It might be hard to believe now but it wasn’t long ago that the concept of limbo was a tenet of Catholic teaching, with generations of Irish children educated that babies who died unbaptised still bore the stain of original sin, and were thus condemned to this netherworld between heaven and hell.
These babies were buried in unconsecrated plots, often adjoining graveyards, but also in unmarked rough ground, known as a cillín, meaning ‘little church’ in Irish. More than 1500 of these have been catalogued across Ireland, but there are many others which are not registered.
In an attempt to address the fact that these burial sites had been erased from cultural memory, Leitrim-based visual artist Tommy Weir embarked on a project to photograph them at night. This timing was deliberate and symbolic, as the babies would have been buried between midnight and dawn, usually by the father. The mother would have remained at home, confined, seen as unclean, until she was ‘churched’, a common practice until the 1970s, where a woman had to be ‘blessed’ by a priest after giving birth before being allowed to attend mass again.
“The fact that there is this parallel physical place for babies graves, a limbo on the edge of our villages and towns, what a dreadful thing we taught,” says Weir. “I often think of the parents. It must have been a dreadful day. Your baby dying, and then having to go out at night and bury the baby, the father on his own, the mother kept in the house. In their minds, their baby was held in limbo, even the notion that they would be reunited in heaven, that was denied to them too."
The resulting project, entitled Cillín, is being exhibited at Uillinn, West Cork Arts Centre, in Skibbereen until the middle of next month. For the book accompanying the exhibition, the RHA commissioned a poem by award-winning writer Una Mannion and a short essay by Dr Marion Dowd, an Irish writer and archaeologist. It was Mannion who sparked the idea for the project.
“She is a colleague on the writing programme in Sligo IT and she knew of my interest in archaeology. I had already been photographing at night the various mountains and hills in north Leitrim. She told me I had to visit this cillín in Ballydawley, which is only about 10 miles away from me.”
It ended up being a profound and emotional experience for Weir. “We went and the farmer brought us up the hill to the where the cillín is. The farmer was very kind and thoughtful and minded it. That night, I went back and took a few shots. It was when I walked away down the hill that I realised these fathers did this — they came at night and did this solitary act here. That they had a shovel and a baby wrapped in a shroud, it was them on their own and they had to walk away. That is when it hit me. That is when I went, ‘oh my God’, just the loneliness of that and the weight of it. The wife at home, bereft and silenced.”
Cillíní were mainly used for babies but on occasion would have also been burial sites for the vulnerable, marginalised, as well as people who had committed heinous crimes.
“About 90% of those in cillíní were babies but they were also for murderers, people who died by suicide, and drowning victims because the notion was when you drowned, your soul was taken from you.”
In terms of geographical spread, cillíní tend to be found more in the West. “They are denser in the west, as you get closer to Dublin the more it thins out. There are four counties — Galway, Mayo, Clare and Kerry —where the Franciscan order held more sway, they would have been a stricter, more adherent order than others. The cillíní were more numerous there — for example, Galway has 478 and Sligo has 22.”
Weir had to work under certain constraints in terms of conditions and location to achieve the desired results. “I photographed at night and in the winter because winter reveals the shape of the land. I had very long exposures so I needed little wind, no rain, darkness and proximity. Typically I had to visit each one four or five times before the photograph worked because I was working with a very narrow range of luminosity within the photograph.
"It is challenging technically to shoot, you are bouncing a lot of different elements off each other making the exposure. It was a slow process. I spread out from Sligo to Donegal, then Mayo. Then I came down to Kerry and there were two in Cork.”
He says that many people approached him with their own stories after seeing the exhibition. “In every venue, there has been living memory, as in people whose children were buried in these places. Because what’s shocking is that this continued, to a limited extent, until the 1970s or so.”
Weir says that even in such awful circumstances, he believes the babies would have been laid to rest with love and care.
“While they were excluded from the norms and the social support of the community, as a family, they took care of the baby. I keep putting myself in their shoes, the dreadfulness of having to pick a spot, sticking a shovel in the ground, how you would lay the baby in, I have no doubt that it was done with great care. It was a personal rite, a small individual private ritual.”
- Cillín runs at Uillinn, West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen until Dec 15