Bessborough: ‘There Are 900 Bodies After Going Missing’

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Bessborough Mother and Baby Home; the ‘Little Angels’ plot on the grounds of Bessborough House in Blackrock, Cork

The publication this morning of a report into burial arrangements at Mother and Baby homes includes a section on the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork which was opened in 1922 and owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

More than 900 children who were born in, or admitted to, Bessborough died in infancy or early childhood.

The report states it had been “assumed by former residents and advocacy groups” that the children who died in the home were buried in a small burial ground on the grounds of Bessborough.

But, the commission said, from “an early stage”, the commission believed this was unlikely – as the area wasn’t big enough and because it was unlikely the children would be buried in the same burial ground as the congregation.

It has since only been able to establish that just one child was buried in the congregation’s burial ground.

After examining burial records of separate burial grounds in Cork city, the commission also established that, between 1922 and 1929, 54 children who died in Bessborough were buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery on the Tory Top Road in Cork; two infants who lived in Bessborough were buried in St Michael’s Cemetery in Blackrock, Cork in 1958 and 1986; at least one child was buried in Cork District Cemeteray, Carr’s Hill; and four children who had an association with Bessborough were buried in St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.

This morning, on RTÉ’s Today with Seán O’Rourke, Paul Redmond, of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Homes, said:

“The really big headline report here is the fact that the entire Bessborough angels’ plot seems to have gone missing. What we’ve always thought of as the angels’ plot and there is a marker there for it – a little memorial mentioning the babies – the report is basically saying ‘there are no babies buried there’ or there might be one or two.

“But they don’t know where they are. Literally there are 900 bodies after going missing because of this report. It’s quite stunning.”

This morning’s report also found that, between 1927 and 1985, 12 adult women, who were former residents of Bessborough and whose deaths were not childbirth related, were buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery.

One of these women entered Bessborough in 1922 at the age of 20 and remained there until she died in 1984. Another of the women started living in Bessborough, aged 21, in 1924 and remained there until her death in 1985.

The commission also identified the deaths of 14 mothers who lived in Bessborough – nine of whom died of pregnancy or childbirth-related reasons. However the commission was unable to established the burial place of these 14 women.

The commission asked the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary about the burial arrangements but the congregation “said it had very little information as the records compiled in the institution were held by the Child and Family Agency (TUSLA) and it did not have access to these records”.

However the commission explained there is “no information about burials in these records”.

It found:

A number of members of the congregation provided affidavits and/or oral evidence to the Commission. They were able to provide remarkably little evidence about burial arrangements.

“The congregation told the Commission that the burial ground in Bessborough was opened in 1956 for deceased members of the congregation and the congregation does not know where the vast majority of the children who died in Bessborough are buried.

The Commission has not seen any evidence that the approval of the Minister for Local Government for the opening of this burial ground was sought or granted as required by the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1948.

A member of the congregation who was in Bessborough for most of the period 1948-1998 told the Commission that she did not remember any child deaths during her time there but she implied that the children who did die there were buried in the congregation burial ground.

“In the years 1950-1960 (inclusive), 31 children died in Bessborough so it is rather surprising that she does not remember any deaths.

“Another congregation member who was in Bessborough from 1978-1985 told the Commission that one baby died during her time there. She said that the manager of the maternity hospital (who was also a member of the congregation) “took over the arrangements for the burial”.

“She “vaguely remembered” that the mother wanted the baby buried in St Michael’s Cemetery but she did not know where the baby was actually buried.

“The Commission has established that there is no record of this baby in St Michael’s burial records. She did not remember if the mother’s family was involved in the burial arrangements but she was clear that the congregation had bought the coffin for the baby.

“In evidence to the Commission, a member of the congregation who was there in the 1980s said that there were two children buried in the burial ground during her time there and a third was disinterred elsewhere and reinterred in this ground.

