Cilliní, An Issue of Remembrance, Part 3 of 3

(First published 2012) Last year's BBC documentary on Ireland's "Limbo Babies" 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 Cilliní [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 Cilliní 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.   "Cilliní" 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 [$50,000 US].  The church later described the sale of the land as a "clerical error."  This acreage had long been known to contaqin 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 conclusion of the three parts: You have stated that you are looking to set a precedent on how the Catholic Church and the government changes their level of protection and care needed for these historical burial grounds.  With the delisting of post-1700 structures in Ireland, how do you see this being accomplished?

Toni Maguire:The delisting of monuments needs to be challenged by archaeologists in Ireland. The potential presence of cilliní in association to churches, in particular, is under threat and we risk compounding the neglect they have already suffered; cilliní represent an important link to our past and present social history. I hope to show by my research that cilliní constitute a worthwhile monument-type in Ireland’s already rich typology and that they deserves more attention from archaeologists and anthropologists, as they provide an opportunity to record a tradition which, while its roots may have their origin in the earliest period of the Christian church, still has an extant social memory in the population of Ireland today. The establishment of cilliní at existing archaeological or prominent folklore sites within the landscape suggests that local people regarded the magnitude of the associated site as a form of security and a degree of monumentality for the infants buried there. In this way, the cilliní was equally furtive and visible in the landscape, known only to those who established it.

TheWildGeese: Is there anything you would like to add or that I have not asked of you?

Maguire: The presence of cilliní within the Irish landscape is an inescapable fact and remains a link with shame in the psyche of Irish Catholics. The Church’s attitude to these burial grounds is, at last, changing and some cilliní have been blessed, to the delight of the family members who remain.

However, as my research shows, there are too many which still remain unrecognized and neglected as the traditions surrounding them, and their locations, become vague.    Those buried in cilliní are largely ignored by society, generally, and their transition into obscurity is well underway. They are remembered by those members of their family who know of their existence but, in many cases, all memory of these children is lost when the parents die.  I hope that this research has brought cilliní once more into the public domain in an effort to highlight the plight of the innocents buried there and rescue them from complete oblivion. Those communities who have taken matters into their own hands in recent years and erected memorials at cilliní are an inspiration and bring into the foreground the issue of remembrance. The occurrence of the extraordinary in any culture is usually accompanied by either an added degree of ritual behavior or a diminished form. The psychological needs of the bereaved can influence the behavioral strategies employed for dealing with unusual death. These strategies can become incorporated into tradition and eventually accepted as folklore, which, as an umbrella term, can encompass all manner of behavior that is deemed necessary or acceptable by local populations. These patterns are linked to social attitudes, which I feel concern the responsibilities the living have for the dead and the extent they will go to, often employing folk religion in an effort to confer a degree of sanctification on the deceased. The primary concern of the families who interred their infants at these sites was to provide a level of ritual not available to them through the Christian church.

The burial of individuals outside consecrated cemeteries reinforced the view of the Church that they were unworthy of remembrance or the intercessions of the living, but the traditions in Ireland which linked the placing of stones on the graves of the marginalized dead and the building of prayer cairns at the site would suggest that these individuals were very much remembered and prayed for by the living. Cilliní provides archaeology with an unprecedented opportunity to record the ritual traditions surrounding them, and they are justified in their classification as an archaeological monument through their continued long-term use. The need for much more research into the background traditions surrounding the interment of unbaptized children and other individuals marginalized in death within Irish society is obvious. The aspects of mythology, folk religion, memory, duty and social history are intertwined with burial at cilliní, all of which we risk losing. WG

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

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

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

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Tags: Faith, Genealogy, Preservation

Comment by jean kaniecki on May 11, 2014 at 10:12am

I understand that someof these unbaptized  are buried near holy wells in some parts of the island. because it was hoped that the powers of the holy well would be transferred to the spirits of the dead


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