Bessborough survivor pleads: Don't build houses where hundreds of babies are buried

Bessborough survivor pleads: Don't build houses where hundreds of babies are buried
Catherine Coffey at the back of Bessborough leading to the babies graveyardPicture: Eddie O'Hare

“BABIES were buried there, now please don’t bury our shared history”.

That’s the message from a survivor of Bessborough mother-and-baby home who is pleading with potential land buyers and developers not to build housing on the land.

Catherine Coffey, who spent 10 years as a child in industrial schools and time as a young pregnant woman in Bessborough before she ran away, said that the existence of approximately 800 unmarked graves within the grounds of the site means the land should be preserved until a full investigation takes place.

Ms Coffey said she believes that any development on the site will compromise future investigations and will leave families permanently without answers regarding the history of loved ones in unmarked graves.

Catherine Coffey at the back of Bessborough leading to the babies graveyardPicture: Eddie O'Hare
Catherine Coffey at the back of Bessborough leading to the babies graveyardPicture: Eddie O'Hare

The 40-acre site is being sold by the owners, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Lands on the fringes of the Bessborough campus were rezoned for housing following a vote by Cork City Council last year, prompting concerns that a planning application from potential buyers will be imminent once any sale goes through.

The site has the potential for up to 500 homes. Survivors only learned of the council rezoning vote when informed by Workers’ Party councillor Ted Tynan.

HSE community and family facilities at the former mother-and-baby home on a 40-acre site will close by December to facilitate the sale. The State has pumped €30m into services on the campus over the past two decades.

The HSE confirmed in 2012 that there was a higher infant death rate at the Cork home than in the Tuam mother-and-baby home, which was excavated in 2017.

The location and nature of burial grounds on the site are mired in uncertainty due to missing and conflicting burial records.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes stated in a report published in April that it is not feasible to excavate the whole of the lands at Bessborough.

Child and Family Agency Tusla possesses a death register, which was maintained by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary at Bessborough between 1934 and 1953, which records 470 infant deaths.

A statement from the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary said: “The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has had our fullest cooperation in all its work to date and we will continue to work directly with them on all related matters.

“All of our records relating to the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home were passed to the HSE/TULSA in 2011”

Ms Coffey said: “They want to bury us and our history forever. There is never going to be a prosecution but all we want is for this part of our history to be taught in colleges and second level and we want an archive. This is not about revenge or hate on the part of survivors.

“This is cold, calculated and profitable by the nuns.

“Why can’t they just give an answer as to where the babies are buried? I am concerned about these infants.

“They weren’t acknowledged in life, but they should be acknowledged in death.

“There should be something like wildflowers and benches where the mothers can just sit and reflect.

“It’s bad enough that a lot of the mothers don’t know where their babies are.

“I don’t have any revenge or hate in me. This is about preserving a piece of history in Ireland. We asked the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes to investigate the land like Tuam and we were fobbed off. They said they felt there was nothing there.

“It’s like they are trying to erode the history by knocking bits of buildings down and building big developments. I think it’s vulgar,” Ms Coffey added.

Ms Coffey believes that State money needs to be found to forensically comb the entire site to find out exactly what lies beneath its grounds and said she felt “like dirt” when City Hall rezoned the land for development.

She said the State has commemorated the heroes of the 1916 Rising and will there will be events remembering those who fought in the War of Independence in the coming years.

She has asked that the same respect be afforded to those who lost their lives in Bessborough.

“If the Government and the Commission don’t have the funds to carry out a forensic investigation than nothing should be done there at all,” she said.

“I don’t want anyone to have to understand what it’s like to get up and be told when to pray, when to eat and when to do your duties. I can’t explain any of that.

“I would never want anyone to understand what that feels like to have your every day planned out by someone else.

“Look what is happening to the generations of women that went through Bessborough or Tuam or any of the other institutions. We are being cheated. When City Hall made the decision to rezone the land I felt like dirt.

“The nuns profited, ironically, from the HSE providing services to families and now they are evicting them, selling the land and they will leave a lot of women in the dark about where their babies are buried. We know there will be no prosecutions but please do right by these women.

“Every other country in the world would recognise what happened,” Ms Coffey added.

A statement from the order said: “The Sisters want to again affirm the excellent service being provided at the centre by dedicated and committed staff.

“The Sisters recognise the concern this decision will create for staff and we will now be actively seeking another service provider that will continue this excellent service into the future.”

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