“Another member of the congregation who was in Bessborough for a period in 1971 and again between 1975 and 1981 swore an affidavit in which she said that she remembered one child who died and was buried in the congregation’s plot in the grounds.

“The recollections of these two congregation members seem to be incorrect In fact, it would appear that there is only one child buried in the congregation’s burial ground and that burial took place in 1994.

“The burial ground has some individual memorials to other children who died in Bessborough but it is unlikely that they are buried in this plot.

“It is possible that children who died in Bessborough were buried within the grounds. However, to date, the Commission has found no physical or documentary evidence which indicates that this occurred.”

In relation to the commission’s efforts to establish if there are other burial grounds on the Bessborough site, the report found:

“The Commission engaged forensic archaeologists to carry out a cartographic and landscape assessment of possible unrecorded burial arrangements in the Bessborough grounds.

“As already stated, the grounds measure approximately 60 acres. It is also possible that burials took place in the grounds that no longer form part of the Bessborough estate, that is, a total area of 200 acres.

“The forensic archaeologists and the Commission’s researchers reviewed all available cartographic sources and aerial images in order to identify possible burials within the
grounds of Bessborough. A site survey was also conducted.

“It is clear that there are a number of locations within the grounds where burials could have taken place. However, there is no significant surface evidence of systematic burial anywhere except for the congregation burial ground.”

The report also examined aerial photography taken in 1951. It states:

“The Commission examined vertical aerial photography taken by the Irish Air Corps in 1951. This series includes high resolution aerial photography of the Bessborough Estate.

The majority of child deaths at Bessborough occurred before 1951 (over 700 and it would be reasonable to expect that, if there were burials there, an aerial photograph taken in February 1951 would show up some ground disturbance, or anomaly on the landscape.

“If over 700 children were buried on the Bessborough Estate before 1951 the aerial photograph would be expected to give some indication of where the remains are located.

“The aerial photographs of the Bessborough site were examined by forensic archaeologists who determined that no visible features on the Bessborough landscape were indicative of any obvious site hosting the remains of such a large number of children.”

It later states:

“…as no physical evidence of possible locations was found, the Commission did not consider it feasible to excavate 60 acres not to mention the rest of the former 200 acre estate.”

The report states that records of admissions, births, discharges and deaths were compiled by the congregation and given to the HSE in 2011 who subsequently gave them to TUSLA in 2013.

Read the 96-page report in full here

Earlier: Death In Tuam

Burials As Late As 1990

6 thoughts on “Bessborough: ‘There Are 900 Bodies After Going Missing’

  1. Daisy Chainsaw

    I am so glad the rotten institutions of religion have been exposed as the uncaring prisons and slave labour camps they are.

    If Jesus was real, he’d burn them all down.

    1. Junkface

      I can’t believe that they found so much more! Religious institutions and common practices in 20th century Ireland make my stomach churn. Another 900 bodies, what the hell was in their minds in those days?

      1. newsjustin

        These deaths were not unknown. They were the result of poor maternal and paediatric health care and poor institutional conditions over the course of decades in the early part of the 20th Century.

        It is bizarre and sad that there isn’t the institutional records or even memory to know where infants from the home were buried. Yes, it was mainly pre 1950s…but not exclusively and that doesn’t excuse not recording this information.

        1. Cian

          the nuns were scrupulous with recording the deaths.
          It is the location of these bodies that is unknown. It was assumed that they were in a particular “angel’s” plot – but it transpires that they weren’t.

  2. eoin

    “The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who owned and ran these [three, including Bessborough] institutions provided the Commission with an affidavit about burials generally and specifically about the Castlepollard and Sean Ross child burials but very little evidence was provided to support the statements in it. The affidavit was, in many respects, speculative, inaccurate and misleading.”

    “speculative, inaccurate and misleading”

    I get confused by the names, especially the full names of the religious groups, but I’m pretty sure there were Sacred Heart nuns in our secondary school.Every single one of them was a complete and utter rip.

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