Honouring Their Fighting Spirit.

The decision by Cork City councillors on 15th March 2022 to rezone the Bessborough area marked Children’s Burial Ground to a landscape preservation zone, was as a result of the sustained campaign fought by members of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) over many years. This zoning should help to enhance the protection afforded the burial grounds on the site of the former Bessborough Mother and Child Institution. The location of the remains of up to 859 babies who died is still uncertain. 

Following the successful appeal by the CSSA in 2021 to the An Bord Pleanala (the Irish Planning Board), which led to the refusal of planning permission for the construction of blocks of apartments on the site, this Cork City Council decision represented further vindication for the survivors of Bessborough Mother and Child institution in their efforts to protect this burial site. 

Members of the CSSA, who were present in the Council Chamber received a huge round of applause from Cork City councillors at the meeting.

Front Row L to R: Catherine Coffey O’Brien, Ann O’Gorman with the Spirit of Mother Jones Award 2021, Maureen Considine.  Back Row: Maureen Sullivan, Mary Dunlevy, Phil Kinsella and Sheila O’Byrne of the CSSA outside Cork City Hall.

The CSSA was nominated to receive the 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Award for their outstanding efforts to protect the site. 

Earlier in the evening at City Hall the 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Award was presented personally to CSSA’s Ann O’Gorman by Gerard O’Mahony on behalf of the Cork Mother Jones Committee. 

Ann’s daughter Evelyn, born almost 50 years ago in Bessborough, was buried in an unmarked grave there.

Ann O’Gorman with the Spirit of Mother Jones Award

Ann was described by Maureen Considine of the CSSA as ” an amazing campaigner and an inspirational hero to all of us”. 

She has demanded for many decades that this site should be “marked, protected and blessed”.

This Cork City Council decision will  contribute to the preservation of the burial site and the realisation of Ann O’Gorman’s dream.

Spirit of Mother Jones Award Presented to the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance.

Congratulations to the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) on being the recipients of the Spirit of Mother Jones Award for 2021.

CSSA members, Catherine Coffey O’Brien, and Maureen Considine, accompanied by Sheila O’Byrne, and Phil Kinsella received the award from James Nolan of the Cork Mother Jones Committee during the recent festival. The award itself is based on the story of the Children of Lir in Irish folklore.

From Left: Sheila O’Byrne, Catherine Coffey O’Brien, Phil Kinsella, and Maureen Considine.

Catherine expressed her delight for the recognition and community support which this award represents and stated that the CSSA felt honoured to have been nominated to receive it as it meant so much to the group. 

The official citation from the Cork Mother Jones Committee is as follows. 

“The Spirit of Mother Jones Award for 2021 is presented to members of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance for:

·         Their bravery and determination to ensure that development does not take place on sensitive burial areas of the former Mother & Baby ‘Home’ at Bessborough in Cork.

·         Their efforts to organise a voice for the mothers of deceased children, and to publicly question where the remains of hundreds of babies are buried, and why the records of burials have not been produced to date.

·         Their work in locating the OSI 1950 Map which has a marked location of a Childrens’ Burial Ground in Bessborough clearly displayed.

·         Their resilience in defending and verifying the accuracy of this map at the oral hearing of An Bord Pleanala during April 2021 and for convincing the planning Board to reject the proposed development.

·         Their continuing campaign to seek the right with the common tradition for a dignified burial place for those who died, for the preservation of the burial grounds, for access to the grounds and for the creation of an appropriate memorialisation garden for the mothers and children at Bessborough.

The members of the CSSA are the second Cork-based recipients of this International Award which is named in honour of Cork born Mary Harris known around the world as Mother Jones.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee is honoured that the CSSA has accepted the 2021 award which indeed is an acknowledgement of our admiration for their determination to honour the dead, and continue to fight for the living.  

A documented Childrens’ Burial Ground erased

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.

Maureen Considine and Catherine Coffey O’Brien in discussion.

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.

https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/4cef9-chapter-18-bessborough/

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.”

https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/22c0e-executive-summary-of-the-final-report-of-the-commission-of-investigation-into-mother-and-baby-homes/

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.    

Mari Steed: “You have a right to know your identity”.

During the Spirit of Mother Jones 2021 Festival programme, we will show a recorded interview with Adoption Rights campaigner Mari Steed conducted by John Barimo of the Cork Mother Jones Committee on Saturday 27th November at 6.30 pm on Cork Community Television. (www.corkcommunitytv.ie).

Mari Steed was born in the Bessborough Mothers and Babies Home in Cork in 1960 and was just two years old when she was adopted from Ireland by a family from Philadelphia. Years later, her search for her birth mother Josie led to the Magdalene Laundries’ story where her birth mother was confined as a young girl. 

Mari Steed.

She describes her reunion with her mother and how she visited her each year in the UK. During her difficult search for information about her family, Mari also discovered that she had also been included in a vaccine trial in the early 1960s at Bessborough.

Bessboro Mother and Babies Home.

Her growing activism led to her becoming one of the founder members of Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) in 2003 which was mainly responsible for the successful campaign to obtain a State apology for the survivors. Today she is the US coordinator for the Adoption Rights Alliance and is challenging the recent Commission of Investigation into the Mothers and Babies Homes Report. 

She remains disappointed that the survivors of the Mothers and Babies Homes are still not being believed by the State nor have they received “restorative justice” even to the extent of the failure to provide all survivors with basic needs such as advanced medical cards. A full State apology is awaited.  Mari wants the State to enshrine the real story of the tens of thousands of women who were placed in the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Babies Homes in the 20th century by its permanent inclusion in the school curricula. 

Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2021.

Cork Community Television, Saturday 27th November, 6.30pm.