Sins of 'limbo babies' are now being washed away

John Byrne

Towards the end of A Farther Education -- Saturday afternoon's poignant and absorbing Documentary on One -- Mary Heanue described the pier on Inishturk on a Sunday evening as "the saddest place you could be from September to March".

Helena Gallagher, the documentary's producer and narrator, told listeners precisely why. "For decades," she explained, "islanders on many of the islands off Ireland have had to leave home at 12 or 13 years of age." Gallagher, a native of Arranmore (Co Donegal), experienced this forced separation from home and family herself (almost 30 years ago). Leaving behind all she knew to further her education in "a strict convent boarding school" on the mainland.

"It's one of the toughest things a child will ever have to do", she said. "But it's also very painful for the parents and family left behind".

The ostensible focus of A Farther Education was a trio of 13-year-old boys (John, Patrick and Christopher) who were preparing to spend their last weekend on Inishturk before departing for new secondary schools in Louisburgh and Westport.


The real story, however, was that of those "left behind". People like Christopher's mother, Brid, who confessed that her heart would be breaking come the day of departure ("I think she'll cry for about three months," her younger son said).

People like the aforementioned Mary (Christopher's grandmother) who admitted that while Christopher was "ready to go", she wasn't sure if his people were "ready to let him go". "It's much harder for us here on the island," she said, "to stand on the pier and watch all the young ones leave." At weekends, of course, boats would often bring them back, but the prospects of a permanent return, to an island with limited employment opportunities, were slim.

Mary was also heard voicing her concerns to Ryan Tubridy (in an interview conducted last year) about how the island's school was down to its last three children. What the future held for the school, and Inishturk itself, once these children were gone was by no means certain. For all the familial warmth and vitality evident in A Farther Education, the overall tone was, almost inevitably, melancholic and elegiac.

On Wednesday's Today with Pat Kenny, Brian O'Connell told the extraordinary (and heartbreaking) story of a far smaller and far grimmer island, off the coast of Donegal.

The aptly named Oilean na Marbh (Isle of the Dead) is an unconsecrated burial site that contains the remains of over 500 stillborn and unbaptised children. "Limbo babies," as they were once known, who were denied burial on consecrated ground because their "original sin" had not, it was deemed, been washed away. It is but one of an estimated 1,400 such sites (known as "cillini") nationwide.


O'Connell met local man Seamus Peter Doyle, who had been instrumental in getting this "secret" and previously unrecognised location openly acknowledged. "Some people don't want to know about it at all," Doyle said. "They want to forget about it, more or less." He met Kathleen Hanlon, who'd known, from when she "was a wee girl", about a stillborn grand-aunt of hers that was buried there. The baby's father, she said, had "made the wee coffin from wood that came in with the sea". The baby was buried in a spot that the child's grieving (and excluded) mother could see from her front door on the mainland.

Those buried here, and in other cillini, became what Kenny called "non-persons," officially non-existent. But thanks to the efforts of some of those O'Connell interviewed, such sites are slowly being documented, reclaimed and "remembered" by local communities.

Culture File this week was, as host Luke Clancy put it, a "Triple maths, back-to-school special". Our "teacher" was Dana Mackenzie, author of The Universe in Zero Words, who spoke winningly about how culture influences maths and vice versa. How quantum mechanical notions of randomness and chaos went from being "culturally anathema, to "sexy and popular" during the 1980s. How whales have a natural affinity for "non-Euclidean geometry". It was fascinating -- even for a total dunce like me, whose love of maths began and ended with Sesame Street's The Count.