Transcript of radio item recorded by Brian O'Connell and Claire Byrne of Today with Claire Byrne on RTE (22 Aug 2023).
Claire Byrne 0:00
Now in January of last year, an archaeologist and a historian gave their findings on whether there may be mass burials on the grounds of the former mother and baby home in Bessborough in Cork, to date the burial places of over 800 infants who died in the care of a home have not been located. One possibility raised by historian Dr. Aoife Bhreatnach a nd archaeologist John Tierney was that the burials could have been carried out away from Bessborough in other burial grounds in Cork. Well, they've now made some startling new discoveries, and our reporter Brian O'Connell, joins me so this is new Brian, and people will be hearing about this research for the first time. There are sensitivities involved, but this might just might shed some light on where some burials are located
Brian O'Connell 0:44
It may and as you mentioned, archaeologist John Tierney, who's director of the Historic Graves project and historian Dr. Aoife Bhreatnach. She's an expert in burial practices. They've previously been employed to carry out a study on the grounds of Bessborough cork were up to 900 infant burials are unaccounted for. We reported on this show their findings, and they had judged that mass burials were unlikely to be located on the grounds of Bessborough, Bessborough is, near Blackrock in Cork city. They raised the likelihood they were buried in sites around cork in burial sites. If that is the case, then the question arises, where could they be? Now John and Aoife's work has taken them to focus on one such site. It's called Carr's Hill. This research has been funded by the Royal Irish Academy by the Community Monument Fund by some EU funding streams. It's a burial ground, it's located between Douglas and Carrigaline, it's at a distance from the main road, difficult to get to you have to go down a narrow country lane, there's two locked gates and then you go into what looks to the untrained eye like an overgrown field. And Brian, this
Claire Byrne 1:46
burial ground it was referenced in the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes into that report
Brian O'Connell 1:52
it was and what the commission said was they believe the vast majority of children who died in Bessborough weren't buried and Bessborough. As I said more than 900 children had died in Bessborough or in the hospitals after been transferred from Bessborough or in the care. So the commission was able to establish the burial place of just 64 Children, the congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. Now they are the order who owned and who ran Bessborough they said they don't know where the other children are buried. The Commission establish, though between 1922 and 1998 552, what were termed illegitimate children died in Cork County home or St Finbarr's Hospital. So so far, no burial records. Although there were along established links between St. Finbarr's, for example, and this burial site in Carr's Hill, I began Claire by meeting with John and Aoife. Getting an overview of the site before they told me what they have now discovered.
John Tierney 2:44
We're on the road out of Douglas heading for Carrigaline up on the left there a place called Carr's Hill. We're in the old workhouse cemetery,
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 2:52
February 1847, the burial system in the workhouse just collapses. Because the numbers dying, or really catastrophic. It's 200 a week. So the graveyards in the city are full. And in the end, they lease this land from a workhouse official called George Carr. So it's like a temporary emergency panic measure. And it lasts really without interruption apart from a couple of months, until the 1960s. As far as we can tell,
John Tierney 3:18
the place was neglected, I think for a long time, the modern HSE who have been looking after until now, they had a very light touch with managing it. And I think that was very appropriate. We've identified hundreds and hundreds of graves all over the site, except for one little pocket behind us here, and graves of different types. We've now identified where we believe the very first famine burials are, where later found and burials are. And then we also have long graves here, which are practically were very, very rare in Ireland, and they're right here behind us. And then we have lots of single narrow graves down in the western corner. And we believe those are the ones that are to do with the burial of the unclaimed dead of the 20th century and Cork.
Brian O'Connell 3:58
So the last time I met both of you was on the grounds of Bessborough, as we know there are over 800 Babies essentially where their burial places are unaccounted for
John Tierney 4:08
something Aoife had said during our work down in Bessborough, it just stuck in my mind. She said the likelihood is that children are buried out into the city system. Having worked on graveyards for the last 10 years straight away. I walked in, and I could see a lot of burial features that were unlisted that nobody had actually described before. Catryn Power had listed them before previously. She was the county archaeologist. She said that there are undulations in here, which are probably graves. And what I'm seeing now is that there's long graves, there's narrow grooves, and there's pit graves, and they're all here covering the whole three acre site. Well, let's say two and a half acres of the three acres
Claire Byrne 4:41
extraordinary em discovery. So they have three areas that they will be reporting on in the site that are of significance and one which may and it is only a possibility, Brian, it may contain some links with Bessborough.
