THE developer behind plans for apartments and a creche on a former mother and baby home estate in Cork have told An Bord Pleanála at an oral hearing that it is happy to conduct a further site investigation to best ascertain the presence or absence of human remains on the site of the intended development.
In November last year, MWB Two Ltd lodged an application for 179 apartments in three blocks and a creche on privately owned land on the former Bessborough estate.
The planning board opted to hold an online oral hearing, which commenced yesterday, amid concerns about potential burials on the site.
Part of the development site overlaps an area marked on a 1950s ordnance survey trace map as “children’s burial ground”.
However, in their response, the developers state that the belief that the area is a potential burial ground is “based entirely on a fundamental misunderstanding” of the map.
They say the marking of ‘children’s burial ground’ on the map in fact refers to the rectangular area just north of the folly and within the circular surround of the folly.
MWB Two Ltd say they are “very conscious of the historical concerns and sensitivities regarding the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home”.
“The company has engaged experts in the areas of archaeological conservation and heritage in order to approach the development in the most sensitive manner possible.
“The experts’ report concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that the proposed development site contains any undocumented burials associated with the former Mother and Baby Home,” a statement issued on behalf of MWB Two Ltd said.
While the developers say the area marked for development is “very unlikely” to be a burial ground, they say they are “happy to conduct further site investigation” in the hopes of “reassuring stakeholders”.
The investigation would only seek to identify the presence of modern human remains but “shall not exhume them”.
During the course of the hearing yesterday, Senior Counsel David Holland, representing MWB Two Ltd, called several expert witnesses on behalf of the company.
One such individual was archaeologist and cultural heritage consultant John Cronin.
In 2019 John Cronin & Associates were commissioned by MWB Two Ltd to conduct an archaeological appraisal of the subject site.
“Given the overgrown nature of the subject site, the presence of extensive dumps of waste material, and the previous disturbance clearly evident on publicly available aerial imagery, the site was unsuitable for geophysical survey.
“After consultation with Cork City Council’s Archaeologist (Ms Ciara Brett), it was agreed that a programme of licensed archaeological testing would be carried out,” Mr Cronin explained.
A total of ten trenches were proposed and eight were excavated prior to the suspension of works on December 11, 2019.
“No archaeological features or artifacts were noted in any of the test trenches excavated on the footprint of the proposed development and no evidence of human remains were noted by any of the archaeologists on site,” Mr Cronin stated.
“While it cannot be ruled out that the SHD site contains human remains, I believe it highly unlikely on the basis of available cartographic and archaeological evidence for the subject site.
“However, to allay public concerns and given the proven legacy of unrecorded burials of infants from the former Mother and Baby Home, it is prudent and correct, in that instance, that the applicant offers to conduct further site investigations led by an archaeologist with proven experience of forensic examinations and investigations of possible or suspected burial areas,” he continued.
Such further investigations would be informed by the methods used in the forensic archaeological investigation of Sean Ross Abbey Burial Ground, the developers stated.
As part of the limited agenda set ahead of the hearing by ABP, the developers were also asked to provide more information on the “appropriateness of the excavation, surveying, and monitoring during construction, as opposed to prior to construction or prior to the grant of a permission on the site”.
They were also asked to address the issue as to the viability or feasibility of the proposed development, in full or in part, were remains to be found within the areas identified for development.
At yesterday’s hearing, Aidan Harte, a professional consultant forensic archaeologist presented a report outlining the methodologies and strategies behind further site investigation work.
Mr Harte, who was requested by a representative of MWB Two Ltd to produce the report, is a co-author of the ‘Report of Forensic Archaeological Investigations at Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home Children’s Burial Ground, Roscrea, Co Tipperary’.
In this case, Mr Harte recommended that a forensic approach be applied.
“In simple terms, this means that any evidence relating to burials or human remains is identified and recorded in such a way as to maintain forensic control and the admissibility of that evidence in any future legal proceedings,” he explained.
In a closing statement yesterday, David Holland BL said that there is “no suggestion” that MWB Two Ltd would “develop inside the folly or the circular enclosure of the folly”.
“We don’t own that land,” he said.
He said that the “overwhelming evidence” is that there is “no children’s burial ground outside that enclosure or on the development site”.
However, he added that a “satisfactory system for investigating this site” can be reached, using the methodologies outlined in Mr Harte’s report.
The developers have also stated that they are willing to fund an appropriate memorial “in consultation with stakeholders”, which would be open to the public.
Mr Holland said that the development “would not go ahead in the event that it involved developing on significant elements of human remains.”
Towards the closing of the hearing yesterday, the planning inspector invited the first few observers to make their submissions.
Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman was amongst them. He again requested that the Board take account of the findings of the Commission of Investigation, “in particular, the unresolved questions on the possibility and specific location of any unmarked burials on the site”.
“I reiterate my view that any decision taken by An Bord Pleanála with respect to this proposed development must address the sensitivities and reasonable concerns around this site.
“In particular, the Board should have regard to the need for further archaeological investigations by appropriate experts prior to works commencing and ongoing monitoring in the course of any subsequent works,” he said in his written submission.
The Board also heard from Mary Slattery, a mother who “lost her first born to adoption in 1979”.
“This process today has affected me,” she said, adding that she felt she was “carrying the emotion” of all the women who went into mother and baby homes around the country.
“We suffered a most grievous injustice as single pregnant women. We were hidden. We were shunted from society,” she said.
“Under no circumstances should building take place in this location,” she continued.
Ms Slattery said she believes the areas of Bessborough that are undeveloped “belong to the public realm” and should be handed over to the State.
“It deserves a meadow of wildflowers, pollinating for the environment.
“It deserves to be treated with respect so that people like myself, when we go for walks can go and sit there and reflect on the mothers and the babies who lost their lives.”
A separate application lodged with Cork City Council to build 67 apartments on lands at Bessborough, from the same developer as part of the same overall development, was refused earlier this year.
MWB Two Ltd appealed this decision with ABP and a ruling is pending.
The oral hearing is specifically in relation to the application submitted to ABP under the SHD process.
The hearing continues today, when more observers will make their submissions to the planning authority. Cross questioning will also take place today.