With the bodies and burial records of more than 800 babies missing at Bessborough, the sealing for thirty years of survivor testimony reveals the State’s perverse priorities almost a century after the mother and baby home opened.

Twenty-six women received Christian burials in the nuns’ plot at Bessborough in Cork, the first in 1954, and the last in 2010. They were all members of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and they worked in Bessborough, which opened as a mother and baby home in 1922.

The nuns’ graveyard is a tidy, rectangular space, forty feet long and twenty-five feet wide. As you open the white-painted iron gateway, to your right looms the historic three-bay castle folly the nuns had demolished last year and were subsequently forced by Cork City Council to rebuild, presumably at considerable cost.

To your left a short gravel path runs up the middle of the plot. Walking up the path, on your left is a double row of black iron crosses with names and dates marked out in white. The earliest burial here seems to have been Mother Genevieve, who died on 19 May, 1954.

To the right, the crosses continue. And then, halfway down toward the folly wall, a white heart-shaped stone: “Baby Philip Martin 17 April 1987 Always remembered never forgotten, Mom, Nanny and Grandad.”

Then Sister Elizabeth Byrne 2006. Then the most recent burial, Sister Joan Madden, 23 March, 2010, aged 88, professed 67 years. The nuns’ graves stop there, as memorials to children who died in Bessborough make up the last quarter of the plot.

“Beautiful Angel William Gerald Walsh 26-10-1960 – 02-12-1960 My heart burns with my love for you and my soul cries out in sorrow having lost you – Mam xxxx”

Then: “In Loving Memory of Padraig Curran Born April 18th 1994 Died May 18th 1994, My dear son were you just an angel that came down from heaven, to give us strength to be strong to give us hope to carry on, Keep us in your dreams my little one, I will never forget you my dear little son.”

At the folly wall are various small statues and memorials, including a striking half-moon sculpture depicting a large face and a small face symbolising mother and child, and a statue of a child’s teddy bear. There are some floral tributes and children’s toys.

The “angels’ plot” at Bessborough seems to date back to the 1990s, when Bridget Walsh returned to the mother and baby home some three decades after her beloved baby William Gerard died needlessly in the “care” of the Sacred Hearts nuns. Bridget demanded to know where her baby was buried, and one of the nuns brought her as far as the gate of the nuns’ graveyard – refusing to let her in – went in and tapped on the ground with her foot, saying “Your baby is buried there”.

Bridget was refused permission by the nuns to put a stone on what she had been told was William’s resting place. Two decades later, when the Tuam Babies story broke, Bridget and her daughter Carmel decided to ignore the nuns and place a marker there regardless.

Soon others followed, and thus the “angels’ plot seems to have been born. As Bridget told me, “That gave us peace for a few years”.

I wrote here last March, as tactfully as I could: “It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the nuns would never have voluntarily shared a graveyard with the Bessborough babies, and ‘the angels’ plot’ seems a recent innovation”. Even so, the publication the following month of the fifth interim report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation was a bombshell.

As Bridget put it: “Carmel … recognised my story on page 36, which mentions a woman asking the nuns about the burial of her child who had died in Bessborough in December 1960. William was the only baby to die then.

“In 1994, a member of the congregation told the mother of this infant that her child was buried in the congregation burial ground in Bessborough. However, records held by the administrator of St Finbarr’s Hospital at that time recorded the child’s place of burial as Cork District Cemetery, Carr’s Hill.’  

“That broke my heart all over again, to think that William is buried up there in a pauper’s grave. I walked that field last year, and there’s no sign at all to mark his grave.”

The lie – perhaps a lie of kindness but a lie nonetheless – had been exposed. There never was an “angel’s plot” at Bessborough. The truth is that the bodies and burial records of over 800 Bessborough babies are missing. There is evidence to suggest that at least some of the children were buried in the field to south-east of the castle folly, and the Commission last year said it was “highly likely” that burials did take place on the grounds of Bessborough, but did not consider it feasible to excavate an estate which currently covers 60 acres, and originally ran to 200 acres.

The sight of the memorials in what was once believed the “angels’ plot” is heart-breaking. The nuns in that graveyard got a Christian burial. The babies they were supposed to mind could be anywhere. The nuns’ relatives have a place to visit and pay their respects. The Bessborough mothers and survivors have nowhere.

On Sunday night, President Higgins signed into law the Mother and Baby Homes Bill, after “considering all the options available to him”.

The Bill, passed last week in unseemly haste in the Dáil and the Seanad, and without any Opposition amendments, allows for the transfer of a database of 60,000 records created by Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and also allows for many files and witness testimonies to be sealed for thirty years. The Data Protection Commissioner has said that to seal the archive would be an unlawful breach of GDPR.

(If you are confused about the legal complexities surrounding this legislation, Dr Maeve O’Rourke, who is a lecturer in NUIG and who has worked for years with survivors, has supplied a clear and incisive analysis here.)

There was understandable upset among survivors, and predictable outrage online, but truly President Higgins had little choice. He can only refuse to sign a Bill into law if he believes it to be unconstitutional, and must then refer it to the Supreme Court, a high-risk strategy because a finding of constitutionality makes legislation bulletproof to future legal challenge.

A statement from the Áras said: “The President’s decision to sign this legislation leaves it open to any citizen to challenge the provisions of the Bill in the future.”

Michael D is cute in more ways than captured in those tea-cosies. You don’t survive four decades in the Oireachtas or get elected president by over a million votes without knowing which way the wind is blowing, and Higgins has always had a keen sense of social justice.

It shouldn’t be up to private citizens to challenge legislation, but this Government has railroaded legislation through the Oireachtas, ignoring the concerns of Opposition and survivors alike. We are told the sealing of records is necessary to safeguard survivor testimony, when those same survivors worry that they will be denied access to their own data.

It presumably wasn’t the Government’s intention to make people who have been ignored, exploited, and treated like dirt to feel once again that Ireland doesn’t care about their opinions, their pain, and their lived experience, but that’s what has been done.

By lunchtime yesterday, an Uplift petition to “Repeal the Seal” had 180,466 signatures. As Majella Connolly, who was born in, and adopted from, the St Patrick’s mother and baby home on the Navan Road, put it on Monday’s Six-One News: “The nation seems to be behind us for the first time ever … but it’s the Government that’s rejecting us”.

It’s hard not to think that Official Ireland is in some ways as authoritarian in its thinking now as it was when the mother and baby homes opened a century ago, and with hundreds, and probably thousands, of children missing, it’s depressing to realise that we still care more about burying the past than we ever did about burying babies.