Sunday 19 November 2017

Ireland's lost limbo babies: A very personal journey

The Government has announced an inquiry into mother and child homes after the discovery of a mass grave in Tuam. But countless other babies lie in unmarked graves scattered across the country. These are the limbo babies who were deemed worthy only of a resting place in unconsecrated ground. Graham Clifford takes a very personal journey

Remembrance: Angela Griffin laying flowers at the cillín where her aunts were buried. Photo: Donal MacMonagle.
Remembrance: Angela Griffin laying flowers at the cillín where her aunts were buried. Photo: Donal MacMonagle.
Memorial: site of the mass grave in Tuam – there are many other burial grounds in Ireland. Photo: Niall Carson.

Graham Clifford

As evening fell, my grandfather Denis loaded two small coffins onto his cart and made the short journey down boreens to a field overlooking the point at which the Caragh River meets the sea in Dooks, Co Kerry. Alone, after sunset, he laid his twin baby sons to rest in a children's burial ground, a cillín, and placed a small stone at the site to mark their final resting place. Unconsecrated ground – hidden away.

My grandmother, whose first son Timmy died at the age of six from unknown causes when the family lived in London, remained at home to silently deal with her own personal heartbreak. Three children ... gone.

It was the early 1930s and infant mortality rates stood at 7pc – it was a different Ireland gripped by poverty, unbending religious adherence and enduring traditional beliefs.

As the Government announces a commission of inquiry into all mother and child homes after the discovery of a mass grave of children at the former Bons Secours home in Tuam, thousands of other babies lie forgotten in cilliní across the country.

"This was the society that gave birth to the institutions," says Dr Lindsey Earner-Byrne of UCD's School of History. In Kerry there are 270 burial grounds registered. Scores more are thought to dot the South West.

"You'd be looking at thousands of such burial grounds across the country especially along the western seaboard," estimates Kerry County archeologist Michael Connolly.

Though the twins were baptised, my father, Thomas, was never told the names of his brothers, but now the family will attempt to discover their baptismal records. We believe the children were born prematurely and died days later.

"I was a teenager when I was told about the twins and I was given very little information," says my father. "My mother, Nora, died in 1946 when I was just seven and my father never mentioned the two boys or visited the burial site."

Nor has he ever visited the cillín. Over the decades few locals have sought the resting places of their brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. The overgrown field was gradually erased from memory – perhaps too painful an episode in local history to revisit. It's believed it was last used to bury babies in the early 1950s.

On a warm summer's evening I retrace the lonely journey my late grandfather took. It's thought the cillín here, known as 'Treanoughtragh', existed as a burial ground for children, some baptised, for at least 200 years.

It appears in the first edition of Ireland's ordnance survey maps compiled in 1842. In this small field with a hawthorn bush in its centre it's estimated hundreds of children are buried – perhaps well over a thousand. With me is Angela Griffin. Her mother Shelia's twin sisters, Bridget and Mary were buried here in 1940. Born in the county hospital in Tralee they were sent home though suffering from jaundice. Also baptised, they died days later and are buried here.

Their birth certificates show that Mary was the eldest of the twins born at 6.30am on March 12th, Bridget came into the world 10 minutes later. It's not clear why both families decided to bury their baptised children in a cillín rather than a church graveyard. Perhaps graveyards were not considered suitable places for babies. Maybe they wanted their children close rather than at a burial ground miles away or maybe limited financial means meant the ordeal of hosting a wake, funeral and burial was just too much.

"In many cases the personal loss was a strong enough reason for some to bury the babies and mourn in peace," explains William Casey, a historian in West Cork, who has carried out extensive research into cilliní. "This was often the case even if they had already been baptised."

In the cillín we walk on flattened ferns as new ones shoot from the earth. Looking out over the estuary, with the McGillycuddy Reeks rising and the village of Glenbeigh in the distance, it's a stunning location – but when used as a cillín, it would have been remote and untouched.

Its positioning was carefully chosen, says William Casey: "Often cilliní were placed close to a boundary, a ditch, a stream, a body of water – something which divided the site from the land beyond. The word 'limbo' literally translates as boundary, it was highly symbolic of the state babies were believed to be in if they died unbaptised.

The name 'cillín' was given to children's burial grounds, even if it had no religious link. "A lot of these burial grounds were based at formerly ecclesiastical sites but in the case of the graveyard in Dooks we don't believe there were any churches there before," says Michael Connolly.

People believe a sailor was buried here early in the last century. He was washed ashore and laid to rest alongside the children. Older locals recall seeing men making their way to the graveyard with little wooden boxes.

While most parents who had children buried here rarely returned to visit the graves, Shelia's father Patrick was an exception. Shelia recalls:

"My father brought me here when I was very young. I remember I asked him, 'Where are we going?' And he said, 'Oh we're going down to see my little girls'. He'd often come to see them."

My grandparents would go on to have three more sons Paul, Brendan and Thomas.

Sadly, my father is the last remaining member of his family.

As I walk along thinking of the many tears shed here, the pitiful sight of men burying their children by candlelight and the fact that my own uncles are here,

I feel the tip of my boot touching something.

I pull back the dead ferns to find an unmarked stone sticking into the earth – very clearly an unmarked headstone. Could this be the final resting place of my uncles? We lay flowers and bow our heads.

The forgotten children deserve not to be forgotten any longer.

Cillini factfile

* Officially there are 1,393 cilliní listed across Ireland, but the actual figure is thought to be much higher.

* Under the National Monuments Act 1994 cilliní are entitled to statutory protection with significant penalties for those who disturb the burial grounds.

* In one west Cork parish, historian William Casey discovered 20 such burial grounds.

* Cilliní were in use as recently as the early 1970s, according to Mr Casey.

* While it is an offence to bury bodies without registering the death, no cases of parents being charged for using a cillín is known.

* In recent years communities have cleaned up cilliní and erected memorial plaques. In some cases Masses have been held at the sites.

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