Brian O'Connell 4:53
Yes, and look, we're aware there are huge sensitivities around this and part of the difficulty is the lack of records and Many of them are lost in the 1980s. So there is a chance we may never get fully get answers, but they are confident now in certain finding. So on the site, as you heard, we have Famine burial pits. These were known about but they have now located the first of them. What they've also now discovered are what are called Long graves. So these were essentially trenches where multiple burials happened. And they believe these were used until the early part of the 20th century,
John Tierney 5:24
We've come back down towards the entrance gate into the cemetery. And there's a section here, which has long trenches.
Brian O'Connell 5:31
I can see I mean, it's like a ploughed field, for example, that's been left for a long time. So you have furrows...,
John Tierney 5:36
there's ridges and furrows. And unfortunately, what what's happening here is the furrows are wide graves, and they're long graves.
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 5:43
So in the trenches are the unclaimed dead from the workhouse of 1908. And when we say workhouse, we have to remember, it's also the district hospital. It's the biggest public hospital and actually, people want to go there for medical treatment, people pay to go in as well. So it isn't just paupers as we like to call them. But people who die within that surroundings within the workhouse wards, and then within the hospital
Brian O'Connell 6:06
And what has your research shown that we didn't already know about here.
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 6:10
Before our research, we didn't know that trench burials were being used in 1908.
John Tierney 6:14
I think it's one of the biggest discoveries we've had on the project is that for me as an archaeologist, my first hypothesis, these were famine, and I thought they were very good examples of famine, graveyards, and when he first came back with the historical research to say, John they were in use in the early 20th century, that just tells us then, that institutionally, we were burying our dead. In some counties, at least in long trenches. It's totally new. And we've had to factor it in now, looking at some older famine burials elsewhere around the country, potentially they are 20th century as well.
Brian O'Connell 6:44
Is there anything we can do with these long graves now that you found them to give us more information?
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 6:49
I don't think it's appropriate to excavate them in that we know these people are buried here, we know where they've come from. We don't have their names and excavation will never give us the name because the documents have disappeared, all the documents were lost really either lost or thrown away, we don't really know. And those that survived don't give us the level of detail that say where someone was buried.
Claire Byrne 7:13
So just to recap, that is new information that these trenches were used until 1908. They believe, but then something happened to move away from that kind of burial.
Brian O'Connell 7:23
Yes, and maybe someone decided, much like the earlier famine and burial pits, that they weren't used after a period of time that these trenches weren't appropriate. So in a corner of the site, now, parts of which are completely overgrown, John and Aoife are confident they have now discovered multiple single graves, some of them are in rough rows. So that would suggest the level of organization and the level of planning. And this is an area they now feel needs a follow-on investigation, it could contain some answers, it's only a possibility, when we begin to try and unravel the issues around Bessborough. And where over 800 babies may be may be buried, it's important to say there are no headstones, there are no crosses, there are no markings that they can see of any kind, except there are significant changes in the surface, and they're visible on the site. But they're now covered with growth.
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 8:12
It's very possible that a lot of children of single mothers have been buried here.
Brian O'Connell 8:17
So we're just walking down to the western corner of the site here over does a small clearing in an area heavy with vegetation. And straightaway, I can see on the ground that there's a number of pits, essentially, I would think, yeah,
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 8:28
these depressions as you can see from having looked up further, they're much smaller. So they're more consistent with a single individual rather than being left open for long periods of time, with 30 to 100 people in them.
John Tierney 8:42
Even if you look at the Google Earth aerial images, you can see where the brambles are here. Now, when the brambles was shorter, you can see rows of small little pits just on Google Earth, we then came with higher accuracy survey equipment, we're after counting over 126 single graves in there using one technique, there's more than double that there's a row, a rough row of eight pits immediately present because we're in a cemetery because we have historic documents of burials happening here to the 1960s. We think this whole corner here is a strong contender for being the 20th century narrow grave section of Carr's Hill Cemetery, with some of which then would include some of the Bessborough dead as well as the other unclaimed dead of Cork city.
