SURVIVORS have implored An Bord Pleanála to reject plans seeking to develop apartments and a creche on a former mother and baby home estate in Cork.
In November last year, MWB Two Ltd lodged a planning application with the planning board for 179-apartments in three blocks, as well as a creche, on privately owned land on the former Bessborough estate.
An Bord Pleanála opted to hold an oral hearing amid concerns about potential burials on the site of the intended development. The hearing, held virtually, commenced on Wednesday and continued yesterday.
David Dodd BL, speaking on behalf of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA), said history was in the making at an oral hearing.
“People will talk about what the board did here and what you say in your report for years and years to come.
“If the board decides to refuse the application… the consequence will be that there will still be residential development there, all that will have to happen is that the blocks [apartment blocks] will have to move away from the burial ground.
“If the board, on the contrary, decides the opposite [that the development could go ahead], the consequences for the burial ground are direct, irreversible and profound,” he said.
Part of the developer’s strategic housing development site overlaps an area marked on a 1949/1950 ordnance survey trace map as ‘children’s burial ground’.
The developers said the belief that the area was a potential burial ground was “based entirely on a fundamental misunderstanding” of the map.
They said 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. This area is associated with the burial of nuns from 1956.
At the hearing yesterday, Mr Dodd pointed to the fifth interim report by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, which diminished the argument that children and mothers were buried with nuns.
“There is a small burial ground in the grounds of Bessborough,” the interim report states.
“Some members of the congregation are buried there and their graves are marked in the normal way.
“It seems to have been assumed by former residents and advocacy groups that this is also where the children who died in Bessborough are buried, as there are occasional meetings and commemoration ceremonies held there.
“At an early stage, the Commission thought it unlikely that all the children who died in Bessborough were buried in this burial ground as it was not nearly large enough for the number of children involved and, in any event, it would be unlikely that children would be buried in the same burial ground as members of the congregation.”
Mr Dodd asked the senior inspector at the hearing to consider “the mindset when these events were happening”.
“The idea that a nun would be buried together with what they termed ‘fallen women’ and ‘illegitimate children’ — many of them hadn’t been baptised — was an absolute anathema to the Catholic Church and the viewpoint of the nuns.”
At the hearing yesterday, Mr Dodd said that the CSSA’s objectives were “very limited”.
“We’re not looking for any special treatment or anything particularly difficult to deliver on,” he said.
He said that the CSSA “are not opposed to residential development on the site” but that they “simply want no apartment blocks built on the children’s burial ground as identified in the trace map”.
Mr Dodd also called on an expert witness who has worked with Ordnance Survey Ireland for 46 years and who has been an expert witness on boundary matters for over 30 years.
John Clarkin said he believed the children’s burial ground is located on the site of the intended development.
Mr Clarkin said the children’s burial ground identified on the 1949/1950 ordnance survey trace map is recorded in green ink and is therefore recorded by the senior and more experienced reviser.
“You put the most important word nearest where the detail is and the most important word there is ‘children’s’ and then the ‘burial ground’ follows,” he said.
“For that reason, I believe that the children’s burial ground is where the final reviser put it.”
A number of observers also made submissions to the hearing yesterday.
These included Cork City councillors Dan Boyle and Lorna Bogue, who expressed their concerns about the planning application.
Sinn Féin Cork South Central TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire was also amongst those who made a submission.
He said unless An Bord Pleanála was “absolutely confident that there is no danger of building over human remains”, the application must be rejected.
“Many thousands of mothers and children passed through Bessborough and many suffered grievously,” said Mr Ó Laoghaire.
“These wounds are still raw and the survivors must have their concerns listened to.
“An Bord Pleanála must reject this entirely unsuitable proposal.”
MWB Two Ltd said it was “very conscious of the historical concerns and sensitivities regarding the Bessborough mother and baby home”.
A statement issued on behalf of MWB Two Ltd said: “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.”
While the developer said the area marked for development was “very unlikely” to be a burial ground, it said it would be “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”.
The hearing continues today.