Tag Archives: Bessborough

From top: The Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork; A map indicating a children’s burial ground on the grounds of the former institution

This morning.

Via Irish Examiner:

In its decision, posted to participants in last month’s oral hearing on the project, the board said having regard to the fifth interim report and the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, and on the basis of the information submitted in the course of the application and oral hearing, it is not satisfied that the site was not previously used as and does not contain a children’s burial ground.

It said it 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.

Plan to build 179 apartments on Bessborough grounds rejected (Irish Examiner)

Last week: ‘Perhaps Forgetting Where They Were Buried Is A Way Of Forgetting That They Died’

From top: the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork; A map indicicating a children’s burial ground on the grounds of the former institution; Professor Clair Wills

What about Bessborough?

Ireland-born, Cambridge-based. English Professor Clair Wills, in a 10,000-word review of the Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation report for the current issue of London Review of Books, writes:

….the home with the worst infant mortality rate was Bessborough in Cork, where over the twenty years between 1934 and 1953 ‘in the region of 25 per cent’ of babies died – five times the rate for Ireland in 1950. In 1944 the newly appointed chief medical adviser for the Republic of Ireland, James Deeny, tried to close the home because in the previous year 180 babies had been born there and 100 had died.

…Bessborough opened as a mother and baby home in 1922, in a Georgian house on 150 acres in Blackrock, to the south-east of Cork City. It was owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (also, initially, a French order) and its remit – as recommended by the Cork Board of Guardians, which was responsible for the poor law union – was to remove unmarried mothers from workhouses.

The grounds were subsequently enlarged to 200 acres, and in 1930 a maternity ward was built so that women who entered the home no longer had their babies in Cork District Hospital (known as St Finbarr’s), but on the Bessborough estate itself. T

he home took in unmarried expectant mothers and women who had recently given birth from all over Ireland, paid for by local health authorities. It also accepted private fee-paying unmarried mothers. Until 1946, when the rules changed, a considerable number of these private patients, willingly or under family pressure, discharged themselves from Bessborough after giving birth, leaving their babies awaiting informal adoption or boarding out through the Catholic Women’s Aid Society.

Infant mortality was highest among those babies whose mothers had left the home, and who seem to have been routinely neglected. From the mid-1950s onwards, another adoption agency, St Anne’s, brought unmarried expectant mothers back from the United Kingdom to have their babies at Bessborough, from where they would be adopted.

All these different organisations – St Finbarr’s, the Catholic Women’s Aid Society, St Anne’s and Bessborough itself – had responsibility for the burial of children who died under their care. Private burial grounds were not legally required to keep records of burials, but canon law did require records to be kept. Yet there are almost no burial records at all.

Given the extraordinarily high mortality rates, the involvement of adoption agencies and the absence of records, it is no surprise that many people believe some of the babies did not die, but were ‘sold’ for adoption. The report did not find evidence for a trade in live babies from Bessborough, although this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and critics, including the campaigning journalist Conall Ó Fátharta, question the commission’s conclusions. But it does suggest that whatever did happen there, ‘economies’ were at the back of it….

… During the 1920s Bessborough’s dead babies (or some of them) were buried in the ‘Poor Ground’ section of St Joseph’s Cemetery in Cork, at the cost of ten shillings each, which the congregation had to recoup from the health authority responsible for the child’s maintenance. It was expensive, and a hassle, and it would have been cheaper and easier to bury them on public assistance in the Cork District Cemetery at Carr’s Hill, a former famine ground. And perhaps that is where they are, though no burial register has been found to prove it. Or perhaps they are buried in unconsecrated ground somewhere on the Bessborough estate. That would have been the cheapest way of dealing with the problem, and was the way things were dealt with at Tuam.

At Tuam there are bones, but no burial ground. At Bessborough it is the other way round. There is a burial ground, but no bones. Inside the estate there is a small plot, which was opened in 1956 for members of the order:

It seems to have been assumed by former residents and advocacy groups that this is also where the children who died in Bessborough are buried as there are occasional meetings and commemoration ceremonies held there. The vast majority of children who died in Bessborough are not buried there; it seems that only one child is buried there.

More than nine hundred children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough. Despite very extensive inquiries and searches, the commission has been able to establish the burial place of only 64 children. The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who owned and ran Bessborough do not know where the other children are buried.

