Every June since 2014, campaigners have held a vigil at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home on the outskirts of Cork city. They gather around a semi-ruined folly at the back of the nuns’ small graveyard, with its neat rows of crosses, and hang balloons, light tealights, sing songs, read out poetry. There are no marked graves for the children who died at Bessborough. A plaque remembers ‘all babies who died before or shortly after birth’.
Questions about what happened in Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes – the establishments run by the Catholic Church where unmarried women were sent to give birth and give up their babies – are not new. But they have been amplified since 2014, when stories emerged that up to eight hundred children who died at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in County Galway were likely to have been placed in a disused sewage tank converted by nuns into a makeshift burial vault. The government set up a commission of investigation into all the former Mother and Baby Homes, chaired by Yvonne Murphy, a retired judge.
The inquiry’s fifth interim report, focusing on burial practices at the institutions, was recently published. It confirms that human remains were found at Tuam in a structure probably designed for the treatment or containment of wastewater and sewage. It notes it received ‘remarkably little evidence’ about burial arrangements at the institutions from either religious orders or local authorities, and in some cases, could only surmise that the children who died at the Homes had been buried on site. More than nine hundred children died at Bessborough. The Commission found burial places for 64 of them, all but one outside the former Home. It has not been able to establish where the rest of the children are buried.
Two years ago, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary put the Bessborough estate up for sale. Survivors are campaigning to have the sale halted and the site excavated. But excavating the entire 200-acre estate wouldn’t be feasible, the commission said. It ‘tried to establish where the Bessborough children were buried’, undertaking ‘cartographic and landscape assessment’ as well as a site survey, but found ‘no significant surface evidence of systematic burial anywhere except for the congregation burial ground’.
The nuns have not been helpful. The commission described the information they provided as ‘speculative, inaccurate and misleading’. And earlier this year, citing health and safety concerns, they began demolishing the folly, churning up the ground nearby. They have since been ordered to rebuild the structure.
‘Let us know where they are buried,’ the minister for children, Katherine Zappone, said at the press conference announcing the report’s findings on 17 April. ‘Please come forward. Tell the truth. Let us acknowledge them, that they lived and died.’
The commission’s report, the taoiseach said, ‘gives us a further insight into a very dark part of our history’. But for the relatives of the missing, it is not yet history; the past is the present. At one of the Bessborough vigils a few years ago, I listened to the sister of one of the children who died. ‘In nearly forty years,’ she said, ‘my mother didn’t know what her baby died from, how old he was when he died, where he was buried, if he was wrapped in swaddling or if he was buried in a coffin. We are still searching for answers.’