Archaeologist Uncovering More Secrets of Ireland's Cilliní in Belfast, Part 2 of 3

Part 2 of 3: Belfast's Milltown Cemetery: Atmosphere ‘tense,’ ‘emotions … just below the surface’

(Images courtesy of Toni Maguire)

(First published 2012) Last year’s BBC documentary on Ireland's "Limbo Babies" [featured on our Family History YouTube channel] brought to light an emotionally charged issue that affected almost all of our Irish ancestors.  Ever since the Roman Catholic Church declared that the non-baptized were forbidden burial in consecrated ground, faithful Catholics, particularly parents, were tormented by the uncertain fate of these infants.

Family stories have been transmitted, often in muted conversations, through the centuries, of burials carried out in secret along the fence lines of consecrated ground.  In secret and under the cover of night, our ancestors placed their loved ones, mostly stillborn who had not yet been baptized, as close to consecrated ground as possible or in a place they felt God would better find and embrace them.

The lack of records for the cillíní [children’s burial grounds] makes it challenging for archaeologists to identify them. This difficulty is compounded by the Church’s ambivalent attitude toward those buried within – they were, in the Church’s view, neither in nor completely beyond the family of Christianity.  Even the word cillíní itself, meaning 'little graveyard' in Irish, suggests the separation of the graves.

Toni Maguire, the archaeologist and anthropologist featured in "Limbo Babies," started her research in 2006 with the 11 sites recorded by the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency (Sites and Monuments). Maguire eventually recorded 97 cilliní for County Antrim alone, a number that is growing. "Cillíní sites can vary from bog land to hill tops, fairy trees and prehistoric standing stones, to disused Christian and pagan sites down through the ages,” says Maguire.

This issue was drawn into the public eye when in 2000 the Diocese of Down and Conor, the trustee of Belfast's Milltown Cemetery, sold 37 acres of cemetery land to the Ulster Wildlife Trust for £37,000 [$57,000 US]. The church later described the sale of the land as a “clerical error.” This acreage had long been known to contain thousands of bodies in mass inhumation [unconsecrated] graves.

Maguire came in to assist the families in finding proof that there were far more burials in the land sold than the 11,000 listed in the cemetery records, so they could convince the diocese to buy back the land and return it to its stewardship.  The diocese authorized a survey using ground-penetrating radar to determine just how far into the bog meadows the graves might extend.  The results were so staggering that an extensive excavation project, exploring 51 trenches, was started last month, headed by the Northern Archaeological Consultancy (NAC).

Alannah Ryane,’s Family History Producer, posed, via e-mail, questions to Maguire as the archaeologist was on site at the Milltown Cemetery dig. Ryane asked Maguire about the status of the project and what she hopes to accomplish with it. We continue below with the Q&A, the second of the three parts.  What is the general atmosphere at the site, and who was there to witness this initial excavation?

Toni Maguire Milltown Cemetery Dig - Jan 2012

Toni Maguire: The atmosphere is tense and emotions are always just below the surface, but the families draw strength from each other as they sprinkle the ground with Holy Water and pray to find all those buried in the land. There is a small excavation team from NAC [Northern Archaeological Consultancy] who have braved the cold and rain to complete the work. The start of the excavation was witnessed by me and a selection of representatives from among the families.

The potential for emotional distress must be considered here; these relatives have had an emotional journey to get to this point, and all credit is due to them for remaining steadfast in the face of opposition from many quarters. The prospect of disturbing infant remains has been a hard realization to deal with for relatives, never the less, they want to finally know the truth of what happened to the ‘Shoe-Box’ babies of Milltown Cemetery.  Another deeper level of this issue is the concept of Limbo, which the Catholic Church finally abandoned in 2007, interestingly, just when you started your research.  Do you think that the enormity of this declaration and the centuries of cilliní burials that preceded it have left the Church overwhelmed?

Maguire: The belief in an afterlife is a common theme in many religions, which has been firmly entrenched in the psyche of the faithful, irrespective of the faith involved. In Christianity, active participation in the rule of the Church and the sacraments was seen as the only path to salvation and everlasting life with God. The alternative to salvation involved eternal torment in Hell, from which there was no escape.

The Theological Commission instructed by the last Pope to look at the concept of Limbo did not abandon it, but stated that Limbo must be considered in light of God's universal salvific will, and, as such, the church reaffirmed that baptism was still the only sure way to salvation. On April 20, 2007, the International Theological Commission, an advisory body comprised of 30 theologians from around the world, released its long-awaited document, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” Sister Sara Butler, a spokeswoman for the commission, was interviewed on the findings and commented, “It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die.”

Cillini Baby Graveyard - Unconsecrated Ground

Let’s be quite clear about this, the fate of an infant who died without the blessing of baptism was considered by the Catholic Church as pagan and as such outside the remit of the church.The attitudes of the early Christian church in relationship to the fate of infants and children who died without baptism, was inhumane by today’s standards. It had taken 1,500 years to reform the Catholic Church since the time of St. Augustine, or so we like to think, but the fact that this tradition continued into the mid-1990s in Ireland speaks volumes about the influence on society, in general, of the adherence to this outdated theology of the church and the degree of suffering imposed on grieving parents at a very vulnerable time in their lives. As they had not been initiated into the community of God, according to the Christian church, these children were subsequently denied burial on consecrated ground. The amount of cilliní burials since medieval times all over Ireland must be staggering. How do you plan to proceed in locating them?

Maguire: The establishment of the newly formed group HUG Alliance [Hidden in Unconsecrated Ground] is dedicated to highlighting the plight of those who are buried in a marginalized context in Ireland. We will enlist the help of local historians across the country to collect information on cilliní in their area and for individuals to bring their personal stories to us.  In this way, we intend to record the location of these important social and archaeological sites and address the attitudes of stigma attached to such burial, which is still prevalent in Irish society today. 

Due to the furtive nature of cilliní within the landscape, their very existence often resided in the social memory of the local population; but as those with such knowledge pass on, the location is lost. Cilliní represented a cultural and religious solution to a complex problem, the burial of infants and children who died without the sacrament of baptism.

The view of the Christian church was clear; these children died with the stain of original sin on their soul and could, therefore, not be buried on consecrated ground. These children were denied a social persona, no marker displayed their name and as such they constituted a marginalized group within the society of the dead as well as the living; in the eyes of society, these children were destined to suffer a double death, both physical and spiritual. The focus of my research has been to save cilliní and its associated traditions from obscurity.

Part 1 of 3:'s Interview with Toni Maguire on Ireland's Secret Burials

Part 3 of 3: Cilliní, An Issue of Remembrance

ABOUT TONI MAGUIRE:  Toni Maguire has a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and palaeoecology and a master’s degree in social anthropology.  She is currently involved in Ph.D. research at Milltown Cemetery and is married to Leo Maguire, the Northern Ireland National Taekwondo Coach.  Toni has lost three babies, so she can empathize with the families at Milltown. For more information about cillíní, please contact Toni Maguire, at

Views: 1823

Tags: Faith, Genealogy, Preservation


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners


  • Add Videos
  • View All

© 2021   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service