There were emotional scenes at a west Belfast cemetery yesterday as work began to locate the graves of a large number of babies who may have been buried in a nearby nature reserve.
The search began yesterday as scientists used radar devices to search an area of around an acre in the Bog Meadows Nature Reserve beside Milltown cemetery.
The land was once part of the cemetery, but was taken over by the Ulster Wildlife Trust in 2001.
Anxious relatives of deceased infants looked on yesterday as the teams began their work.
Among them was Eileen Strong, whose first-born son is believed to be among those buried at the site.
“My son was born in 1968 and died when he was 30 hours old,” she said last night.
“I didn’t know where he was buried for so many years. About eight or nine years ago I decided to try and find him. I came to this graveyard so many times but we didn’t know where he was.”
Mrs Strong, who explained that women didn’t to go to funerals at that time, was eventually shown the possible site of her son’s burial by a gravedigger.
“It was a complete and utter rubbish tip,” she said.
“I’m so distressed, it’s something you don’t get over.”
Also present at the cemetery was Donna Hanvey, whose brother Michael is also believed to be among those buried at the site.
She said she was devastated to find out her brother had not been buried on consecrated
“I was told he was among the trees in the Ulster Wildlife Trust,” she said.
“I couldn’t speak, I was devastated.”
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency said it had been asked to carry out the work by the Catholic Church on behalf of the Trustees of Milltown Cemetery to help find what land was used in the past to bury infants.
Estimates of the numbers buried at the site range from around 200 to several thousands, with many of the remains expected to be infants or newborns.
The issue came to light following protests by residents who insisted thousands of unmarked graves lay outside the Milltown Cemetery boundary.
The stretch of land was leased to the Ulster Wildlife Trust by the Diocese of Down and Connor in 2001. Relatives say they were not consulted.
A specialist Queen’s University team helping to conduct the searches have carried out similar investigations in the past. They were involved in the search for Jean McConville, one of the IRA ‘disappeared’.