The Spirit of Mother Jones festival will broadcast a discussion between two activists of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) which has campaigned to get the relevant authorities to locate and protect the burial ground of hundreds of babies born in the Bessborough Mother and Baby ‘Home’ during its operation from 1922 to 1996.
The discussion will be broadcast on Saturday evening 27th November at 7.30.
Catherine Coffey O’Brien and Maureen Considine discuss how their organisation located a 1950 Ordnance Survey map which showed the location of the Children’s’ Burial Ground at Bessborough and used it as the basis of their campaign to protect the site from an apartment development.
They also discuss efforts to achieve healing for those who suffered. The memorialisation of the women and children who died in these institutions should be a priority. The class structures within the homes need to be examined in greater detail in order to ensure that the full oral and written testimony of survivors and the archival legacy of the period be secured and open to all in perpetuity.
Background to the planned development.
By order dated 25th May 2021, An Bord Pleanāla, (ABP) the Irish Planning Board refused planning for an apartment complex of 179 residential units at Bessboro, Ballinure in Cork City. Its decision stated that it is
“not satisfied that the site at Bessboro was not previously used as, and does not contain, a children’s burial ground and considers that there are reasonable concerns in relation to the potential for a children’s burial ground within the site associated with the former use of the lands as a Mother and Baby Home over the period 1922 to 1998.“An Bord Pleanála
A second planning application for 67 apartments nearby was later refused by both Cork City Council and An Bord Pleanàla on environmental grounds and the fact that the overall design was no longer coherent without permission for the other blocks in the complex.
While many survivors, politicians and others objected to the original planning application submitted in late 2020 under the Irish planning fast track Strategic Housing Development legislation, in the subsequent oral hearing conducted online by ABP over three days from Wednesday 21st April to Friday 23rd April 2021, the active participation and detailed arguments made by the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) ensured that ABP had no choice but to reject the development.
Through the research and determination of the CSSA, it had discovered an Ordnance Survey original map drawing, dated 1950, clearly marking the site of the “Childrens’ Burial Ground”. Although contested fiercely by the developer, the Alliance’s legal team convinced ABP to reject the planned development which would have effectively desecrated, through ground works, most of the burial ground as shown on the map.
Earlier, the closing date for public submissions to ABP was the 12th January 2021, coincidentally the same day as the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (M&B CHOI) was published.
As the CSSA needed to include remarks on the commission’s final report members were left no option, but to hand-deliver and electronically submit objections to the Cork City Council and ABP before close of business on the same day. No extensions or allowances could be made by the planning system.
According to the Commission of Investigation;
“the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the 20th Century was probably the highest in the world”.
An estimated 100,000 Irish women may have given birth in the various institutions during the 20th century. Of the estimated 56,000 mothers who were sent to those 18 institutions investigated by the above Commission, an estimated 9,000 of their babies (15% of the children born) died in them.
Bessborough in Cork was one such institution. Established in 1922, it was owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary nuns, based at Chigwell in London. Later in 1933 a maternity hospital was opened. Some mothers were treated privately, but most were paid for by the public assistance/health authorities.
From 1922 to 1998, 9768 mothers were admitted and approx. 9000 babies were born. Of these, at least 921 children associated with Bessboro died, 761 died in Bessboro itself. Between the years 1940-44, 330 children died there or a third of the total. The burial place of 856+ children and 14 women has not been identified to date. Stillborn infants are not included in any final number of Bessborough dead.
The Commission of Investigation stated that:
“in spite of serious efforts, it has not been able to establish where the majority of the Bessborough children are buried”.
The Executive Summary Report is blunt;
“The Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary are unable to identify where the children from Bessboro are buried. The Commission finds it very hard to believe that there is no one in the congregation who does not have some knowledge of the burial places of the children.”
Further planning applications under the Strategic Housing Development legislation for residential development of the Bessborough grounds are expected shortly.
Catherine Coffey O’Brien is a graduate of University College Cork. She describes herself as a tin-smith’s granddaughter and an intergenerational survivor of industrial schools institutions. She was tricked into going to Bessborough in 1989 when pregnant, but soon ran away. She did not want another generation of her family to be lost to the system.
Maureen Considine is a graduate of Fine Art from CIT Crawford College of Art and design and a Master graduate of Art History in University College Cork. She is now a PhD candidate and funded Excellence Scholar in the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences UCC. From Mayfield, she specialises in art history and critiques consultative engagement with marginalised communities.