Unlike Tuam, which closed in 1961, the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home continued to operate until 1998. Members of the congregation claimed not to know where the children might be buried. The commission states that it…

‘…finds this very difficult to comprehend as Bessborough was a mother and baby home for the duration of the period covered by the commission (1922-98) and the congregation was involved with it for all of this time. The commission finds it very difficult to understand that no member of the congregation was able to say where the children who died in Bessborough are buried.’

But perhaps forgetting where babies were buried is a way of forgetting that they died.

One sister who lived at the home for fifty years between 1948 and 1998 could not recall the deaths of any children at all during that time, although 31 children died there between 1950 and 1960 alone. Her name is given as the informant on a number of death certificates. It is a powerful act of erasure.

No grave, no baby. No baby, no grave.

Architectures of Containment (Clair Wills, London Review of Books)

Previously: Archeology of Containment

Over the weekend.

The Two Norries podcast met traveller Catherine Coffey O’Brien.

Catherine spent a large part of her childhood in an industrial school and then in Cork’s Bessborough mother and baby home as a pregnant 16 year old. She has called for Bessborough – earmarked for a housing development – to be preserved and appropriately maintained as a memorial site.

Catherine (@1.07) explains why she believes medical histories should be provided to all adoptees but the identity of birth mothers must remain confidential.

The report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes will be published next week.

Previously: Unto Us A Child Is Born

The Two Norries

Former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork; a memorial created by the artist Jill Dinsdale in the grounds at Bessborough last weekend

Following on from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission concluding that more than 900 children died in the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork or in a hospital after being transferred from Bessborough…

And the commission only being able to establish the burial place of 64 of those children…

Fergus Finlay writes in today’s Irish Examiner:

It’s very hard to understand why members of the order have not, at this stage, been interviewed by the gardaí.

Campaigners have in the past called for the area being demolished to be treated as a crime scene, and that too is easy to understand.

If you stop for a minute and just think, it’s an overwhelming fact that an order of nuns, funded by the State, has disposed of hundreds of dead babies and is unwilling to tell anyone where they are.

How? Why? What are they hiding? What are they ashamed of?

Sisters, for the love of God — tell us where the Bessborough babies are (Fergus Finlay, The Irish Examiner)

Previously: Bessborough: ‘There Are 900 Bodies After Going Missing’ 

Top pic: Fergus Finlay

Last week.

At the former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork – which is one of the homes being examined by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation and where last month Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said the commission examined the home’s burial plot but had not conducted a geophysical examination of the site…

“Maintenance work” reportedly began on a stone structure, known locally as the Castle Folly, which backs onto a burial plot on the grounds of the home.

Further to this…

This afternoon…

Donal O’Keefe tweetz:

This is the scene at Bessborough today.

Survivors and families believe there are hundreds of babies buried in the grounds of Bessborough.

The unannounced partial demolition – without planning permission – of the castle folly has caused huge distress, especially at a time when the grounds are up for sale for development.

Meanwhile, last week…

Conall Ó Fátharta, in The Irish Examiner, reported:

The Irish Examiner asked the Order [Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary] what company was carrying out the maintenance work and if any expert was on site to potentially identify issues of concern should they arise.

It declined to answer these questions stating that it had contacted the Commission and would “deal directly with the Commission on all related matters”.


How the ‘Castle Folly’ at Bessborough looked before…

Via 96FM Opinion Line

Related: Works underway on historical structure at Bessborough (Conall Ó Fátharta, The Irish Examiner, March 3, 2019)

From top: Bessborough Mother and Baby Home and Dr Martin McAleese with his report into Magdalene laundries in 2013

This morning.

In the Irish Examiner.

Conall O Fatharta writes:

The Tuam babies scandal recalled a more callous Ireland we thought we had left far behind, but as late as 1990 children from the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home were still being buried in unmarked graves…

When the Tuam babies scandal broke in 2014, it immediately became a story about Ireland’s past. Babies died and were left forgotten in a mass grave in a different Ireland, a crueler Ireland. An Ireland that we have long left behind. A memory.

However, an Irish Examiner investigation has discovered that children from the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home who died as late as 1990 are buried in unmarked graves in a Cork city cemetery.

Three grave plots in St Finbarr’s cemetery in Cork city were found to contain the remains of at least 21 children. Two of the three plots are completely unmarked. The third records just one name despite 16 children being buried in the grave.

Read the story in full here

Readers may also wish to recall a special investigation by Mr Ó Fátharta published in June 2015.