Brian O'Connell 9:23
I suppose this follows a line from your research and Bessborough where you felt there was a strong possibility that the children who died in the care of Bessborough were buried elsewhere.
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 9:34
Yes, because Bessborough is actually like a sub institution of what was the Cork workhouse, which is the County home and then St. Finnbars. So I don't think it's unreasonable to think that as people are paid for, to come in by the government, if they are leaving, and they are also paid for to be buried.
Brian O'Connell 9:52
And do we have any information about who might be buried in this part, Given that it was more recent?
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 9:57
Well, we do know for certain that there are are at least three named children from Bessborough. buried here, we don't really have a lot of data. I mean, I would like to do more historical research based on the documents we have.
Claire Byrne 10:10
So having made those findings now, and I know their report isn't due out for another few months, Brian, what are they suggesting should happen next?
Brian O'Connell 10:19
Well, first of all, they say there needs to be consultation with families, and of those connected with Bessborough. They've said they're happy to share their findings and indeed to meet with families at the site who might want to walk the site with John Tierney and Dr. Aoife Bhreatnach. Obviously, further investigations now could be carried out and the site is actually transferring from the HSE. to Cork City Council,
John Tierney 10:39
We can show over 130 graves inside in this area here. That doesn't mean there's only 130.
Brian O'Connell 10:45
But you can't say whether it's just adults or just children.
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 10:49
The mother and baby homes commission report did actually state that children who were dying in Saint Finbarr's hospital were being placed in coffins with unrelated adults, really into the 60s and 70s. So finding specific plots where children are buried isn't really very easy.
Brian O'Connell 11:07
Your advice then, for this part of the site more recent, later 20th century part is,
John Tierney 11:13
let's manage the vegetation first, not remove the vegetation, let's get it more accessible to visitors maybe get a hay meadow, a grassy here meadow in here, so people can walk in, but also then expose the graves as best we can. So people know that this is where the graves are, we can clearly say and we can point out the smaller graves here.
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 11:30
So much of our conversation around mother and baby homes is determined by Tuam. And we don't know how much of an outlier Tuam is,, you know, that site is still under investigation, there's still a lot of work to be done there. But this shows that even though people are being buried as paupers as the phrase was at the time, that they are being given single burials in the 20th century, the thing,
John Tierney 11:51
the point I always make is that it's not just single graves, it's rows of single graves. Because if I'm burying a person today, and then we're burying somebody, at the end of the week, you can't do them Higgeldy Piggeldy you have to do it in an organized manner. So in institutional burials, where there's lots of people burying on a weekly basis, two is a lot, you know, if you're burying two people a week, across the year, that's a lot. So you have to go in tidy rows. Here, we're not seeing dead straight rows as if we were in a cemetery run professionally. But we are seeing rows and rows of graves, the site is changing stewardship, from the old southern health board and HSE, who I think have managed to place really well, with their light touch, they've actually preserved one of the most important sites in the country, and is passing over to Cork City Corporation. Scientifically, archaeologically, high resolution and high precision topographic survey and geophys survey that will give an awful lot of information to the community, and to the families, consult with the families and then work out how to present the place.
Brian O'Connell 12:47
And then for you, as a historian, Aoife to conclusively try and link some of the sites here some of the burial areas here to families would approve difficult.
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach 12:59
It's difficult, but it's not impossible.
Claire Byrne 13:02
And Brian, we've been mentioning the sensitivity of this and you have been speaking to some campaigners to get their reaction to the news.
Brian O'Connell 13:08
Yes. And bearing in mind, this is the first time these findings are being made public. I did speak with Carmen Cantwell, and her brother William was one of those whose final resting place is in Carr's Hill. She knows that because she only found out during the interim commission report, that is where he is buried. She has welcomed these findings. She's fully supportive. She told me of any investigations that may be needed to bring any additional information to the search for the exact remains of anybody who was in the care of Bessborough. And we know as they said there was over 800 infants whose final resting place currently is unaccounted for.
Claire Byrne 13:42
Brian, thank you very much Brian O'Connell. They're on that very interesting development in relation to this issue.
Our work on this project has been variously funded by the RIA, the CMF and Incultum. For wider context please read https://historicgraves.com/blog/events/monster-graves-and-incultum-project and the associated pdf https://historicgraves.com/sites/default/files/pdf-uploads/blog/iaidubli....