Refusal of 179-unit development on Cork’s Bessborough site welcomed
Proposal engulfed in controversy as hundreds of infant deaths associated with home
A campaigner called for the Bessborough site to be the subject of a compulsory purchase order. Photograph: Provision
Survivors of the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork have broadly welcomed the refusal by An Bord Pleanála to grant permission for a 179 unit strategic development on the site in city.
The planning authority said it was unsatisfied the site was not previously used as, and does not contain, a burial ground.
The housing development planned by MWB Two was on a privately owned 3.7-acre site in the southeastern corner of the former estate. There was controversy about the plan as some 923 infants born at, or associated with, the home died between when it opened in 1922 and its closure 23 years ago. The burial place of 859 of those children remain unaccounted for.
The board said that it would be “premature” to grant permission for the proposed development prior to establishing whether there is a children’s burial ground located within the site and the extent of any such burial ground.
Campaigner Catherine Coffey O’Brien, who was seven months pregnant in 1989 when she managed to flee Bessborough, said it was an emotional and historic moment for all those opposed to development.
Ms Coffey O’Brien, who is also an industrial school survivor, said: “Today is historic. As an industrial school survivor and a survivor of Bessborough along with many other women I welcome this decision. We do not want exhumations. We want the children’s burial ground to be marked, preserved and protected. There are also mothers and girls buried up there.”
She said campaigner Ann O’Gorman is “the hero of this hour” because she came forward and “ spoke out about her daughter Evelyn and other mothers followed her”.
Ms Coffey O’Brien said that the site ought to be preserved to allow women like Ann to go up to the ground to lay flowers or light a candle.
‘Apologies are words’
She said the Bessborough site should now be the subject of a compulsory purchase order. She admitted that it was “surreal” that the decision of the planning authority had gone in the favour of survivors.
“We have had two apologies from the State. But apologies are words. This is an action that actually acknowledges this history. Evelyn O’Gorman existed. Along with other babies and girls. They deserve to be acknowledged in death. That is all we asked for.
“We were knocked down several times. We were told we were hysterical and we didn’t know what we were talking about even though we were in there.
“All we wanted was a basic human right that a woman, a sister or brother can go to Bessborough and lay a flower to remember their dead.”
Cork historian Maureen Considine – whose research focuses on memory and mourning – said she was “cautiously optimistic” .
“This hasn’t solved the problem of the children’s burial grounds. We need them protected. We really need the Government to intervene at this point. We have done everything expected of us. We have seen the planning process through to the end. They need to just step in now and recognise the children’s burial ground as an established cemetery and give it protection.”
Developer MWB Two Ltd said it was disappointed at the decision. It said the objection to the concept of building on a burial ground advanced by survivor groups and others is understood fully.
“However, as MWB Two Ltd has previously said, experts in the areas of archaeological conservation and heritage found no evidence to suggest that its proposed development site contains any undocumented burials associated with the former mother and baby home.
“MWB Two Ltd believes that the identification of a burial ground on its land based on a single interpretation of old Ordnance Survey Ireland records is erroneous.”