During his investigation, Mr Ó Fátharta obtained material produced on foot of the HSE examining both the Tuam and Bessborough mother and baby homes in 2012, as part of the McAleese Inquiry into the Magdalene laundries.

As a result of these examinations, in Tuam, a HSE social worker made the HSE aware of concerns that up to 1,000 children may have been “trafficked” to the US from the Tuam mother and baby home.

In addition, the HSE West social worker for adoption found letters were sent from the Tuam home to parents asking for money for the upkeep of their children – even though some of those children had already been discharged or had died.

The social worker wrote “This may prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State, because of the very emotive sensitivities around adoption of babies, with or without the will of the mother” and she recommended that the information be brought to the attention of the Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly, of Fine Gael, and that a State inquiry be launched.

In addition, Mr Ó Fátharta reported:

A separate report on Bessborough, written in 2012, spoke of “staggering” numbers of children listed as having died at the institution. The author of the report says infant mortality at Bessborough between 1934 and 1953 is “a cause for serious consternation”. Curiously, no deaths were recorded after 1953 but 478 children died in this 19-year period — which works out as one child every fortnight for almost two decades.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the view of the report that death certificates may have been falsified so children could be “brokered into clandestine adoption arrangements, both foreign and domestic” — a possibility the HSE report said had “dire implications for the Church and State“.

Bessborough children were buried in unmarked graves as late as 1990 (Conall O Fatharta, Irish Examiner)

Further to this…

Last week…

On RTE Radio One’s Late Debate.

Two weeks after Ombudsman Peter Tyndall told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that less than half the €54million originally estimated for redress for the Magdalene survivors has been paid out and that 106 women have been refused payments because officials found they were not in one of 12 specific institutions…

Presenter Katie Hannon revisited the 2013 report by Dr Martin McAleese into the Magdalene laundries – five years after then Taoiseach Enda Kenny shed tears in the Dail on February 19, 2013 when he apologised to women who had been incarcerated in the institutions.

Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Senior Research and Policy Officer at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, was on the panel.

From their discussion, Ms O’Rourke said:

The McAleese committee that was set up in 2011 and reported in 2013 estimated that over 10,000 women went through the Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996 but that committee didn’t actually have access to the records from Galway or Dun Laoghaire so that is certainly an underestimate

“…We know from the women who have spoken before the State apology – but a lot more after the State apology –  including to the UCD oral history project that, by and large, their experiences were that they ended up in a Magdalene laundry without being told why they were there, that they were usually given a uniform, given a new name or a number to answer to, that they were subjected to a routine of silence and constant work.

Some slept in dormitories, some actually slept in cells. It wasn’t an option whether the women and girls worked – they did so from eight in the morning until six in the evening and they often spend their time after that engaging in handcrafts, lace-making, for example, making rosary beads…”

Asked by Ms Hannon how Ireland has got from Mr Kenny’s speech in the Dail in 2013 to Mr Tyndall’s comments last month, Ms O’Rourke said:

“Failures to implement the scheme that was promised in 2013 are down to the failure of the State to investigate the abuse that happened to the women.

“That [narrow terms of reference of the McAleese Report] was the key problem. The mandate of the McAleese committee was to investigate  the extent of State involvement with the institutions. It didn’t have a mandate to receive complaints of abuse or to investigate abuse.

“Now it found overwhelming evidence of State involvement in a number of areas and then it said, in the public interest, we decided to include a chapter on conditions in the laundries but we are, we want to say that we didn’t make findings in relation to the abuse because we didn’t have the mandate and we also had such a small sample size. They didn’t issue a public call for evidence for example.

“So what happened was, because they didn’t have a mandate to investigate allegations, there were no terms of reference about what they should be investigating. There’s actually no category or section in the chapter on conditions that looks at whether the women were locked in.

“There’s no section in that chapter that looks at whether the women were forced into unpaid labour.

There’s a section on physical abuse that says not much physical abuse was suffered but it doesn’t actually characterise forced labour as physical abuse.

“…The women have been done a grave disservice by the lack of investigation into abuse and I think that has followed through into the administration of the scheme.”

Asked about the State’s refusal to accept liability for what happened, Ms O’Rourke said:

The State has the power to do what it wants in this area and it has chosen to set up an ex-gratia [given as a gift] scheme which has allowed civil servants, for example, in the Department of Justice to state to the Oirechtas Committee on Justice and Equality that there is actually no legal liability in this area, that there hasn’t been a court finding and the reason there hasn’t been a court finding is, partly because, all of the women who applied for the scheme were forced to sign a waiver that they, making sure that they couldn’t sue the State.

