Call for full investigation into all deaths at Bessborough

“I’m asking Roderic O’Gorman to investigate all of the deaths at Bessborough, and how those babies lived, and how they died, and where they are buried.”
Call for full investigation into all deaths at Bessborough

Between 1922 and 1998 the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary ran Bessborough as a mother and baby home, and during that time 9,768 mothers and 8,938 babies were admitted.

THE sister of a baby who died 60 years ago in the care of the Bessborough mother and baby home has called on Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman to investigate all of the deaths at the former home.

Carmel Cantwell’s brother William was born in Bessborough in 1960 and he died six weeks later in St Finbarr’s Hospital.

Ms Cantwell told The Echo she is calling for an investigation into the deaths of almost 1,000 children at Bessborough, and into the disposal of their bodies.

“I’m asking Roderic O’Gorman to investigate all of the deaths at Bessborough, and how those babies lived, and how they died, and where they are buried,” Ms Cantwell said.

“The time has come for a full examination of just where hundreds of Bessborough children are buried, because these were children in State care, and their families are desperate to know where they are.” 

Between 1922 and 1998 the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary ran Bessborough as a mother and baby home, and during that time 9,768 mothers and 8,938 babies were admitted.

According to the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation published last January, which reportedly worked from figures supplied by the Sacred Hearts nuns, in its 72 years, 923 children died in the care of Bessborough.

However, according to the General Register Office (GRO), which records every birth and death in the State, it was only informed of the deaths of 816 children at Bessborough, and despite the commission citing “small” discrepancies between Bessborough’s records and those of the GRO, 107 more children died - or were said to have died - in the care of the nuns than were certified by the State.

The bodies and burial records of over 800 children are missing, and the commission of investigation concluded that it is “highly likely” that at least some of those children may have been buried on the Bessborough grounds.

Ms Cantwell believes that children may have been buried at multiple sites across the estate and is calling on Minister O’Gorman to sanction the use of ground-penetrating radar devices.

Carmel's mother's story

Carmel Cantwell’s mother Bridget was 17 in 1960, when she became pregnant with William, and she left her home in Tipperary for a job in London.

While there she made a confession to a priest who then placed her under the control of a Catholic group called The Crusade of Rescue which sent her back to Ireland, to Bessborough.

Although her baby, William, initially thrived, when he was three days old, he became very ill, as did Bridget.

As her own health deteriorated, and as William’s condition worsened, Bridget begged the nuns to call a doctor for her baby, and when they ignored her pleas, she overheard two nuns squabbling.

When William was 19 days old, he was brought, too late, to St Finbarr’s Hospital, and he lived a further 19 days.

When Bridget, who had almost died herself, was well enough to ask after her baby, she was told William had died, and had already been buried.

Brideget was returned to London, and it was many years before she felt able, in 1994, to contact the Sacred Heart nuns at Bessborough, asking about her baby’s death, the details of his burial, and the location of his grave.

The order then contacted St Finbarr’s hospital and was informed that William had been buried - “unclaimed” - in an unmarked grave in the old Famine graveyard at Carr’s Hill. This information was not given to Bridget, and she was subsequently told by a nun from Bessborough that William was buried in the nuns’ graveyard beside the folly at Bessborough.

The section of the nuns’ graveyard in which it had been claimed William was buried subsequently became known as 'the angels’ plot', but in 2019 the fifth interim report of the Commission of Investigation carried an anonymised description of a mother asking the Bessborough nuns for the details of her baby who died in December 1960.

William Walsh was the only baby to die from Bessborough in December 1960, and 25 years after her initial, 1994 inquiry, Bridget discovered that her son was buried in a pauper’s grave on Carr’s Hill.

Minister response

A spokesperson for Minister O’Gorman noted that the Commission of Investigation had previously concluded that the grounds of Bessborough were too large to excavate and stated: “It is not open to Government to procure or carry out investigations on land that is in private ownership.”

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