The Irish Examiner’s Colm O’Connor discovers why hundreds of children were buried in an ancient ring fort in West Clare.
TINY little flagstones peek out from under the rain soaked knee high grass on a peaceful hillside in West Clare. Each stony outcrop represents a tiny grave. Each tells a story: of a child lost, of mourning, of heartbreak, of harsh times.
They lie forever, side by side in a ring-fort in Tullycrine, a corner townland of the parish of Kilmurry McMahon, less than a mile from the busy main road which links Kilrush and Ennis.
To the north, huge wind turbines spin silently, catching the gales coming in from the wild Atlantic. To the south, ESB Moneypoint, one of Ireland’s largest electricity generating stations, swallows coal in a relentless cycle.
Both are snapshots of 21st century Ireland. But here on this exposed rise it is impossible not to feel the sense of history stretching back centuries.
IT is difficult to imagine a place so beautiful and peaceful being the epicentre of such sorrow and pain.
Burial areas such as this are known as Cillins (or Cilliní) and are scattered throughout rural Ireland.
Their origins stretch back to a time when church doctrine decreed that those who had not received the rite of baptism could not be buried in consecrated ground.
(The fifth century St Augustine of Hippo declared: “the souls of unbaptised infants were condemned to hell because of their original sin”)
Though the concept of Limbo offered some relaxation of the fire and brimstone attitude, Rome still held firm in who could, or couldn’t, receive a full christian burial.
And because of this, places such as the fort in Tullycrine became a defacto communal graveyard for children who died before baptism.
Even the act of burying the child was an incredibly ritualistic affair. Burials took place at night, away from prying eyes. Only men were allowed to attend.
“Other family members were not encouraged to recognise the birth of the child or to accompany it on its final journey,” local farmer Flan Kelly explains.
“That was how it was in those days. And this is a tradition which continued up until the fifties and perhaps the sixties. We have no exact records but we estimate that there are hundreds of graves in the fort.
“It is unusual for these types of graves to be found inside a fort given all the past belief of the fairies residing in them. But perhaps it was because of this every point that people buried the babies here. By doing so they were putting them in a place they knew would never be disturbed by farmers. But it is not just babies who are buried here, we believe that many adults, the likes of farmer labourers or people who died on the roadside during the famine and were never claimed by their families are also in here.”
Kelly, along with John Deeley and the Kilmurry McMahon Heritage society have spent hundreds of hours here, ensuring that future generations will know of a past which is still desperately raw for so many.
Electric barbed wire fencing means that even the most curious of livestock wouldn’t gain access to the fort. A strip of land was purchased, and a roadway was lain to secure access for the public.
A plaque was erected to remember all those who now lie here. And in 2008, the then Bishop of Killaloe Willie Walsh imparted a solemn blessing at a fort, a space so long forgotten and ignored by the Church.
“Lios na Leanaí reminds us of a time when there was a much harsher vision of God and a very hard understanding of God as a harsh judger. Thankfully over the years I think we have improved our understanding of God.
“We have been fortunate enough to live, if you like, in less harsh time and in times too where we truly believe that our God is the God of love.”
Video Eamon Ward
LESS than a hundreds yards down from the fort is Tullycrine’s Holy Well. Old ordinance survey maps record its name as Tobergrowata Holy Well of Tobar na Rabhartaí. Today it is known as St Mary’s Well.
Wells such as these have their origins in pre Christian times but became a key part of rural society when the might of the British rulers attempted to crush Catholicism.
Kelly explained: “There are many wells like this in West Clare. When the British were in Ireland, they did away with the churches so people would come to places like these wells to keep their religion alive.
“But once people were allowed to return to churches again, these type of wells were by and large forgotten about. I was renting the land here about 15 years ago and discovered the well again.
“It was all overgrown with rushes, all that was left was a barrow of stones and a small statue of the Blessed Virgin. The water was overflowing and it was in a very, very bad way.”
Kelly contacted Deeley and together they set wheels in motion to clear the site. A committee was formed, fundraising organised and bit by bit improvements were made.
“With each development came more interest from the local community and now the Holy Well is used on a regular basis.
“We have benediction and rosary there on the last Sunday in May. We have rosary there every Sunday for the full month of October.”
Video Eamon Ward
BELOW is an extract from the Department of Irish Folklore Primary Schools Project (1937-38) where local children wrote on items of interest in their parishes.
The piece below outlines the claims of a woman whose eye sight was restored after visiting the Well.
“The Blessed Well in Kilmurry McMahon is called St Ruth’s Well.
“Nowadays it is known to most people as St Mary’s Well.
“May years ago, a woman who lived in Ballyea, had no sight in one eye.
“She consulted every doctor in the county, but they could do nothing for her.
“She heard about St Ruth’s Well and decided to pay it a visit.
“She went to the people who lived near the Well and asked them what she should do.
“They told her she should visit the Well on three consecutive Thursdays and one Sunday, performing the rounds.
“She promised that if her sight was restored she would leave some offering at the Well.
“On the third visit, after she performed the rounds, her sight was restored.
The extract also contained accounts of claims that the location of the Well had changed on occasions - disappearing and then reappearing in another part of the field.
The reasoning behind the incidents are outlined below.
1. One evening in the month of July, a little girl was sent to the spring well for water but instead she went to the Blessed Well.
She brought a pail of water from the Blessed Well home and it was used to boil potatoes. The Well moved and sprung up in a nearby field.
2. Others believe that the Well moved when a travelling woman washed her stockings in it.”
Flan Kelly outlines the work done over the past 15 years and the history of the site.
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