“There is a very strict statute of limitations that, unlike in England, does not have an exception in the interest of justice so people cannot get to court.

“You cannot get the evidence of the way that these institutions operated. So the archive that the McAleese committee created is not accessible to the women or to the public.

When it came to the religious evidence, the McAleese committee destroyed its copies and sent the originals back. When it comes to the State archive that the McAleese collected, it’s being held in the Department of the Taoiseach for safe-keeping…

“I think the State has gotten into a pattern over the last 20 years of trying to provide forms of, what it calls, redress without actually providing the truth.”

Listen back to Late Debate in full here

Previously: The Magdalene Report: A Conclusion

Open The Files

Architecture Of Containment

Pic: Conall O’Fatharta



From last night’s BBC2 documentary ‘Ireland’s Lost Babies’, Sacred Heart nun, Sister Sarto Harney, [Mother Superior of Bessborough Mother and Child Home] made a reappearance.

Cathy Deasy, who was adopted, had been trying to trace her mother for years and wrote many times to Sister Sarto. Sister Sarto suggested that her mother was dead.

But Cathy discovered her mother was alive and had spent 35 years in an institution after giving birth to her in a mother and baby home.

She confronted Sister Sarto in 2002 and captured the moment on video.


From 1996, in an RTÉ Prime Time documentary Sister Sarto said:

“I think it is the right of every individual to know their background and we help in any way we can to put people in contact with their parent of origin.”


Earlier this year on TV3, Sister Sarto said in relation to Bessborough Mother and Baby Home that no babies were adopted or vaccinated without the mothers’ permission:

“I think it’s sad that it’s come to this. We gave our lives to looking after the girls and we’re certainly not appreciated for doing it.”

Ireland’s Lost Babies is on RTÉ One tonight at 10:15pm.

Previously: Staying In Tonight?

After Philomena

The Art Of Storytelling

Anything Good On BBC News At Ten?

Cross Her Sacred Heart


Infant death rates at the Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Cork soared to almost 70% in the early 1940s.

The revelations come just two months after the Government announced a statutory commission to investigate practices, deaths, illegal adoptions and vaccine trials at the country’s mother-and-baby homes.

Previous research done by adoption campaigners indicated a death rate of around 50% and above at Bessborough throughout the late 1930s and 1940s.

However, material uncovered by the Irish Examiner in the Cork City archives shows an official investigation carried out by the Cork County Medical Officer in 1943, on foot of inquiries from a Department of Local Government inspector, confirmed a death rate of 68% at the home.

68% of babies in Bessborough home died (Conall Ó Fátharta, Irish Examiner)

Previously: The Art Of Storytelling

In The Garden

Meanwhile, Outside Bessborough

“Ireland And The Catholic Church Have Been Unfairly Singled Out”

Anything Good On BBC News At Ten?

Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland


RTÉ has uploaded the Prime Time report on the export of Irish children in Mother and Baby homes to adoptive parents in America which was first broadcast in 1996.

Sister Sarto of the Sacred Heart Sisters, Bessborough is interviewed in Mike Milotte‘s report.

She had this to say:

“If a girl got pregnant out of wedlock, this was another mouth to feed. It was also the thinking of society that unmarried girls shouldn’t get pregnant and they were rejected by their parents, by society, by the father who was responsible and we were here offering a service.”

“We did the best we could. Where would they go? Would it be better to be reared in an institution in Ireland or to be placed in loving families in the States? Now like all human institutions there were failures but from what we gather from children coming back looking for their origins they seemed to have done very well. The couple made the declaration to say that this child, in some of the States it calls ‘this alien’ would not be a burden on the American State and the couple swear that they will educate the child. There is a strong emphasis on the Catholic ethos and that the child will be sent to a Catholic school, to a Catholic university if it has the ability and there are a number of statements of income.”

In response to the accusation of babies being sold:

“Well it was a serious allegation to be made and we did check it out. We went through all the files. There is no evidence of money being passed. In the letters coming back there are mentions of small donations, “I’m enclosing a small donation for your society or for your organisation”. To my knowledge there was no fees involved and we have checked with anybody who is now, who is still alive and was involved with it.”

“I think it is the right of every individual to know their background and we help in any way we can to put people in contact with their parent of origin.”

Previously: Cross Her Sacred Heart

Watch in full here.