Remains of 19 women who died at mother and baby home remain missing

Urgent calls to halt housing development until Bessborough lands are examined

The former Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork: Plans for part of the site, identified in a 1949 map as ‘children’s burial ground’, is the subject of an emergency oral hearing before An Bord Pleanála next week. Photograph: Provision

The former Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork: Plans for part of the site, identified in a 1949 map as ‘children’s burial ground’, is the subject of an emergency oral hearing before An Bord Pleanála next week. Photograph: Provision

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The remains of 19 women who died at Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork, run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, remain missing, politicians were told.

The Oireachtas Committee on Children and Equality is examining proposed legislation to provide for the examination and possible excavation of burial sites in institutions once run by religious orders.

In all, 31 women died at the Cork city mother and babies’ home between 1922 and 1998, in addition to more than 900 babies, including 102 babies who died there during the course of 1944 alone.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes found death registration records for 29 of the women; just 12 burial records in St Finbarr’s cemetery have been found.

“Where are the other 19?” asked Martin Parfrey, who was adopted from Bessborough. “There could be adults buried indiscriminately around Bessborough as well [as those of 836 babies].”

The subject of the missing bodies was raised during committee discussions on the “urgency” to halt a proposed housing development, including apartments, on the Bessborough lands.

The apartments, planned for part of the site identified in a 1949 map as “children’s burial ground”, are the subject of an emergency oral hearing before An Bord Pleanála next week.

Mr Palfrey, founder of the Know Your Own support group for adopted people, said all burial grounds at mother and baby homes should be “taken over by the State” and preserved.

“Everything possible should be done to block any development until the grounds have been examined or, better again, taken over by the State,” he said.

He questioned the accuracy of a 1949 Ordnance Survey map saying he believed bodies could have been buried “indiscriminately” across the entire site, and not just in the plot marked as holding graves.

‘Preserved and protected’

David Dodd BL, spokesman for the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance, said the children’s burial ground should be “preserved and protected” to prevent animals or people walking on graves.

“We do not seek for the remains of the children to be exhumed and removed from the site. It would disperse the children – the opposite of memorialisation,” and “precisely the wrong response to what happened”.

“Whether your personal view is memorialisation or excavation, if there’s an apartment block there, neither is going to happen. That’s an immediate pressing concern.”

Several committee members, including Seán Sherlock TD (Labour Party) and Mark Ward (Sinn Féin), said no development should be allowed at Bessborough yet.

Peter Mulryan, who suffered physical and emotional abuse when boarded out from the Tuam mother and baby home, and who hopes his sister survived the institution, said mothers and infants’ remains should be returned to families.

“A memorial garden is not enough,” he said. Remains should not be left where they are “a second longer”, he said, calling on the State to gather DNA samples from bereaved families immediately.

“It’s been going on seven years, highlighted and highlighted and we’re no further on, he said, adding the lack of progress “by the government and State” has been “inhumane”.

“I would like to know where my sister is at this moment. I’m three years now looking for records of my sister. Every time I go to bed at night I think of her. Is she dead or alive? I do not know.