Saving Ireland’s forgotten burial sites

Q&A: William Casey
Saving Ireland’s forgotten burial sites

Burial sites have been discovered on unconsecrated ground across Ireland — inside abandoned churches, in prehistoric megalithic tombs and monuments, against boundary walls and ditches, on the shores of lakes and oceans and on the north side of Catholic churchyards.

These sites are known as cilliní, or children’s burial grounds, a place where unbaptised children were laid to rest, as were convicted murderers, illegitimate children, their mothers and those whose religion was not known.

At one time, St Augustine of Hippo declared, “the souls of unbaptised infants were condemned to hell because of their original sin”.

This harsh doctrine was only rectified when St Thomas Aquinas and the medieval church created the concept of Limbo, which assured the faithful that while unbaptised infants could not enter heaven, they would not suffer in hell for eternity either.

It is difficult for us to appreciate the depth of grief and despair that a bereaved family underwent at such a time, made worse by knowing that they were to be denied the comfort of a mass and burial in consecrated ground.

The sad journey to the cillin was conducted by a male member of the family and in darkness. Other family members were not encouraged to recognise the birth of the child or to accompany it on its final journey.

And the poor mother was not supposed to hold her baby or mourn it although it is a certainty that many made it their business to make secret and lonely journeys to mourn their lost children.

Babies could be buried quietly on the home farm too, and despite the various taboos connected to the unborn, compassion for bereaved mothers wasn’t always lacking.

In a time when infant mortality was all too common, one mother who had been so afflicted couldn’t bear the thought of the babies she had lost being buried so far away that she wouldn’t be able to visit them when she became old. So her husband buried them underneath the back doorstep so that every time she entered the house, she walked over them.

A combination of deeply held Catholic precepts and the remnants of older belief systems resulted in a feeling that contact with an unbaptised corpse could cause ritual impurity.

The unbaptised dead were believed to be capable of malevolence, ill will and capable of bringing bad luck on a house, even if they were only infants.

Death was a private affair and ancient physicians generally removed themselves when cases became hopeless. A person who had been baptised, however, was believed to be protected by this sacrament even after their death.

I remember a story I was told some years ago of an untrained midwife who was, by all accounts, a solitary and unusually tall woman who wore the black hooded cloak of the times as she walked the glen on her rounds.

When things went badly and a baby did not survive, she would gently take the infant from its grieving parents and inter it in a little cillin she had created, a site that was known to local people and where a rose that she had planted was reputed to still be growing some hundred years later. Today there is renewed interest in marking and preserving these evocative sites where so much sadness and loss seems to hang on the air.

Local communities are coming together to ensure that those interred there are not forgotten. Local historian William Casey has a special interest in cillini and gave a well-attended talk in Bantry recently about their history, archaeology and folklore.

* Have you always been a keen history buff, William?

>>“Ever since I was a boy. I’ve always been fascinated by standing stones, gallúns, fairy forts, and castles. My great-grandfather was a Fenian who was arrested and I was always interested in his story and the lives of so many people around here in the Skibereen area. Eventually I became involved with the Skibereen Heritage Centre as a volunteer and I took a course in Local Development Studies at UCC for my own enlightenment.”

* History is obviously your passion William but not how you earn a living.

>>“No, I’m a software programmer for eircom. I’ve been with them for 30 years. I spend the week in Cork City and come home to Church Cross every weekend. I also contribute to the Historical Society Journal. We were doing a graveyard survey when someone asked me what I knew about cilliní and once I started researching him or her, it became a bit of an obsession. Many of them are recorded on archaeological survey maps and local people still have a great knowledge as to where those that aren’t recorded are. So I started documenting measuring, photographing and I found three that hadn’t been recorded.”

* The cillini must be at great risk if they are not on any map.

>>“Yes. They could get accidentally ploughed up by a farmer or destroyed if planners don’t see them on a map. The way the land in West Cork is, a little mound on top of a hill could be a cilliní and people might think it’s just a natural feature of the landscape. So it’s vital to get them properly recorded.

“Just recently someone nearly bulldozed the remains of a medieval church as they didn’t know it was there until a neighbour came running down the hill to tell them. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people have contacted me with information that will help ensure that the cilliní will remain.”

* What is it like visiting them?

>>“There’s a special feeling about them, not surprising when you think of all that’s happened in an around them, and they can be eerie. It’s extraordinary to realise that some sites were still being used up until the ’70s. Another belief was that if a burial occurred against the wall of an old church, rainwater that flowed off the wall would cleanse the dead of original sin. This matters to me because these infants were the most innocent of the innocent and they were hidden away, treated with such little regard. Now we don’t have to forget them any more. We can honour their memories.”

History of customs

Death has always been celebrated and feared.

Many early burial rites and customs were practised so as to protect the living by appeasing the spirits who were thought to have caused the person’s death.

In some cultures the homes of the deceased was burned or destroyed to keep the spirit from returning, in others, the windows and doors were opened to ensure that the soul was able to escape.

In the 19th century the dead were carried out of the house feet first in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another family member to follow them.

Mazes found at the entrance to many ancient tombs are said to have been constructed to confuse the deceased and prevent them from returning to the world as a spirit, since it was believed that ghosts could only travel in a straight line.

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