Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Ciilini - From the Irish Examiner

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Cradle to the grave

Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Graveyards for unbaptised children are scattered throughout Ireland. Now, towns and villages are reclaiming these lonely and forgotten burial places writes Carl Dixon
CILLINÍ, ‘graveyards’ for unbaptised children, are scattered throughout the Irish countryside, in overgrown corners of conventional graveyards or outside their boundaries.

Kerry is reputed to have 400, and many across Ireland are unrecorded. Although considered remnants of repressive Catholicism, the origins of cilliní date back to an era when folk tradition and Christianity were entwined. Now, towns and villages are reclaiming these lonely and forgotten burial places and bringing them back into the community.

Toni Maguire is an archaeologist and anthropologist who specialises in this subject and is best known for her work at Milltown cemetery in Belfast.

"A cillin was any area of ground used for unconsecrated burials, which came under various categories," she says. "This included executed criminals, truce breakers, suicides, mothers who died in childbirth but haven’t been churched, strangers whose religion might not be known, and, by far the largest category, unbaptised babies. There were probably regional differences; for example, in some places it was believed that if a first child died and was buried in a cillin, then the other children would be spared the same fate."

Many academics consider cilliní a post-medieval phenomenon, although an excavation in Galway found graves of infants in a ringed enclosure dating back to 700AD. There was a blurring of the boundaries between Christianity and superstition.

"We often find cilliní associated with fairy trees and, obviously, the strict prohibition against moving such trees would ensure that the graves were not disturbed," Ms Maguire says. "Fairy forts were also used; given that there was such a strong visceral belief in fairies, perhaps they were buried there so that they might have another life with the fairy folk, if denied a Christian afterlife.

"In Orkney, there was a belief that a dragon lived under the fairy mounds, who tormented the souls of the dead. Often, there is this sort of mishmash of folklore, religion and myth associated with these sites."

Ms Maguire says there was trepidation about these unsettled souls. "I refer to them as the dangerous dead, particularly the adult burials," she says. "Boundaries were considered important routes into the underworld and we often find cilliní associated with boundaries, such as running water.

"In Antrim, I found a strong preference for triangular-shaped fields; one explanation is that the three sides of the field represent the Holy Trinity. Another explanation is that ghosts were confined within a triangular field and wouldn’t be able to escape. Again, it seems like an overlay of Christianity, over an older folk tradition."

At the heart of the matter lay the difficult issue of what to do with the pagan dead, within the confines of a rigid and austere Christian doctrine. If a non-baptised child died, then the theory of original sin suggests that this child, although having committed no personal sin, could not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The concept of the innocent children of Christian parents suffering eternal damnation in hell was problematic for the Church; a problem overcome, to a degree, by the theory of limbo.

Probably dating back to the time of St Augustine, limbo was intermediate between heaven and hell; eternal darkness, perhaps, but no pain. It is a theory from which the modern Church has not unequivocally distanced itself. In a 2007 document from the International Theological Commission, entitled The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptised, it is noted that the theory of limbo "remains a possible theological opinion" and that "there is serious and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge."

A distinction can be made between the large, poor grounds and angel plots where non-baptised babies were sometimes buried on an industrial scale, and the small, local plots dotted around the countryside.

"There probably wasn’t a Catholic family in Belfast who weren’t connected with Milltown cemetery in some way over the generations," Ms Maguire says. "A boggy area of Milltown was in use for these so-called pagan burials, up to the 1990s. The daily load of dead babies would arrive from the hospital and were laid in mass graves like carpet.

"One father recalls claiming his dead baby from the hospital and bringing it to the cemetery. The grave digger tossed the dead baby, into what was essentially a wet hole in the ground, like a piece of rubbish.

"This had a huge emotional impact on parents. We have been working here for years, but it is very difficult to estimate how many babies were placed in the open graves or identify precise locations."

By contrast, burials in the smaller cilliní that pepper the countryside retained a sense of ritual. "Traditionally, a dead baby would be buried between dusk on the day it died and sun rise the next day," she says. "Often, it was the fathers who buried them, perhaps with the help of someone in the community. In one site, the remains of 21 babies were found in the floor of a roundhouse and there was a line of white quart delimiting each grave. It had been carefully and systematically done, or often simple stones were erected. Apart from community cilliní, there were also personal burial sites. Babies could be buried quietly on a home farm, where two ditches meet. One woman I spoke to couldn’t bear the thought of her dead children being buried in some obscure corner that she wouldn’t be able to visit when she got older. Her husband buried them under the kerb stone at the back door, so that every time she enters the house she walks over them." While there is still anger about the larger sites, this seems less the case with the small cilliní, which are now being re-assimilated into their communities.

There is a recognition that these were different times and that different rules applied; a sense of compassion and regret rather than anger.

Brian O’Sullivan is part of a committee restoring a small cillin, grown over with furze and bramble, close to the small village of Eyeries, on the Beara peninsula in West Cork.

A similar cillin has been restored in Coulagh in the same parish. "We were always aware that there was a children’s graveyard here," Mr O’Sullivan says. "It is located close to the church, but it is not associated with it and has no right-of-way leading to it. There are no records for the burials here and it wasn’t until we started clearing the site that we realised how big it was, even though there are people still alive who recall it being used in living memory. It seemed a shame that it had been neglected, and now the ground has been consecrated and the babies buried here have been baptised retrospectively. I suppose things happened in the past that shouldn’t have, but this is really about bringing back a part of the village’s history that should be remembered."


  1. I uderstand that in times of old, that uneducated people would do this. There is a scripture that says : Jesus said "Let the children come unto me". He didn't say : Let only the baptized children come unto me. The children were all to come unto him, and it seems barbaric to not include all babies and children.

    1. You are quite right that the Holy Scripture state Jesus said "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Matthew 19:14) However, those entrusted with the interpretation of the scripture have ever been as fallible as the rest of us and we, as the body of the church, have often in the past allow situations to develop which we knew in our hearts to be morally and religious reprehensible. Never the less, the Christian church has argued since the third century AD about the dilemma of how to dispose of infants who were stillborn or died prior to baptism. The church considered these children to be pagan and as such outside there remit of care. I am sure that Christian parents in the past, as much as those of today, would have suffered the anguish of guilt, sorrow and fear for the damnation of their baby's soul as dictated by the church.

      You are mistaken though, in your assessment that it was only “uneducated people” who buried their babies in this way, in fact all sectors of society were bound by the same rule. It is documented in 12th century Europe that wealthy parents would 'rush' their child to a holy shrine and there a priest would pray for a miracle. When the baby 'Revived' it was quickly baptised and when the baby 'died again' it was allowed to be buried in blessed ground; a concession not available to many at that time

      In Ireland this tradition has been actively adhered to by the Christian clergy and while other denominations discarded the practice by the early 20th century, the Catholic church where still demanding that these babies were buried in unblessed ground as recently as 1998; which was the case at Milltown Cemetery, Belfast. I speak on a daily basis here in Ireland with parents who have suffered in this way for decades and search the wilderness of the Bog Meadows for some insight as to where their child was buried in mass inhumation unmarked pits in the middle of what amounts to land fill sites.

      I hope this information helps to clarify the situition for you.

      Toni Maguire