'My brother and sister would be 63': Uncertainty reigns over burial grounds at Bessborough

Mary Donovan has been searching for her Bessborough born siblings for a year and she says she is deeply concerned that no burial records exist for them. Donal O’Keeffe reports
'My brother and sister would be 63': Uncertainty reigns over burial grounds at Bessborough

THE sister of twin babies born in Bessborough and reported as having died 63 years ago has criticised Cork City Council’s decision to protect only one section of the grounds of the former mother and baby home, and has called for a full investigation of the former home. Pic Larry Cummins.

THE sister of twin babies born in Bessborough and reported as having died 63 years ago has criticised Cork City Council’s decision to protect only one section of the grounds of the former mother and baby home, and has called for a full investigation of the former home.

Vincent Joseph Finn was registered as being born at Bessborough at 8.50pm on Tuesday, March 24, 1959, to 19-year-old Margaret Mary Finn, and his sister Ann Veronica was born 20 minutes later, at 9.10pm.

Ann Veronica is recorded as having died a day later, and Vincent Joseph a day after that, with both babies reported to the General Register Office as having died at St Finbarr’s Hospital of “Atelectasis Prematurity”, atelectasis being a condition which involves the partial or complete collapse of a lung.

Ann Veronica and Vincent Joseph’s sister, Mary Donovan, has been searching for her siblings for a year, and she says she is deeply concerned that no burial records exist for them.

“My brother and sister would be 63, and I need to find them because if they are alive I need to know they’re okay, and if they’re dead they were human beings and not trash to be scattered or discarded,” Mary Donovan told The Echo.

“The word ‘America’ appears on one document relating to my siblings.

“Does that mean they were sent to America for adoption and falsely reported as having died? I don’t know if they’re buried in Cork or alive in America.

“This is the uncertainty that relatives like me have to live with, and without a full investigation into Bessborough, and a full examination of the grounds, family members like me will never know the truth,” Ms Donovan said.

Mother and Baby home

Bessborough operated as a mother and baby home between 1922 and 1998 and in that time 923 children died at the home or after being transferred from the home, according to the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.

Burial records exist for only 64 children who died at Bessborough, or after transfer from the home, meaning that the remains of 859 children are missing, and Vincent Joseph and Ann Veronica are among those babies for whom no burial records exist.

Cork City Council recently designated a section of the Bessborough grounds north-west of the Bessborough folly, identified as a “children’s burial ground” on a 1949/1950 Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi) trace map, as a landscape preservation zone.

An extract from the 1949/1950 Ordnance Survey revision trace map which campaigners say shows a 'childrens' burial ground' on land earmarked now development. However, experts for MWB Two told the An Bord Pleanala hearing that they believe the label refers to an existing burial ground, marked by a rectangle near the folly, or ruin, immediately to the east of the label.
An extract from the 1949/1950 Ordnance Survey revision trace map which campaigners say shows a 'childrens' burial ground' on land earmarked now development. However, experts for MWB Two told the An Bord Pleanala hearing that they believe the label refers to an existing burial ground, marked by a rectangle near the folly, or ruin, immediately to the east of the label.

The section is part of an area that had last year been refused planning permission for apartments following an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanala.

Giving evidence at the oral hearing on behalf of the developers, retired OSi cartographer Michael Flynn said he was satisfied the label “children’s burial ground” referred to a nearby circular feature surrounding the folly.

However, OSi expert mapper John Clarkin said he believed the placement of the words indicated the actual location of a burial ground.

An OSi spokesperson has subsequently stated that there is “an alternative interpretation” which suggests that the “children’s burial ground” text might relate to the circular feature surrounding the folly, based on the proximity of the text to that physical feature.

“(T)his alternative interpretation is that the children’s burial ground text could potentially relate to that area,” the spokesperson said.

However, they added, “with the records available to OSI it cannot be more definitive as to the precise location of the children’s burial ground”.

Protection

Ms Donovan criticised the decision last week by Cork City Council to protect just one section of the Bessborough grounds, and called for the same protection to be extended to the entire site, which she said needed to be investigated.

“It’s absolutely crazy that [Cork City Council] has agreed to preserve only one section of Bessborough, while none of the rest of the estate has been looked at and none of it is being preserved,” she said.

Ms Donovan said she was in contact with families and survivors who wanted to see a full investigation of the grounds of the former home.

“We want the same as what they want in Tuam. We want a full investigation of the Bessborough grounds, we want the babies found, and we want a full DNA analysis of their remains, and we want them to be given a proper burial,” Ms Donovan said.

Responding to a call in January from Carmel Cantwell, whose brother William Gerard Walsh died in Bessborough in 1960, for a full investigation of the former home, a spokesperson for Minister for Children, Roderic 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.”

A spokesperson for Cork City Council said it would not be appropriate for the council to comment at this time.

Estuary View Enterprises 2020 Ltd, which owns much of the former Bessborough lands, last week submitted plans to An Bórd Pleanála through the strategic housing development process a planning application for 420 apartments, some in buildings up to 10-storeys high.

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