group which represents the families of over 50 infants who died at Bessborough.

“The CSSA is relieved and delighted at the decision and we have had a rare happy morning calling our members to tell them that we’ve had a victory in relation to the local planning application,” said a spokeswoman.

“We welcome today as a step closer our aim of ensuring the babies’ graves are marked, preserved and protected but we are under no illusion that this battle is far from over with the An Bord Pleanala decision still to come,” she added.

The CSSA spokeswoman stressed that the group was opposed to any exhumations or excavations as part of any examination of the site and simply wanted the graves of those who died in Bessborough marked and protected.

Meanwhile the developer, MWB Two Ltd said it noted “the decision by Cork City Council in relation to its proposed Gateway View development and will take the time to review the Council’s decision over the coming days.”

Children’s burial ground

In a detailed submission to Cork City Council, the CSSA 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 map.

The group also pointed out that a third block in the MWB Two Ltd proposal will directly overlook the site which is to the east of a small graveyard where some 25 nuns from the order which owned and ran Bessborough are buried.

“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.

The campaign group said in its submission to Cork City Council 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 children’s burial ground was “respected by avoiding any placement of buildings, structure or the carrying out of enabling grounds works within the burial ground”.

According to the CSSA, the 1950 Ordnance Survey map shows an area marked as “children’s burial ground”, immediately to the north west of a folly and the adjacent congregation cemetery near the eastern end of estate.

The CSSA 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 - it is the best evidence of the location of the children’s burial ground,” said the CSSA.

According to the CSSA, earlier OS maps from both 1902 and 1932 do not contain any reference to a children’s burial ground which appears for the first time in the 1950 OS map suggesting it was only opened after 1932.

And the CSSA said that tallies with the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, 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.

An Bord Pleanala is due to rule on the planning application it received from MWB Two Ltd for a further 179 apartments on another part of the 3.7 acre site in March, The Irish Times understands.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times